Eric Goldstein, who became CEO of UJA-Federation of New York on July 1, flew to Israel Saturday night with 20 other New Yorkers on the organization’s first solidarity mission since the start of Israel’s war with Hamas. Goldstein, 54, who had been a leading partner at the New York law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, has a long record of Jewish communal service. Most recently he served as UJA-Federation’s vice chair, president of the Beth Din of America, and as a board member of the Ramaz School. He spoke by phone Tuesday from the southern Israeli city of Beersheva.
Q: On Monday, some 10,000 to 15,000 New Yorkers staged a pro-Israel demonstration near the United Nations. Did Israelis hear about it?
A: We were instrumental in putting it together with the Jewish Community Relations Council. I saw several Israeli newspapers today and they all wrote about the massive rally, so the word did get out to Israelis.
What is the mood in Israel?
This is a very, very difficult time here. Israelis went through a war with Hamas in 2012, but this is even worse. These are dark, difficult times, but there is a real national consensus that this is something they need to do. A poll showed 87 percent of Israelis support the government’s efforts here.
How close to the Gaza Strip did you get?
We were in Sderot, which is as close as you can get. It was relatively quiet when we were there. … We went also to the cemetery in [the central Israeli city of] Modi’in and met with the parents of Gilad Sha’ar, one of the three murdered Israeli boys [whose abduction and murder by Hamas terrorists June 12 while hitchhiking near Hebron ignited the current conflict]. They were so touched to see us. And as we were leaving, we learned that there had been significant Israeli IDF casualties in Nahal Oz.
I don’t think we can fully integrate what living here is like, but yesterday we went from a feeling of calm when we thought there was a cease-fire to a feeling of real despair when we heard of the significant casualties. We got a small taste in a day of the psychological ups and downs Israeli’s endure everyday during this conflict.
What was it like meeting Sha’ar’s parents, Ofir and Bat-Galim?
They wanted to meet with us. Gilad’s father spoke about how they had enormous comfort in knowing that this tragedy has resulted in Jewish unity in Israel and around the world.
About 10 representatives from the Greek Jewish community, who were also on a solidarity mission, joined us. I spoke to the head of that delegation, who said they came because when Greece went through economic problems, the Jewish community globally supported them and they felt a reciprocal desire to show support to Israel during its time of need.
None of the boys [murdered] were from Modi’in, but they all lived near there and the boys were buried next to each other. I spoke on behalf of UJA-Federation of New York and said we can’t remotely imagine the horror of this. But it is personal to me as well because my two sons attended a yeshiva in the same area where the boys had [gone to school], and they hitchhiked from the exact spot where they did. It is heartbreaking; you feel it deeply.
We hear a great deal about Israeli anxiety over the terror tunnels dug by Hamas to enter Israel and kill and abduct Israeli men and women, children and soldiers.
We met with a teenager yesterday who lives in a kibbutz down south who said the children are unwilling to go to the bathroom and take showers because they don’t want to be in a situation in which they can’t get to a shelter in time. … We heard about people [concerned about the tunnels] calling to say they hear noises. There is a [UJA-Federation-funded] trauma hotline that is getting 1,500 calls a day. There are acute trauma needs in the south.
Have Israelis spoken of the death and destruction happening in Gaza?
Yes, we spoke to many Israelis who despaired at the loss of innocent life in Gaza as well. They recognize that the Hamas leaders are putting their people in harm’s way by making them shields for missiles. … Israelis are not callous; they mourn the innocent loss of life on both sides.