Close calls are becoming a staple of solidarity missions to the south of Israel (witness Mayor Michael Bloomberg ducking into a bomb shelter on a recent trip to Sderot just before a Hamas-launched rocket hit nearby).
But a delegation of Jewish federation leaders visiting the south this week got a more complete, and poignant, taste of what life is like for Israelis living in the shadow of the Gaza border.
Not only did the group dash into a bomb shelter when the alarm sounded Monday in Ashkelon, it also heard the blast and then visited the home it hit. The rocket missed by seconds the three children in the house who fled into the family’s basement bomb shelter.
The group, which included UJA-Federation CEO John Ruskay, also met an elderly couple, Holocaust survivors, whose home was built before bomb shelters were required in each building.
“The man had a stroke and is immobilized,” said Joe Kanfer, chairman of the United Jewish Communities. “When the [bomb] alert goes off, they are unable to run to a shelter. All they can do is sit and hold hands.”
And they met a counselor in Sderot hired by the Israel Trauma Coalition, which represents 50 trauma providers and which UJA-Federation of New York helped establish; it is now funded by the UJC.
“She said she was counseling a single mother the other day when schools were closed [because of increased Hamas rocket attacks],” Kanfer recalled. “The alert was sounded during the middle of their session. The two crawled under a table, and each used their cell phones to check on the well-being of their children.
“The constant stress of having the sirens go off and not knowing where their children are is disruptive to their emotional well-being and to their work. The emotional stress is really unbearable. … Until you have looked people in the eyes and talked to them of what they have lived through, you don’t realize what it is like.”
The UJC last week authorized a $10 million grant to assist programs in Israel that are primarily working with the elderly and helping people to cope with the stress and trauma of the Hamas rocket attacks.
More than $428,000 was allocated this week by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany to assist Nazi victims living in areas under Hamas rocket fire, who may be especially traumatized. Among other things, the money is to be used to provide shatterproof glass windows in three nursing homes in southern Israel in which 290 Holocaust survivors live.
“We are supporting these projects because the constant rocket attacks trigger anxiety and dark memories in Nazi victims,” said Julius Berman, chairman of the Claims Conference. “Having lived through a constant threat of danger and death decades ago, Nazi victims now living under missile fire suffer even more trauma and fear than other Israelis.”
In another close call in Sderot, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, who heads the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, which raises funds among Evangelical Christians for the support of Israel, barely escaped injury last week when a rocket landed “not more than 100 yards away.” The rabbi told The Jewish Week he was in an open field with no shelter in sight. “I did the only thing I could do — trembling, I raised by hands to the heavens and prayed to God for protection.”