By David Kirschtel

In the summer of 2008, at the JCC Maccabi Games in Detroit, I met Israel Lev. He is the coach of a boy’s basketball team from the Mosenson School in Hod Hasharon, Israel. We immediately clicked and we began thinking of ways to work together to strengthen the bond between the teens of Rockland County and Hod Hasharon, Israel. At the time, a small group that participated in the Games visited in Rockland after that event; it was the beginning of an ongoing relationship.

In 2010, he first visited Rockland, in what has become an annual event. We arranged a visit for junior and senior students, basketball and volleyball players from the Mosenson School. They stayed with Rockland County families who had children the same ages. My son, Jason was a senior at the time, and so my family hosted two of the nicest kids I’ve ever met, Gal Cohen and Yuval Tarica.

After only five days – a very short time – my wife, Elayna, my kids and I felt like these two boys were family. And they must have felt that way too. When they left, the note they addressed to me and Elayna read “Dear Mom and Dad.”

I spoke to Israel Lev this past week and learned that one of my “sons,” Yuval, was critically injured in fighting in Gaza. Three of his fellow soldiers were killed; but Israel says Yuval is expected to survive, although he is badly burned. There really aren’t words to say how concerned I am for this young man. It is hard to imagine what they have faced these past few weeks. Even at the time he visited, I was struck by the fact that our Rockland teens were busy taking SATs and worrying about college acceptance, while their Israeli counterparts were about to head into the military.

Knowing someone injured in Israel’s Gaza operation makes the stakes seem that much higher. It also points out how closely connected our global Jewish family is. Those boys fighting aren’t just anyone. They are our brothers, and cousins, our nephews and sons.

At the JCC we strive to strengthen our ties to Israel through educational and cultural programming and always seek for ways to increase that connection. One way we have continued to do this is through the program that brings the Hod Hasharon kids to our county. They are coming to the JCC Maccabi Games in Cherry Hill, N.J. on August 10 and a group of 30-plus will be back in the spring for our home hospitality program – the ongoing project to connect we began back in that chance meeting in Detroit in 2008.
Today, my son Jason is working for AEPi, the Jewish fraternity, a recent college graduate. And Yuval and Gal have been serving their country. It’s sobering to think of this when I hear the news from Israel throughout the day. Knowing those who serve makes the conflict feel personal and very close.

Throughout, Israel needs ongoing help. Social services that provide relief and trauma assistance have been stretched beyond belief. Life has been disrupted because so many reservists have been called up to serve. Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), the umbrella organization for 153 federations and 300 network communities around the country, mobilizes quickly and through its reach and influence, raises $3 billion annually to address social welfare, social services and educational needs around the globe, focusing on both Jewish and at-risk communities – wherever there is a need.

The Jewish Federation of Rockland County, our local affiliate, is part of this powerful network and has already raised around $70,000 for Israel in these short weeks since the conflict with Hamas escalated. Supporting your local federation or JFNA, even as we head into a three-day cease fire, continues to be important, as the needs within our Jewish homeland will remain great.

Please continue to support Israel, because, as I have learned, we really are just one family.

David Kirschtel is CEO of JCC Rockland, located in West Nyack, N.Y. He can be reached at davidk@jccrockland.org