First-Hand Report: How We’re Helping Israelis

by Eric S. Goldstein

These are the days that remind us what it means to be a people. Last week, a group of Israelis came to New York to volunteer in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. This week, I traveled to Israel as a representative of UJA-Federation of New York on a Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) solidarity mission. The irony isn’t lost on any of us – Americans or Israelis. But this is how we take care of one another.

The New York region I left behind has most of its power back on, yet recovery is still far in the distance for many. The Israel where I am now has nearly half of its citizens living with the real threat of rockets. According to JFNA that’s proportionally the same as 140 million Americans.

On Day Two of the mission, we traveled to an indoor playground in Sderot, where suddenly I was part of a story told to me a hundred times before. Two hundred children were happily playing, just being kids. Then a siren sounded, and the kids and counselors dropped everything and ran into a bomb shelter. I was scared; they’re used to it. Their calm was at once comforting and unsettling. Nobody, especially children, should ever have this be their “normal.”

Earlier, we had visited Ibim, a youth village less than one mile from Sderot, which the Jewish Agency for Israel has just recently converted to an absorption center for Ethiopian olim. There are 442 Ethiopians living there in detached homes. We were welcomed into one that houses a family of seven that arrived from Ethiopia on Oct. 29. Notwithstanding the rockets – as if that was truly possible – they expressed their happiness to finally be in Israel.

These are the stories that tear at us, but there is a place for gratitude, too. We – the American Jewish community – are not helpless bystanders in all this. The Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), both beneficiary agencies of UJA-Federation, are already aiding those displaced and traumatized by the rocket attacks. In one day, JAFI took 3,000 children from the region on respite trips. I’m so grateful we could help take them somewhere safe, and yet, I can’t help but wonder how much they were really able to forget what they left behind.

JDC’s efforts have been focused on helping the elderly and disabled in the affected region. They are distributing supplies and food for elderly and disabled in the 0-7 kilometer range of Gaza, providing portable toilets for people with severe disabilities. Starting this week, volunteers will lead activities for children in shelters.

Near Sderot, our group met with Talia Levanon, director of the Israel Trauma Coalition (ITC), created in 2001 by UJA-Federation in response to the second intifada. ITC has increased its activities this week, activating its emergency protocol, coordinating its response with many groups in the field and government agencies. Anxiety treatment sites were opened and hotlines fielded a large increase in calls.

Also as part of the mission, we visited Moshav Arugot, about 40 kilometers from Gaza, where there is a center that provides services for the elderly. Over the past week, the moshav has had “red code” rocket alerts, but many of the residents are not sufficiently mobile to walk to a shelter. Caseworkers are assigned to each person to help them out. However, if a rocket were to be fired into the moshav, there would not be enough time for anyone to help these elderly into a shelter.

I spoke with three people there. One of them, age 91, fought in the War of Independence. A woman, age 84, met her husband during the same war, and the third, age 78, moved to Israel 10 years ago from Argentina. All now live alone in small and attractive homes. They were uniformly upbeat about the current situation, convinced that Israel would meet this challenge, as it always has in the past. I was there to provide comfort to them, and in the end, it was they who comforted me.

From Far Rockaway to Ethiopia, from Argentina to Sderot, our fate and our destiny are intertwined with each other and with the Jewish state. Yes, the road ahead is long and daunting both in New York and in Israel. But I’ve never felt so fortunate, so blessed, so hopeful that we will weather this storm, too, because we have each other’s strength to lean on and carry us forward.

Eric S. Goldstein, a lawyer, is a member of UJA-Federation’s executive committee and chair of its Commission on Jewish Identity and Renewal.

This piece also appears in The Jewish Week.