Diaspora aid

Jewish leaders visit southern Israel as they direct assistance after unprecedented terror attacks

Coming under fire, officials from JFNA, JAFI and UJA-Federation of New York meet with victims and hospital staff in Ashkelon

A delegation of top officials from the Jewish Federations of North America, UJA-Federation of New York and the Jewish Agency for Israel toured Israel’s war-torn south on Monday, visiting a hospital in the city of Ashkelon that has treated hundreds of casualties since Saturday morning.

During their tour of the hospital, JFNA President and CEO Eric Fingerhut, director general of JFNA’s Israel office Rebecca Caspi, UJA-Federation CEO Eric Goldstein, chair of the Jewish Agency’s Budget and Finance Committee Bruce Sholk and the director of the Jewish Agency’s Fund for Victims of Terror, Ayelet Nahmias-Verbin, met with hospital staff, spoke with victims and families of victims and saw new casualties coming in as a rocket directly struck a car a few blocks away from the hospital during their visit. eJewishPhilanthropy accompanied them on the tour. (Fingerhut, Goldstein and Sholk were already in the country when the war broke out; Caspi and Nahmias-Verbin live in Israel.)

The visit came as the Jewish Agency prepares to distribute grants to victims of the war — both the initial assaults and continued rocket fire — through its Fund for Victims of Terror. Each survivor or their family is entitled to an immediate NIS 4,000 ($1,014) grant and up to NIS 25,000 ($6,340) in payments for up to three years. In the 21 years that the fund has been in existence, it has given grants to roughly 9,000 victims; after Saturday alone, it will have to distribute grants to well over 3,000 victims, with numbers expected to rise as fighting continues.

Fingerhut told eJP that JFNA, which is the prime donor to the fund, will ensure that everyone entitled to a grant receives one. “There are millions that have already been pledged to the Fund for Victims of Terror,” he said.

Their tour was led by the hospital’s head of emergency services, Dr. Ron Lobel, a resident of the nearby community of Netiv Ha’asara, which was invaded by terrorists on Saturday morning. Lobel and his wife barricaded themselves in their home’s bomb shelter for a full day until they were rescued by the Israeli military. At least 17 people out of the community of 900 were murdered. The next day, Lobel returned to work.

“Can you imagine?” Fingerhut told eJP after the visit. “He is caring for the these emergency patients and he himself was basically held captive, defending his life and his wife’s for almost 24 hours.”

They also met a woman, who asked not to be named, who was hospitalized in Barzilai from Kibbutz Mefalsim. She was not injured in the attack but was put under observation as she was 38 weeks pregnant with her first child, a boy. When terrorists broke into her kibbutz, she barricaded herself in a bomb shelter for 10 hours without food or water. Her husband was driving to work and was shot multiple times in his car. She stayed on the phone with him, keeping him speaking, as she directed emergency services to his location. He is in critical condition, having undergone at least three surgeries.

“I’m the one who saved his life,” she said. “I sent the medics, the police, everyone to him, and I kept him speaking to me. I knew that if he stopped talking, he would die.” She said she doesn’t want to give birth until her husband wakes up.

The group also met with the medical director of the hospital, Dr. Chezy Levy, who described being on the scene as almost 500 victims were brought in, many of them dead on arrival.

“They were assassinated. I use that word. They were butchered,” he told the Jewish leaders.

Fingerhut said the tour of the hospital “really brought home… the magnitude of the atrocity.” He added: “I just felt so clearly the depth of this.”

Fingerhut said that JFNA is dividing its efforts into two distinct missions: fundraising and advocacy.

“The first is to care for our brothers and sisters in Israel who need our help,” he said, including not only the victims of the attacks but also the services and organizations that are supporting the country. 

“What we saw today is a piece of that. Becky Caspi will delve deep into [what those needs are],” he said. “As we always do, we’ll raise the funds quickly and dispense them efficiently, to the greatest needs.”

Fingerhut said the second, and in some ways more important, effort will be in using the North American Jewish community’s connections and relationships to shore up support for Israel by the American and Canadian governments, as well as the American and Canadian people.

“When I meet with Israeli leaders, the number one thing that they are asking us for is support and maintaining the support for Israel’s upcoming military actions,” he said.  “Everyone knows that while support is strong today, there will be active efforts to demonize and delegitimize the actions that the IDF has to take to protect itself and the State of Israel. We intend to mobilize every community to not just build unity among the jewish community but to also reach out to other communities.”

Fingerhut noted that Jewish communities across the U.S. and Canada have already organized dozens of solidarity events this week “with public officials from both parties, with religious figures, with civic figures.”

He added: “Israel must wipe out this threat, and the world must support Israel as it does it.”