Birthright Israel’s important role in the aftermath of the war

A few weeks ago, I participated in a two-day solidarity mission to Israel with about a dozen international lay leaders of Birthright Israel. Like many, I had been glued to the daily news reports of what was happening in Israel since Oct. 7, but I did not anticipate how much more powerful, meaningful and emotional it would be to see the devastation firsthand and to hear the stories face to face from those who were so directly and deeply impacted. It was so important to the people we met with that they share their experiences and that we, in turn, share what we learned there as broadly as possible. They asked us to bear witness to the atrocities and the ongoing trauma, and I need to honor those requests by telling you what I saw and heard.

The first striking observation upon arriving in Israel is that it was eerily quiet. Ben Gurion Airport was empty. There was very little traffic and the streets were empty. Hotels were empty too, except for those housing displaced people. 

I was never previously in a country at war. This is what it looked and felt like.

Even so, as a Jew it felt good to be on the ground in Israel at this time. The first thing I did when I woke up that Monday morning was walk to the Kotel. It was early, but the Old City felt deserted. I have never been there when the walkways of the Old City were so eerily quiet. It was very meaningful to pray at the Wall at this time.

All areas four miles from the Gaza border and five miles from the northern border have been evacuated. Hundreds of thousands have been displaced from their homes.

We visited two evacuated kibbutzim on the Gaza border, Kfar Aza and Alumim. On Oct. 7 in Kfar Aza, 57 people were killed and 18 people, seven of whom were small children, were taken hostage. I don’t recall the number of deaths at Alumim, but it was a lot and included the butchering of 20 of their 30 Thai workers.

We were led through the kibbutzim by members of the civilian defense teams who valiantly defended their communities for many hours on Oct. 7 before the IDF arrived. These were not active IDF soldiers — at Alumim, for instance, one member of the civilian defense team is a brain science professor at Bar-Ilan University —but these teams are true heroes. 

They walked us through areas of bullet-ridden houses, blood-stained walls and structures that were completely burnt out, describing the inhumane carnage that occurred. The feeling of visiting these kibbutzim with them was similar to that of walking through a concentration camp with a survivor describing what happened in each location. Our guides were clearly broken and permanently scarred; but, as I mentioned earlier, it was important to them that we see and hear what happened and share it with others.

We visited Sderot, a city of 35,000 that has also been evacuated. Fierce battles also took place there. We visited the site of the police station where officers bravely fought and died and where, ultimately, the IDF flattened the building with the terrorists inside.  

Just to remind us that we were in a war zone, we were regularly startled by very loud booms that we both heard and felt – we were quickly reassured that these were from Israeli artillery.

We were warned that if there was a siren, there was no Iron Dome protection — the batteries have been moved to protect the troops.  As a result, people in Sderot have 10 to 12 seconds to get to a shelter.  

Initially there were around 2,500 residents who stayed behind after the evacuation order, but now there are around 7,000-8,000 people, all living without Iron Dome protection. Why? Because they have nowhere else to go.

Sderot’s mayor, Alon Davidi, is an incredible person who is working 24/7 to support his displaced community.  Long-term, his biggest postwar concern is how they will convince people to come back to Sderot.  

He also spoke about how important Birthright trips are to the businesses in Sderot. Most Birthright trips visit Sderot and the kibbutzim in the south, and their economic impact is tremendous.  He cannot wait for our trips to resume.

One of the actions that Birthright has undertaken is to provide people just outside of the evacuation zones with a week of housing in hotels in safer areas. Dedicated funds for this effort have been raised.  We met with a number of these displaced people, and they shared their stories of anxiety, of living in fear, of the constant sirens and of the trauma that they and their children feel. They were so thankful for the week of respite that Birthright is providing them. Again, they asked us to share their stories with others.

We met with Jon Polin and Rachel Goldberg, whose son Hersh Goldberg-Polin lost an arm in the carnage at the Nova music festival and was taken as a hostage to Gaza. Hersh’s parents put on a brave face and have been working 24/7 to raise awareness about the hostages and to put pressure on the parties negotiating for their release. They too asked that we spread the word.  

Despite everything, I never felt unsafe while I was in Israel; everyone was very calm when the sirens went off and we were in shelters.  Still, I felt I got the true Israeli experience of being in a war zone when a siren went off when I was on the way to the airport and we were lying flat on the side of the road by the concrete barrier while hoping that the shrapnel from the Iron Dome interception would fall somewhere else.

I share these stories because I want to honor the requests of the traumatized people who shared them with us and who asked us to share them broadly. I appreciate that we all are doing a tremendous amount to help Israel right now. These stories provide context for what we will have to focus on for “the day after.” Resuming Birthright trips will play a critical role in the healing process in Israel and abroad, so we need to do the work now to be prepared to send as many young adults to Israel as possible when it is safe to do so. 

Image from a past Birthright Israel trip. Photo by Sarah Kornbluh

For Israel, the resumption of trips will mean thousands of young adults walking around throughout the country and showing their solidarity with, and their love for, the Jewish homeland. And for the young adults who are now experiencing antisemitism, many for the first time in their lives, it will be so important for them to travel together to Israel and reconnect with their Judaism, the Jewish community and their homeland. It is also important that our young adults hear firsthand some of the stories that I did, and then come back home and fulfill the same promise that I am fulfilling right now: to share these stories widely, with Jews and non-Jews, people of all backgrounds, anyone who can bear witness and support Israel in their philanthropy, their advocacy, their prayers and more.

That’s the role that Birthright Israel will play in the aftermath of the war.

Phil de Toledo is chair of the board of Birthright Israel Foundation.