Two Years of the Ukraine Crisis
Israel on the Ground – Jan Levinson’s Story
January 17, 2024
Together, we will rebuild Israel. We will survive. We will heal.
for terror victims, building bomb shelters, and more
shekels a day
to bring in volunteers via buses to
Brian Eglash and I had the privilege to visit Israel in late December as part of a solidarity mission. Without being there, it’s hard to imagine the magnitude of continuing repercussions from the Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attack or to over-emphasize the importance of the amazing work you are funding on the ground right now. The needs are still immense and will be for years.
To give you a sense of the mood at the moment, our first visit, resulting from an air raid siren, was to a bomb shelter at our hotel. We were joined by a pregnant couple and a visibly frightened, otherwise would-be tough guy, American.
We started the next day meeting a representative from the Hostage and Missing Family Forum, Yaakov Buchbat. Hamas kidnapped Yaakov’s brother Elkana at the Nova music festival. Your support for the Jewish Federation enables the Hostage and Missing Family Forum to provide vital support for the families of hostages still in captivity in Gaza, the released hostages and their families. The funding also enables them to advocate worldwide for the hostages’ release.
Brian and I then joined Kim Salzman, the Federation’s Director of Israel and Overseas Operations, in our Partnership2Gether region of Karmiel/Misgav. I witnessed the profound impact of the attack on a friend whose best friend’s daughter died in the Hamas attack. He said things would never be the same.
Our “sister city” region sits too close for comfort to Hezbollah rockets from the north, and your support has already improved and/or built bomb shelters in the area, including in some of the older houses that didn’t have one at all. We funded a temporary bomb shelter adjacent to a sports field so that the kids could play on the field and still run to a bomb shelter within 30 seconds. Brian and I saw the security room at Karmiel, with banks of screens and soldiers constantly monitoring the entire area.
I asked our longtime Israeli partner Lilach Rana how Israelis in the region were holding up. She replied, “We are carrying on with our lives, living day to day; what else can we do?” Two of the 132 remaining hostages and several of the people murdered hailed from the Karmiel/Misgav area, so pretty much everyone knows someone grieving. Sirens are a frequent occurrence, sending everyone running to bomb shelters in the 30 seconds of safety, and many areas have reinforced pathways with giant walls of sandbags to give residents a little more time to get to the bunkers.
At this point, between the people evacuated from the “Gaza envelope” and the many communities evacuated from rockets in the north, the displaced population of Israel numbers more than 200,000. These individuals and families have been evacuated to hotels in the center of country, with families of as many as six or more living in one room. Some have tried to move in with relatives or rent, but there are of course not many places to rent right now.
Israel had to rush to set up services for these evacuees. There were no schools, no youth activities, no mental health services and no daycare, and many families left with only their pajamas and no belongings. Your support has provided all of these services in a short period of time through the Jewish Agency for Israel, Joint Distribution Committee, Jewish Federations of North America and their many funded agencies. We visited just one of hundreds of these projects, a school set up for evacuated children at Beit Avichai.
People feel stuck; they want to go home. Some can’t work. Living in the hotels becomes like a pressure cooker. Whether organizations are getting money or not, they are taking care of what needs to be done, but the donations from overseas remain a critical lifeline.
On our way south, we visited Hotel Yad Sarah, the largest disabled-accessible hotel in the world at 216 rooms. Thanks to Jewish Federation support, the hotel is completely full of evacuees with disabilities, mainly older adults. Yad Sarah provides comprehensive services that enable these evacuees to live as normal a life as possible while they wait to go home.
We visited Kfar Aza in the south, a kibbutz devastated by the Hamas attack. Everything is still left the way it was on Oct. 7. Government markings on houses indicate where they took out bodies, where they evacuated the wounded and so forth. It’s still a crime scene, and soldiers occupy Kfar Aza now. We were given helmets and bullet-proof vests. Every ten minutes, we heard rockets from Gaza, which is two kilometers from the kibbutz.
Volunteers told us that almost everyone has mental health needs. We met with one resident of Kibbutz Kfar Aza, who stayed forty hours in a safe room before he was able to leave. In Kibbutz Be’eri we met Sagi, who hid in a bomb shelter with his daughter. Terrorists couldn’t open the door, so they set fire to the shelter. The father and daughter escaped through a back window, but he couldn’t walk because of the burns on his leg. Miraculously, there was a bicycle behind the shelter, so Sagi threw his daughter on the bike and managed to escape.
Not surprisingly, they will all need long-term psychological care.
The needs are truly staggering. Israelis need clothes, schools, after-school activities. They can’t run their businesses. Hadassah hospital built an entire new wing in the basement for emergency rooms because they didn’t have enough capacity. In the beginning, Israel needed orthopedic doctors, but now the biggest need is psychological care. They are looking for fluent Hebrew, French, Russian and Arabic speakers to help and asking them to come to Israel for 3 weeks at a time.
Businesses that need tourists have no business. We did not see one tourist bus in Jerusalem—usually there are hundreds. The economy is devastated. The mostly Thai farm workers went home to Thailand, so your donations are helping farmers pick abandoned crops. One farmer told us that they were spending over 100,000 shekels a day to bring in volunteer pickers by the busload.
In the midst of all this chaos and misery, Jewish Federation is providing hope. Providing volunteers through Leket to pick crops. Providing more than 10,000 grants through the Victims of Terror Fund as opposed to around 100 in a normal year. Building bomb shelters. Caring for traumatized kids. Resettling the displaced. Nurturing lone soldiers with no family to go home to when off duty. Helping people with disabilities. Caring for older adults, especially in the many places with an immense worker shortage due to the hundreds of thousands of soldiers called up for military duty. Thinking about the future.
Together, we will rebuild Israel. We will survive. We will heal. Thanks to your help, we will live together to see a brighter day.