A few dozen North American Jewish leaders from the United States and Canada were in the auditorium of a hospital in Ashkelon early this week, listening to a speech about the effect that the current military conflict between Israel and Hamas terrorists in the Gaza Strip was having on the Barzilai Medical Center, when they heard the effect with their own ears.
A siren sounded. More rockets were coming from Gaza.
The participants in the first day of a three-day solidarity mission sponsored by the Jewish Federations of North America organization all stood up, looking for a secure room where they could find refuge, said Alisa Doctoroff, president of UJA-Federation of New York, who took part in the mission. An official of the hospital informed the group that the auditorium “is a safe room,” Doctoroff said.
Everyone sat down. “We heard two booms in the distance,” the sound of Israeli Dome missiles intercepting the Hamas rockets, Doctoroff told The Jewish Week in a telephone interview before returning mid-week to the U.S.
The danger over, the speech continued.
“People are used to this happening,” explained Doctoroff, who during her brief time in Israel heard three other air raid sirens, joined Israelis in shelters and visited sites around the country that received funds from UJA-Federation.
The diaspora leaders were participating in a JFNA emergency campaign mission. Called “Stop the Sirens,” the campaign will provide immediate assistance to communities in Israel that have come under rocket fire in recent weeks.
The immediate goal is $10 million, and the effort is conducted in partnership with the Reform and Conservative movements, the Jewish Agency, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Israel Trauma Coalition.
Jerry Silverman, JFNA president, said the $10 million goal was likely to be reached by the end of this week.
Silverman told The Jewish Week the money raised in the emergency drive will go primarily to four areas: trauma care, support for seniors and disabled people who cannot leave their homes, recreational outings for children and staffing of air raid shelters.
He said the mission participants on Tuesday watched some 900 Israeli children, from the south, frolic at a waterpark in Herzliya, up north.
Silverman said the emergency funds will augment grants from Israel’s Fund for the Victims of Terror for the distribution of safety equipment and emergency information, and for trauma counseling.
“These funds will be able to counsel and help more than 40,000 children who live within 25 miles of Gaza and have spent a lifetime under fire, support senior centers that provide thousands of elderly living in poverty — many of them Holocaust survivors — with food and comfort, and offer counseling to the most vulnerable populations in Israel,” a JFNA press release stated.
The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations conducted its own solidarity mission to Israel early this week, and the World Jewish Congress was to conduct a separate mission there on Wednesday and Thursday.
JFNA will conduct a similar solidarity mission next week, for lay leaders and professionals from other local federations who were not able to sign up for this week’s mission that was organized on two days’ notice, Silverman said. The itinerary will “depend on what’s happening” in the Israel-Hamas hostilities. “This week’s itinerary was predicated on having access to a shelter — which came in very handy.”
Doctoroff of UJA-Federation said, “It is important for us to be on the ground and see what’s happening here.” After the initial siren in Ashkelon, she said, mission participants were shown what to do should they hear a siren while on the road (leave the van, sit on the ground and fold their hands over their heads). They also learned the location of shelters at subsequent site visits (many of the venues where they met Israelis were themselves secure rooms.)
For many of the participants, emergency sirens were a new experience. “You hear the alarms. You hear the booms. You feel your heart start to race,” Doctoroff said.
She recorded her impressions in a blog. “The experience … has been powerful in many ways,” she wrote. “First, there’s the power of fear. You can read about it all you want, but it’s only in experiencing the sirens and hearing the booms of rockets that you can understand the omnipresent anxiety and stress of this population under fire.”
Participants in the JFNA mission visited several locations, including a JDC-sponsored youth center in Sderot, university students and an absorption center for new immigrants in Beersheba, air raid shelters and kibbutz farmers near the Gaza border. They heard briefings from reporters and politicians, army officers and mental health professionals. They saw buildings damaged by falling shrapnel, and met a 16-year-old boy who was injured by a rocket in Ashkelon.
“I saw frustration — because of the disruption” in the pattern of daily life,” Silverman said in a telephone interview. “I saw a determination that [Israelis] are going to grow their communities. They’re not giving up at all.” But he noted that he also saw fear on the faces of Israelis who learned that their relatives were in areas that came under fire.
The mission, he said, “strengthens the connection” between Israel and diaspora Jews. “We were able to hold people’s hands and hug people. It gives you a small flavor of what Israelis are dealing with” on a regular basis.
The visitors got thanks for coming at every place they visited, he said.
Tali, a young girl at a shelter the group visited, gave Silverman a hand-painted picture with the words “thank you” printed at the top.
That was a highlight of the mission, he said. “That’s going up in my office.”