Seeing Israel As A Mission

Seeing Israel As A Mission

Editor & Publisher of The NY Jewish Week.

Jerusalem — For the briefest of moments, just as the sun was setting here on Monday, the State of Israel was suspended between mourning and joy, between Yom Hazikaron, a solemn memorial day for its fallen soldiers, and Yom Ha’Atzmaut, the joyous festivities marking the 59th anniversary of the first independent Jewish state in 2,000 years.As the flowing tears and the laying of wreaths at military cemeteries gave way to smiles and fireworks at public ceremonies, it occurred to me that perhaps this exquisite balance between memory and hope, between loss and faith, is not so fleeting after all. Perhaps it is the permanent condition of the people of Israel.Consider the following. Earlier in the day I visited a renovated bomb shelter in Kiryat Shemona, the city in the north perhaps hardest hit by Hezbollah’s war on Israel last summer, absorbing some 1,000 Katyusha rockets in the month-long conflict. Mayor Chaim Barbivay said the shelter had been badly damaged, but one would never have known. It was brightly lit, its walls freshly painted with colorful cartoons of circus animals, its newly tiled floors gleaming. In addition, air conditioning, showers and toilets had been installed, and one can only imagine the discomfort, frustration and fears last summer when large numbers of people were packed for 32 days into a dark, dank and sweltering facility originally built for two- or three-hour stays during attacks from Syria or Lebanon.

How quintessentially Israeli to celebrate the refurbishing of a bomb shelter, a place of refuge for when one’s enemies want to kill you. And this shelter was now going to be used as a mini community center, a place to hold social and recreational events on a regular basis, thanks in part to the volunteer work of Livnot U’Lehibanot, a Safed-based community service and study organization that receives funding from UJA-Federation of New York. The prophets spoke of the dream of turning swords into plowshares; here in Israel, bomb shelters are being turned into JCCs. And it is being done, in part, through the ingenuity and support of the North American Jewish federation system, including organizations like UJA-Federation of New York, which is marking its 90th anniversary of service this year.Barbivay spoke movingly of his appreciation of the New York federation, which has taken the lead in helping to rebuild the structures and psyches of the 23,000 people of Kiryat Shemona through a $9.6 million grant over the next three years from funds raised last summer in its Israel Emergency Campaign. “We didn’t feel alone,” Barbivay said, speaking of the war last summer. “The Jews around the world supported us. And no one helped us like UJA-Federation. More than money, it’s the feeling of standing together.” I came to Israel this week with more than 330 fellow New Yorkers to celebrate the accomplishments of the Jewish state at 59, to witness a few of the many ways UJA-Federation has contributed to Israel’s success and to reflect on the evolving relationship between the diaspora and the Jewish state. The participants in the five-day William Rosenwald Mission, subsidized in part by a grant from the family of the late philanthropist who had a special interest in encouraging people to visit Israel, were a microcosm of the New York Jewish community.

There were Long Island and Westchester contingents, a Russian division, a young professionals group, as well as real estate and communal service groups. More than 100 participants were visiting Israel for the first time.From early in the morning to late at night, they toured on buses, based on their interests (geopolitics, Jewish studies, etc.), and visited a wide range of projects that UJA-Federation supports in Israel, from the Jewish Agency and Joint Distribution Committee to a new secular yeshiva (Israel’s first) to cooperative programs for Jews and Israeli Arabs. (The JDC’s Israel office was awarded the Israel Prize this week, the first American Jewish organization ever to receive the prestigious honor.)In Kiryat Shemona, the group I was with on Monday visited Danciger High School, where students and faculty spoke to us about the lingering traumatic effects of the Hezbollah rocket attacks of last summer. Mooli Lahad, a local psychologist and founder of a stress prevention center, explained that while the city had endured attacks from the north for decades, the recent experience was more difficult because it lasted 33 days, and because “the people felt the government abandoned them.” Municipal services broke down during the war, and it was charitable groups like the Jewish Agency, JDC and others that evacuated the elderly and disabled, brought food supplies, and sent children to camps in the center of the country, out of range of the Katyushas. We heard from three elderly residents of Kiryat Shemona as well, who spoke of their gratitude for the help they received when feeling abandoned.

“The failure of the civil services is a major challenge for the government and local authorities,” Lahad said, “and if not for UJA-Federation, we would not have been able to open our center three days after the war ended.” It was the horrific lynching of an Israeli reservist in Ramallah early in the second intifada that prompted the leadership of UJA-Federation to take action in the area of dealing with trauma. The initial seed grant led to the formation of what is now the Israel Trauma Coalition, recalled John Ruskay, executive vice president and CEO of UJA-Federation. The coalition not only is active throughout Israel today but it has lent support to other countries undergoing catastrophic events.Lahad said that more than half of the hundreds of clients his Kiryat Shemona center has helped after the war in Lebanon are children who suffer from fear and anxiety of another attack. “The goal is to get people back to a sense of normalcy as quickly as possible,” he said, and to “create a space of resiliency.” Amir Goldstein, principal of the high school, which was hit by three rockets (fortunately no one was injured), said that while many visitors since the war pledged support, UJA-Federation “kept its promise.” He specifically thanked Steven Donshik, the director of UJA-Federation’s office in Israel, for becoming personally involved in heading up a joint task force of various agencies helping Kiryat Shemona.Many residents still operate on “high vigilance mode,” according to Lahad. “They can’t sleep, they can’t relax,” he said, noting that with Hezbollah reportedly re-arming only a few miles away, “it’s a major problem for recovery.” The psychologist said that young people are particularly resilient, having learned to live in a country “with abnormalcy as the norm.” But he worries that a renewed round of warfare, which many expect this summer, could present serious psychological as well as military problems. Wherever we went, we saw signs of this difficult and delicate balancing act that Lahad referred to as “the semi-schizoid life we live here.” (He confided that in addition to the pressures of his work, he worries about his two sons on active duty in the army.)

On Tuesday, Yom Ha’Atzmaut, I visited Independence Hall in Tel Aviv, the site where David Ben-Gurion declared statehood on May 14, 1948, setting off dancing in the streets that night and attacks from five Arab countries the very next day. There were few dry eyes in the room as we listened to a recording of Ben-Gurion’s proclamation, and then sang “Hatikvah.”Later, we studied a Talmud text with Ruth Calderon, the founder of Alma College in Tel Aviv, which receives funding from UJA-Federation and brings Jewish study and culture to non-affiliated Israelis some would call “secular.” The text she chose was fitting for our group, and our visit. At first opaque, it described Rav Rahumi, a scholar who used to come home every Yom Kippur eve. But torn between returning to his patient wife and staying in the yeshiva, he did not come home. According to the text: “She dropped a tear from her eye. He was sitting on the roof [of the yeshiva]. The roof collapsed under him and his soul rested.” According to Calderon’s interpretation, the relationship of the rabbi and his wife was in a delicate balance, and when he did not return even once in a year, the weight of her tear, in a sense, caused the marriage, and him, to fall. Calderon’s larger point for us to ponder was that of the relationship between the diaspora and Israel, needing each other, whether they realize it or not; visiting once a year is not enough, she said, to keep the house, or homeland, stable. She challenged us to think about how each side can better support, and learn from, the other.The session, like the five-day mission itself, underscored the pride one feels in helping a loved one — in this case Israel — and recognizing how deeply that loved one sustains us. nGary Rosenblatt was a guest of UJA-Federation of New York on its William Rosenwald Mission to Israel.

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