I am beginning to write this message at 9:30 pm on Thursday night in Jerusalem after participating in a one-night Jewish Federations of North America solidarity mission to Israel. I am forever changed. I am even more deeply motivated to act on behalf of Israel after hearing firsthand reports about the barbaric Hamas attack against Israelis.
I have so many stories to share. Stories of heroism. Stories of horror. Stories of hope. Knowing that we marked the five-year Yahrzeit (the Hebrew calendar date) of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting this past week and being cognizant of that fact many of us are feeling strong emotions, I am choosing not to share the graphic stories I heard to try to lean towards hope.
Yesterday, we drove from Jerusalem to the David Hotel along the shoreline of the Dead Sea. It wasn’t to enjoy the view or the healing qualities of the salt and minerals, it was to visit with the residents of Kibbutz Be’eri, the site of one of the most brutal terror attacks on October 7th. Eighty-five people were slaughtered. As part of a mass evacuation of Israeli residents near the Gaza Strip, the surviving residents of this kibbutz were moved en masse as a community to this hotel and one other, far away from their homes. They will probably live there for at least a few more months until the government can make longer term plans. Families with children are living in a single hotel room. We heard graphic and difficult stories of what happened in their quiet, peaceful kibbutz. We saw a pop-up preschool created in a manner to closely replicate the preschool in Be’eri. It’s definitely not the same, as this preschool is being held in what is normally a hotel restaurant and bar. It provides these kids time to have fun together and in turn, gives their parents a little break. Think about the fact that everyone in the hotel is related to or knows people who were killed or taken hostage. Their trauma felt intense to me.
In Jerusalem, we visited the Chamal (an acronym that stands for Cheder Matzav L’milchama). It’s a pop-up site established by volunteers to literally do anything and everything for evacuees from the south and the north of Israel. For context, there are now approximately 200,000 displaced Israelis. Volunteers run call centers to provide rides, to provide psychological supports, and to deliver goods donated by Israelis to those in need. Israelis around the Gaza Strip ran with their lives and nothing else. No clothing. No food. None of the diapers and formula they need. It was inspiring to see that a society that was largely divided over politics on October 6th has united in its support for one another.
We visited Magen David Adom. Many know this as the organization that takes donations of blood, distributes it, and runs the main ambulance service of Israel. I want to focus on one thing I heard while there that melted my heart. They have a vibrant breast milk bank needed more than ever. Babies who survived the barbaric attack of Hamas are now without mothers. Can you imagine?
We met with representatives of the Hostages and Missing Families Forum. They shared stories about their loved ones now in captivity. They are holding on to hope despite what they are going through and what their hostage family members are enduring. Osnat told us about her Aunt Ruti and Uncle Avraham, their daughter Karen and grandson Ohad who were taken hostage from Kibbut Nir Oz. The grandson turned nine as a hostage. Osnat shared a picture of Ohad. He is a cute boy with glasses, reminding me of my own son at that age. What is one of the things the family is worried about, in addition to whether he is with his mother? When the family was taken, Ohad’s glasses could have fallen. He can’t see without them. They are worried that he may not have been able to see anything for the last several weeks while in captivity. They maintain hope and ask us in the global Jewish world to make sure their plight is known. They asked us to put as much pressure on the International Red Cross to visit the hostages and check up on them. They even asked us why the International Red Cross demands to visit terrorists captured by Israel in the Israeli prison system (which Israel allows) and haven’t made any special effort to visit innocent, Israeli, civilian hostages.
We also heard from Gidon, the brother-in-law of Tamar Gutman. She was snatched by Hamas and taken to the Gaza Strip. With a severe case of Crohn’s disease, Tamar’s family has been deeply concerned about her health. Our meeting with the Forum members was on Wednesday, and as our mission drove back to Jerusalem from Ofakim on Thursday (just 15 miles away from the Gaza Strip where 40 people were killed), our bus received a call from Gidon informing us that Israeli authorities had confirmed Tamar’s death. The family was beginning to sit shiva that night even though there is no body to bury. Because of our return flight to the States, we couldn’t make a shiva visit. I will be sending the family a personal note this week.
I cried multiple times during this trip. It’s hard to see real lives taken away. Still, as I stated above, I’m more motivated to have our community make a huge difference.
The Hostages and Missing Families Forum receives financial support from our Israel Relief Fund. That pop-up preschool and other preschools are receiving support. The Victims of Terror Fund that distributes immediate cash to victims (the most they have ever had to handle) receives our support. The Chamal receives our support. Magen David Adom receives our support. More than 100 Israeli nonprofits have already received $147,900,000 collective Federation dollars.
What can you do?
Here are a few ideas:
- Give generously over and above your Annual Community Campaign support to our Israel Relief Fund. The national Federation system has already raised in excess of $600 million. With a deliberate allocations process, deep relationships with the agencies on the ground, and oversight, it’s the best way to help.
- Write and call your elected officials. Ask them to continue to support Israel and to push for the release of the hostages.
- Build relationships with our allies beyond the Jewish community. Ask them to also reach out to elected officials and to make public statements.
While my message this week is centered around Israel, I cannot write without mentioning the major uptick in antisemitism that has hit our Pittsburgh community. The graffiti scrawled at the Summerset development in Squirrel Hill was deeply hurtful. A very lengthy editorial in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette on Thursday stated: “Antisemitic intimidation demands condemnation from Pittsburgh Leaders.” While you are calling our leaders about supporting Israel and demanding the freeing of the hostages, make sure your voice is heard around antisemitism. After the October 27, 2018 attack, Pittsburgh was full of signs saying “No Place for Hate.” Let’s refresh that mantra and fight back against all forms of hate including one of its oldest forms – antisemitism.
Throughout Israel and even on our way out of the country at Ben Gurion airport, there were signs everywhere, Am Echad b’Lev Echad. It means, “One nation with one heart”. The Hebrew word Am is translated as “the nation or the people”. Now, perhaps more than ever in our lifetimes, we must be one nation, one people, with one heart.
Shabbat Shalom from Pittsburgh.
P.S. The Federation, along with others, is bringing the white Shabbat table to Schenley Plaza today. This white table with an empty seat for each of the hostages will be on display starting this afternoon until tomorrow night. Please come and bring your friends. It will be a stark reminder of all the empty Shabbat dinner seats in Israel tonight.