Visiting Israel on a national Jewish federations mission, Maxine Murnick said she was disappointed when her group was discouraged from visiting Ofakim, in Israel’s beleaguered South.
“Can you imagine if somebody advised you against going to Millburn or Morris Plains?” she asked.
New Jersey residents visiting Israel during its current clash with Hamas got a close look at what it means to be in Israel when Hamas missiles pour in from Gaza, as air raid sirens sound frequently, and dashes to missile shelters interrupt the mundane activities of daily life.
Murnick, campaign chair for the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, said the overwhelming impression she was left with was “the resiliency of the Israeli people, which is just something to behold.”
Murnick was one of several local leaders — including federation president Leslie Dannin Rosenthal and assistant executive vice president Jeffrey Korbman — visiting Israel on the July 7-13 Campaign Chairs’ and Directors’ Mission of the Jewish Federations of North America. They briefed local Jewish leaders on the situation via a conference call on July 13, as the Greater MetroWest federation launched an Israel Emergency Campaign (see related story).
Individual conversations were conducted by NJJN July 14 with Korbman, Murnick, and Amir Shacham, the federation’s associate executive vice president for Israel and overseas.
Another local leader in Israel was Rabbi Daniel Cohen of Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange, who was one of 20 rabbis on a rabbinic mission sponsored by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
Like those on the federation mission, Cohen spent part of his time crouching in safe rooms, shelters, and hotel stairways and had his itinerary shuffled by the incoming rockets.
“I realized this was something Israelis deal with all the time,” he said on July 14.
His group was meeting with an official at Israel’s Foreign Ministry when a security detail came in and warned them not to leave the room because of incoming missiles.
“It turned out it was a hardened room so other staffers came in,” recalled Cohen. “What made it all the more real was when we stepped outside we could see the trail of where the Iron Dome had taken out the missile.” Israel’s Iron Dome system is said to have intercepted 90 percent of the incoming rockets in recent weeks.
Cohen said he also learned what it was like to walk into a building and immediately look for its shelters.
Seth Davidson, who grew up in Westfield, returned from a Birthright Israel trip July 3. He found it comforting that “Israelis were pretty chill” about the sirens in both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
“If we could get to a bomb shelter we went there, but if not we went into a stairwell with reinforced concrete and stayed there for 10 minutes,” said Davidson, 25, a financial consultant now living in Arlington, Va. The son of Sharon Lisman and Glenn Davidson, he grew up in Temple Emanu-El in Westfield.
“From what we heard about the Iron Dome and Israelis not getting hurt, I wasn’t really scared,” said Davidson. “But what did scare me was that people kept telling me it was safe. The more they told me that, the more afraid I became.”
Korbman recalled how a colleague who had gone to Sderot, near Gaza, watched an 11-year-old girl sit down in the middle of a bomb shelter and begin to cry.
“It’s very hard on a young person to process what’s going on around them,” said Korbman. “It’s been terrific as a community that we can help our partner communities build kid-friendly shelters so they can at least have a friendly environment.”
Many living close to Gaza have been hearing the constant blare of sirens and “have been virtually living in safe rooms,” said Shacham.
Others have left for Arad, some 30 miles away, which through the Jewish Agency for Israel’s Partnership2Gether program, is supported by many of New Jersey’s Jewish federations.
At Kibbutz Erez, only a half-mile from Gaza, safety improvements and services provided by Greater MetroWest have helped residents cope, while in Ofakim, a GMW partner community, security officials have made every effort to protect its citizens and the “atmosphere is very uplifting,” Shacham said. Greater MetroWest also has partnerships with Merchavim and Ra’anana.
Shacham said Israelis are feeling “strong and determined” thanks to the Iron Dome. The system’s effect “is amazing because it makes our identity much stronger. We are not in a state of panic. We are not in a state of anxiety.”
Although the mission ended on July 13, Murnick, Korbman, and Dannin Rosenthal stayed two extra days to visit Hurfeish, a partner Druze community by the Lebanese border.
Dannin Rosenthal said the best word to describe what she has seen in Israel is “resiliency. Israelis are doing their best to maintain their daily routine, although they check their phones constantly on the Red Alert app to see where the rocket attacks are happening.”
During the first red alert she experienced on the group’s first morning in Tel Aviv, she said, “the announcement came from the hotel’s PA system, ‘Dear guests, you can now return to your normal routine.’
“For the last six days, we, like our Israeli friends and partners, have adjusted as needed and as best as possible, and enjoyed this beautiful, amazing, resilient country.”
Cohen said he thought of how the Iron Dome, developed by Israel and funded in large part by the United States, had saved Jerusalem.
“I’m really proud of the leadership of the U.S. for its support of Israel,” said Cohen, acknowledging he was troubled by the “anti-Israel antagonism” found in blogs and media accounts of the situation.
His group also visited Rivka Ziv Medical Center in Safed, which has treated more than 600 Syrians injured in its civil strife. There they met a 12-year-old Syrian boy shot by a sniper.
The boy’s father said they could not get treatment in Syria and that a vascular surgeon at Ziv saved his son’s legs from amputation.
The father said that “since the day he was born he had been taught Israelis were bad; they were the devil,” said Cohen. “Now his opinion is starting to change.”
Two hours after the group left, said Cohen, a mortar fired from Syria landed in the Golan Heights.