Whether they were visiting Israel on a national Jewish federation mission, studying, or on a personal trip, residents of Middlesex and Monmouth counties have seen firsthand the devastating effects the war with Hamas has been having on the economy and psyches of Israelis.
Cantor Bruce Rockman of Congregation B’nai Tikvah in North Brunswick is spending July in ulpan at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem.
Only minutes after landing, he had to dash to a stairwell in Ben-Gurion Airport as a siren wailed, giving him an immediate taste of what Israelis go through every day.
And while few sirens sounded in Jerusalem, where he is studying, Rockman has the red alert app on his tablet signaling incoming missiles. During a phone conversation from Israel with NJJN, the alarm sounded several times.
“That’s 37 times so far today,” Rockman said.
He said he was supposed to be joined by his wife and two young children but the couple was uncomfortable bringing the youngsters, in part because they didn’t want them to get a skewed impression of what life is like in Israel.
“I spend a lot of time walking,” said Rockman. “The merchants are very distressed because their business is shot.”
Leonard Posnock of Monroe was on the July 14-20 Campaigners’ Mission of Jewish Federations of North America. While he saw little panic, he was struck by how few tourists were there at the height of the season.
“The hotels were empty, the restaurants were empty,” said Posnock just days after his return. “Tourism is a big industry in Israel, so it hurts a lot of people. Every place we went to, people thanked us for coming,” said the former cochair of the New Jersey-Israel Commission and leader of the former Central NJ Jewish federation.
However, it was the gratitude expressed by the wounded Israel Defense Forces soldiers at Soroka Medical Center in Be’er Sheva that particularly made an impression on Posnock.
“One soldier, a commander, asked me if I had heard anything about his group,” said Posnock. “The unity and camaraderie were unbelievable. I saw another kid who couldn’t be more than 20, 21, his hands torn up and body filled with shrapnel. His face had been ripped apart. I held myself back from crying. I waited until I got to the hallway.”
While he never went to a bomb shelter, Posnock estimated the sirens went off about six times while they were on the road, necessitating a quick pullover to the side.
“My hands and knees can testify to the fact they hit pavement,” said Posnock. He said he was told to scramble away from the car to avoid being struck by flying shrapnel should the vehicle be hit.
Along with Posnock on the mission was Sarah Portilla, development manager of philanthropy and missions to Israel for the Jewish Federation of Monmouth County, and Stephen Juro of Kendall Park, a supporter of Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County.
Portilla was also taken aback by the effusive thanks she received at every turn from Israelis. “Here I was, there for a week, and these people were living this every single day,” she said, from the Monmouth federation office in Holmdel. “I thought I should be thanking them for living there and facing rockets flying over their heads every day.”
Portilla said she has friends in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem who have between 15 to 90 seconds to get to a shelter when the sirens go off. She wasn’t able to meet with another friend who had to fill in at her company for coworkers who had been called into military service.
“That means lost productivity for businesses,” said Portilla. “Those left behind when half the staff has been called are overworked and stressed as they try to hold up the business.”
Juro said the group spent two days each in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and in the North, seeing firsthand projects funded by the federations. He described hearing a siren as the group was boarding a bus at their hotel at Tel Aviv, as they went inside and crouched in a stairwell.
“It was a little unnerving, especially when you come outside and see that vapor trail,” he said. The psychological effects of those unrelenting rockets was evident everywhere.
“You could feel the tension in terms of people talking about it constantly or people telling stories about what happened to them…or what they read in the media,” said Juro.
Jewish Federation of Monmouth County executive director Keith Krivitzky went on a “personal solidarity mission” from July 17 to 22 to be with friends who were feeling isolated as missiles rained down on them.
“Pretty much everyone is stressed and anxious,” said Krivitzky. “But what is really important to highlight is that Israel is one big extended family. Everyone knows someone who’s been called up to the army.”
He said it was vital for those not in Israel to also view Israelis as extended family.
“I think if people know people there they need to reach out to them,” he said. “I think people need to find a way to connect with Israel.”