Fresh from a solidarity mission to Israel, Stanley Stone, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, described it as “a roller-coaster ride” between moments of calm and the red alerts that warn of Hamas rocket attacks.
Stone was one of 60 people on a trip sponsored by Jewish Federations of North America.
He and four other representatives from Greater MetroWest began their mission on Aug. 17 at its Partnership2Gether communities in the Negev — Ofakim-Merchavim and Kibbutz Erez — “which have been particularly impacted by the war,” Stone said.
In Ofakim, he said, the group visited a shelter that had been converted into a playroom that children use throughout the year. This way “when they have to go into it as a shelter they don’t have a sense of being entrapped and frightened,” Stone told NJ Jewish News in an Aug 25 phone interview.
At Erez, a half-mile from the Gaza border, “the people we met told us they don’t have adequate bullet-proof vests, and that is something we could provide,” said fellow group member Rachelle Winters of Morris Plains.
At the constantly shelled city of Sderot, both of them were impressed by the new Sha’ar Hanegev High School. “It has three buildings that are all bomb-proofed, with no windows facing Gaza,” Stone said.
“You wouldn’t know the classrooms are shelters, but they are,” Winters added.
In Sderot they also watched what Stone called “the incredible work” of the Israel Trauma Coalition, and observed a therapist working with newly arrived Ethiopian children to help them cope with the red alerts.
When the visitors arrived in Israel, an all-too-temporary cease-fire was in place.
“We went from a relaxing mood to people being very uptight,” Stone said. “On Tuesday at 4 p.m., while en route to Herzliya to visit the family of fallen soldier Etan Barak, there was an alert and everybody was stunned.”
Barak, 20, was killed in a firefight at a Hamas-built tunnel in Gaza. “His parents told us he helped to prevent a major disaster from happening,” said Stone.
In the P2G community of Rishon Letzion, group members stopped to offer condolences to the family of another fallen soldier, 21-year-old Matan Gotlib. Gotlib, who was killed on July 30 during another search for tunnels, had participated in a federation-sponsored youth training program called the Diller Teen Fellows.
“When we asked his entire family if they had any regrets they said, ‘Absolutely not. This is what he needed to do. We hope for peace and we don’t hate, but this cannot continue. We are very proud our son put his life on the line,’” Stone quoted them as saying.
Once the official mission was over, Winters and her husband, Stephen, visited Tel Aviv and were forced to take shelter twice.
“I wasn’t horribly scared because I have faith in the Iron Dome system, but it makes you nervous,” she told NJJN. “When I heard a siren I got a little bit jumpy, so you can understand how their trauma develops, day-in and day-out.”
In an e-mail to friends at home, Lewis Schwarz of Randolph, another mission member, also wrote of red alerts and other potential dangers.
“The threat of overhead ordnance is just the tip of the iceberg. The blasts occur; usually, no one is hurt, and that’s it. On the other hand, the tunnels, some several kilometers long and very deep, often 35-40 feet, are terrifying,” he wrote.
And yet, he added, “the residents of southern Israel are remaining to harvest crops, assure education, and to proudly resist this horrible war.”
Also taking part in the mission was Kenneth Mandelbaum of Short Hills, who is active in the federation’s real estate professionals’ group.