In Israel, What Community Means
by Alan H. Gill
July 29, 2014: As the war against Hamas continues – with more lives tragically lost, continuous rocket attacks, terrorist infiltration attempts, and ceasefires that come and go – I want to share with you three scenes from the last several days here that underscore, for me, the meaning of community and resilience during wartime
As any of you have been to Tel Aviv know, parking is a difficult business, to say the least. If you don’t have a private parking space in your apartment building, you often have to circle on the streets for a long time to find a spot nearby.
So when I was walking down the street late last night in Tel Aviv, I saw a car that looked like it had been abandoned, covered in rotting fruit that had fallen from the tree above.
I could also see that there was a piece of paper under the windshield. As I got closer I leaned in and saw that it was a simple message, quickly scrawled in Hebrew, addressed to the traffic police who are known to hand out tickets for even the smallest amount of time in a parking spot over the allotted hours.
The letters were faded, indicating that it had been written a while ago. The note read: “To the police – please be generous of spirit – I am away protecting the country.” And I was relieved to see that, indeed, there was no ticket next to the note on the windshield.
Our son-in-law, a major in the reserves, has been away for 24 days now, bravely commanding a unit with over 50 soldiers in Gaza. During the short ceasefire this past weekend, our family went to the south, next to the border of Gaza, to visit him on a nearby kibbutz during a brief respite period for him and some of his soldiers.
The kibbutz members welcomed the soldiers en masse. They opened up the pool – for the first time in three weeks – barbecued, and did everything possible to give some sense of comfort (for however long this respite would last) to these heroic soldiers, all of whom were reservists with full lives back home. Some, like our son-in-law, were reuniting with their wives and children.
There are no words to express our family’s feelings while watching our daughter and son-in-law in the swimming pool, embracing one another, with their baby boy held between them. It was a surreal experience, and one that shall stay with me forever.
As I celebrated this blessed time with our son-in-law, I also went around to groups of soldiers sitting on the lawn around the pool to offer my own thanks and to tell them that the country and the global Jewish community were fully behind them.
They turned to me – every one of them – and expressed to me their appreciation. Heartfelt, earnest, and serious, they thanked me for sharing my brief words of appreciation and admiration for their service.
And I stood there, stunned … and deeply moved.
Imagine the kind of place this is where I receive thanks from those who are protecting their country and its people with their very lives.
Yesterday, I traveled to Sderot and joined my JDC colleagues who have been selflessly forging ahead, 24/7, with our war relief efforts for the past three weeks. We met up with a solidarity leadership mission from UJA-Federation of New York. They were there to show their support and see their incredible generosity at work in programs designed to aid people during crises of this kind. I was so proud of my Federation and community of NY.
We visited a local bomb shelter in JDC’s Center for Youth & Young Adults that has become a gathering place for young adult volunteers and the community’s children. At sites like these around Southern Israel, JDC has distributed activity kits to tens of thousands of children who are forced to spend much of their days and nights in bomb shelters. They are helped and led in play by hundreds of our teen volunteers during the long hours in the shelters.
It was both heartening, and heartrending, to watch the young kids and volunteers interacting: The more the children become comfortable in the shelters, we are told by experts, the less resistance they put up to going in them when the sirens sound. Additionally, they tend to be less traumatized and fearful at home.
For the teen volunteers, the old saying seems true, that the best way to forget your own worries is to care for someone else in need. And you could see that as the volunteers vigorously played with the children and ensured they felt safe.
We had a chance to speak privately with the volunteers. During the conversation, one 15-year-old boy’s narrative stood out for me. What he said, about his life and the current situation, both deeply moved and appalled me.
He noted that he had never known any other life than the one he was leading right now – rocket fire, conflict, sirens.
But despite that, he told us, when he grows older and finishes the army and his studies, he would surely return to live in Sderot. It is, after all, home. And I sensed that, despite his young age, there was something deep and powerful inside of him that was driving him that as much as said, “No one will be able to chase me from my home.”
Israel is a country of service – it has a world-renowned standing army and reserve force made up of 18-year-olds and middle-agers, heroically fighting for their country’s survival and daily security.
On the home front, you have another force that jumps to action in times of need and safeguards those most vulnerable at times of war. It’s made of up volunteers – young and old – and social workers, crisis and emergency professionals, and scores of others who, with the support of the global Jewish community, stand courageously in the face of terror.
I am proud to lead an organization whose own emergency reserve force is delivering hope – and life-saving care – to Israelis of all stripes. It is a humbling business we are in. And it is “community” at its best.
Am Yisrael Chai!
Alan H. Gill is the CEO of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.