Experiencing the Many Realities of Israel

courtesy Federation CJA
courtesy Federation CJA

By Stephen Bronfman

[Stephen Bronfman is the Chair of the Federation CJA Combined Jewish Appeal Campaign for 2014. He was also one of 41 participants on Federation CJA’s Montreal Leadership Mission to Israel August 3-7 – the largest delegation of any Federation to Israel during Operation Protective Edge. He shares his thoughts and impressions.]

Arriving before my group last Thursday afternoon, July 31, Ben Gurion Airport was eerily quiet. I checked into my Tel Aviv hotel which was 80% empty at what normally is their busiest time of the year. A few hours later I met with my oldest Israeli friends and their four children. Within 15 minutes and after warm greetings and hugs, the air raid siren blared and we dashed off to the stairwell. My first welcome from Gaza.

Ten minutes later, we returned to our schmoozing right where we left off. Very surreal.

A short while later, we departed the far-too-quiet hotel and went to a pop-up market at the port of Tel Aviv set up to support merchants from southern Israel who were doing zero business during the conflict. The market was packed with people and it was very uplifting to see so many out and about buying goods and supporting their southern brethren.

Israelis are so resilient and also unfortunately quite used to conflict and danger within Israel. This has tragically become part of their everyday lives. Life goes on. But the mood hasn’t been great; people are angry and also sad. Above all, they are determined, and united in their effort to reestablish a safe environment for their families.

Yes, people are out at restaurants – but not like usual. People are out in the streets, but not like usual. People are in shops, but not like usual. Many are home, watching the news on television, listening to the radio. Sixty-four of our boys gone, and with one or two degrees of separation in Israel, everyone knows someone either killed, wounded or fighting in this crisis.

For all of us on the Federation CJA leadership mission to Israel, visiting Sderot was very inspiring and a stark contrast from our own everyday lives. We met with many teens who have grown up with bombardments as normalcy. Parents go to work and kids go to shelters as they can’t go to camps, can’t play outside, can’t live like our kids do, freely. What they do though, is help each other. For example, we met a volunteer corps of teens who have undertaken not only to provide daily activities for the younger children in the shelters, but also visit other communities and offer support, like babysitting so that parents can have a moment to take care of necessities. We witnessed many examples of this; they are an unbelievably strong community and the many, many years of conflict has made them so tight knit and remarkably resilient.

We visited wounded soldiers in hospitals, some in critical condition. We spoke with their families. We went to pay a shiva call to Hadar Goldin’s family. We were embraced by all. They were exceptionally appreciative that we took time out of our lives to visit when no one else was, when they felt the world was against them. We went to lift their spirits, and they lifted ours.

For many of us on this important mission, the last time here was very different – we were part of the 600 person strong Montreal Mega Mission. It was a time to celebrate and rejoice. We were leaving a Montreal that had had a difficult year politically, a very hard winter and came to Israel to experience a time of renewal for our community. It was a time of great joy.  Now, we see a different Israel, a time of much sorrow.

Our experience, albeit brief, of life in Israel during times of conflict has broadened our perception of the reality of Israel. And what an important first-hand lesson it has been. Soldiers can be seen everywhere, young people in the prime of their lives. We were reminded once again that in this country it is the children, not their parents, that ensure the safety of all. It was crucial that we learn this first-hand. This land of milk and honey has been cultivated for generations, and will continue to thrive because of the resilience of this nation of incredible people.

The Federation delegation from Montreal are proud to be here. Proud of Canada’s relationship with Israel and proud to be standing alongside our Israeli brothers and sisters both in good and in troubled times.

As of the last few days, there is a cease fire. Did Israel accomplish its mission? In the short term, yes. But clearly a longer-term solution needs to be found. Does Israel have work to do on the international PR front? Most definitely yes. Does the world understand the situation here? Most definitely not.

Israel has a very efficient, well-funded and well trained military, the strongest in the region if not the world, but we are not very good at telling our story. Or… maybe we are quite good at telling our story and the world just doesn’t want to hear it. Anti-Semitism is rising around the world and it seems that many people are just waiting for their “aha” moment to say to others “you see…  I told you….”

One thing is for sure, Israelis are risking their lives at all times for the existence of Israel. But they also take these risks for the health of our Jewish world and for democracy in the region. We owe them a debt of gratitude, as does the rest of the world. We Canadian Jews are so fortunate to live in a peaceful society partly because of what they are doing here. We must all play our part – share the truth, support our people, show our appreciation.

I am proud of our Montreal community that came 41 strong during a time of war, to support and experience the real Israel. Our group is leaving with a deeper understanding, a renewed commitment and a strength and resolve that we will take with us back home. But, in many ways, we never actually leave. Am Israel Chai!

Stephen Bronfman is the Executive Chairman of Claridge and is involved in several philanthropic and civic organizations. He co-chairs the Claudine and Stephen Bronfman Family Foundation and is President of the Samuel and Saidye Bronfman Family Foundation. He serves as a director of several nonprofit organizations, including The David Suzuki Foundation, and chairs the Combined Jewish Appeal 2014 Campaign.