JCC Association brings 40 top leaders to Israel for ‘heartrending’ solidarity mission

Lay leaders, professional staff of JCC Association and individual JCCs visit massacre sites, meet Israeli leaders

RAMLE, Israel — The top lay and professional leadership of the JCC Movement visited Israel this week for a solidarity mission — one of the largest such trips so far with roughly 40 participants — meeting with survivors of the Oct. 7 attacks, first responders, government officials and leaders of Israeli community centers.

The delegation was made up of JCC Association of North America executives, JCC CEOs and board members from across the country. For all but one, this was their first time in Israel since the Oct. 7 massacres.

“Our mission was originally intended to be a leadership seminar celebrating Israel at 75,” JCC Association CEO Doron Krakow told eJewishPhilanthropy. “After the war started, we recast it as a solidarity mission.”

The five-day mission included meetings with current and former Israeli officials, including President Isaac Herzog; Gadi Yarkoni, mayor of the Gaza-adjacent Eshkol region; former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett; and officials from the Diaspora Affairs Ministry, which has been working with the JCC Movement on a variety of projects. The more than 40 participants also met with activists leading the calls for the government to focus its attention primarily on rescuing the hostages.

On Wednesday, eJP joined the delegation when it visited the Magen David Adom Marcus National Blood Services Center in the central Israeli town of Ramle, hearing from paramedics about how the organization responded to the Oct. 7 attacks and how the ongoing war has affected its operations.

During the tour, Aryeh Myers, a paramedic who works in MDA’s international relations department, played for the delegation a recording of a call to an MDA dispatcher on Oct. 7 by a 9-year-old boy from a Gaza border community who was hiding in a closet with his 6-year-old sister after their parents had been murdered and older sister was shot.

The dispatcher directs the boy to cover himself and his sister with clothes, to keep as quiet as possible and to put their phones on silent but nearby so they can see if they get a phone call from authorities. 

“The army has closed off access to the area, but we will get there as soon as we can,” the dispatcher tells the boy, calling him “a world champ” for how he was staying calm.

The brother and sister were rescued, as was their older sister who had been shot. The chilling call left nearly all of the participants in tears

“How do you train a dispatcher for that?” Myers said. “I’ve heard that call probably 36 times so far. I still get goose bumps every time.”

The JCC Association solidarity mission stands in front of the Magen David Adom Marcus National Blood Services Center in Ramle, Israel, on Jan. 17, 2024. (Judah Ari Gross/eJewishPhilanthropy)

The delegation also visited areas that were directly affected by the Oct. 7 attacks — the towns of Ofakim and Sderot and Kibbutz Nir Oz — and met with some of their residents.

Kibbutz Nir Oz was one of the hardest-hit communities in the attacks, with a quarter of its population murdered or taken hostage.

Krakow, who has visited several Gaza-border communities since Oct. 7, noted that Nir Oz “for whatever reason, is still largely untouched” by cleanup efforts. 

“The floors and rooms of the homes there are still bloody, 104 days after the attack,” he said. “There’s something incredibly jarring about being led through the homes in Nir Oz by a resident of the community, where every home it was, ‘This was Shifra and Eitan’s home,’ and ‘This is what happened to Galia when she stepped out into the backyard,’  and ‘Here’s where Shimon and Orit hid with their grandchildren.’ There was something incredibly personal and jarring about the site. You literally were stepping over blood spatter after all of these weeks.”

Rabbi David Kessel, a senior vice president at the JCC Association and director of the Mandel Center for Jewish Education, said he “[didn’t] think I fully understood the use of the term ‘pogrom’ to describe what happened [on Oct. 7] until we saw Nir Oz.”

Krakow said that the participants were, of course, aware of the events of Oct. 7, but visiting the sites themselves and meeting with survivors gave them a more visceral understanding of what happened.

“It was heartrending and it feels very, very personal to this group now,” Krakow said. “I think nobody expected the depth of the emotion, the extent of the anguish and the very powerful fact that there wasn’t a single person who we saw who was directly affected by the events of October 7 who didn’t implore [us] to make sure that people know what happened here.”

For some of the participants, the Oct. 7 attacks and the war were already a personal matter.

Betzy Weinblatt-Lynch, CEO of San Diego’s Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center, arrived in Israel ahead of the delegation to meet with residents of the Sha’ar Hanegev region — San Diego’s sister community — many of whom she’d known for years, including the region’s mayor, Ofir Libstein, who was killed on Oct. 7 while defending his hometown of Kibbutz Kfar Aza.

“I visited a few of [the communities from the region] at the different hotels they’ve been evacuated to and I actually went to Kfar Aza as well,” Weinblatt-Lynch told eJP during the mission.

Due to San Diego’s long-standing ties to Sha’ar Hanegev, Weinblatt-Lynch said her community has been holding events and fundraising efforts since the start of the war.

“We had a vigil on Oct. 9, and over 5,000 people came to the JCC,” Weinblatt-Lynch said. “We had thought that if 500 people came, that would be a success. We had no concept of the depth of the relationship [with Sha’ar Hanegev].”

Steve Rogers, CEO of the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly, N.J., an area of the country with a particularly large population of expatriate Israelis, said that his community has taken in a large number of Israelis who temporarily resettled in the U.S. because of the war.

As a result, Rogers’ JCC expanded its daycare program by more than 10% and set up a temporary school for older children until they could be integrated into the public and private school systems; it still runs after-school programs for the temporary Israeli transplants.

In addition to serving as a general leadership seminar, the solidarity mission was meant to impress upon the participants the importance of this hour in Jewish history, said Krakow, who has spent most of the war in Israel, helping his daughter-in-law and newborn grandson as his son has been in reserve duty, serving in Gaza.

“For the 40 people who came on this mission, they understand that they are now first-person witnesses to what happened here, and they must be spokespeople for what they saw and for what they heard,” Krakow said. 

JCC Association CEO Doron Krakow visits Kibbutz Nir Oz, one of the communities that was hardest hit by the Oct. 7 terror attacks, on Jan. 16, 2024. (Courtesy/Lior Mizrachi)

“These are leaders of the most significant institutions that bear responsibility for the strengthening of Jewish community in cities and towns from coast to coast. And the Jewish community is under duress,” he said. 

In order to deepen the connection between JCC communities and Israel, Krakow said the JCC Association is organizing several rounds of visits to JCCs across the country by survivors of the Oct. 7 attacks as part of a program called Giborim (Heroes), after an inaugural tour last month.

“There will be a second, a third and a fourth cycle that are now in the offing,” Krakow said. “We are also bringing musicians from the Sderot music scene through an outfit called Shufuni that will bring remarkable talent from the affected communities to share through their music the way they are managing to deal with the trauma and difficulty.”

Krakow said that he has seen major buy-in from the majority of the roughly 170 JCCs across the United States for this type of Israel programming.

“I think we’re talking about tens of thousands of people that have already participated in these programs, who have seen and heard the Giborim,” Krakow said. “And so [the various JCCs] are voting with their feet relative to their commitment to this idea, which is incredibly gratifying to me and the JCC Association.”

Krakow said the JCC Association plans to bring additional solidarity missions to Israel in the coming months and is already preparing for events in the spring for Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, Memorial Day and Independence Day.

“Our responsibility to grow and build community means embracing a wide circle of North American Jews, including a huge number of expatriate Israelis, and being that place where they can find common ground, where they can feel safe, where they can feel empowered and where they can feel heard,” Krakow said.