Israel and Hamas were honoring a cease-fire when 25 Jews from Livingston — most of them members of the Synagogue of the Suburban Torah Center — visited Israel between Aug. 5 and 8.
But despite the lull in combat operations, they found a country on high alert and nursing the physical and psychic wounds of a month of fighting.
In the embattled city of Sderot, they met a woman who escaped injury after her home had been badly damaged by a rocket launched from Gaza, a half-mile away.
They delivered pizza to the troops at a nearby Iron Dome outpost and viewed nearby Gaza from the roof of a yeshiva for army recruits.
“We could see the Gaza border, and the realities of life for the people of Sderot were extraordinarily clear,” Rabbi Eliezer Mischel wrote in one of four daily e-mails he sent to his congregants back in New Jersey. “Nevertheless, almost everyone we met in Sderot was upbeat; the strength of these people — our people — was truly inspiring.”
The visitors from the Orthodox synagogue handed out care packages at an army base in Gush Etzion and filled in for on-duty reservists by doing agricultural work at Moshav Orot in southern Israel.
But what made their trip “most extraordinary” was their visit to 41 wounded soldiers at Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer in Ramat Gan, said Mischel.
“They were really incredible guys that you don’t see in the newspaper or watching TV,” he said. “They are incredibly confident that they won this war. It was inspiring and humbling. These guys are 18 and 19 years old, and some of them had terrible injuries, but they treated them very lightly. They totally played down their injuries and their sacrifice.”
In an Aug. 18 phone interview, Mischel told NJ Jewish News that during the visit his group “did not make one touristy stop. The main reason for the trip was interpersonal contact with soldiers so that they should feel loved and supported by people around the world.”
The IDF soldiers they visited, Mischel said, “were amazed that we came there just to see them. We explained to them that we were the messengers from a much larger community. It was very powerful for the soldiers to hear.”
But, he said, the mission made an even greater impact on his congregants.
“We come there, hand out some money, and go back to America, while these guys are putting their lives on the line. Our contribution is much easier, but easy does not mean unimportant. We touched their lives in whatever small way we could, but I think we were touched more than they were. We gained a lot more than they did,” Mischel said.