Participants on a women’s mission to Israel were proud to show support for its people and soldiers during Israel’s clash with Hamas in Gaza.
Seven women from Middlesex and 11 from Monmouth, affiliated, respectively, with Torah Links of Middlesex and Monmouth counties, took part in the tour, which had been planned before hostilities broke out in early July.
The trip was organized by the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project, which is affiliated with Torah Links, an Orthodox outreach organization operating in East Brunswick in Middlesex and Marlboro in Monmouth County.
The group of 270 women included participants from Australia, Canada, and the United States. Originally, 400 had been scheduled to take part, but many cancelled over security concerns, including five from Middlesex and two from Monmouth.
Toby Oratz, a leader for the Monmouth contingent, said meetings were held before the trip to address security concerns and inform women what to do if they heard a siren alerting them to an incoming missile. Additional security guards were hired.
“Ultimately it was up to each individual to decide if they wanted to go,” said Oratz, the wife of Monmouth Torah links codirector Rabbi Yitzhok Oratz. “We didn’t pressure or judge anyone at all.”
The group stuck to its original schedule, with the exception of a Friday night program that was to have taken place at the Kotel in Jerusalem.
“There was some unrest in the Old City and they didn’t want to put us in danger, so we had the same program in another location,” said Chanie Gross, a leader of the Middlesex contingent. She described the overall experience as “very surreal.”
“People were calling up from home asking, ‘Are you okay?’ but we didn’t hear any sirens and never had to go to a shelter,” said Gross, the wife of Middlesex Torah Links codirector Rabbi Yitzhok Gross. “People were just going on about their business in Jerusalem.”
Barbara Safer of Old Bridge was on her first trip to Israel.
“Prior to going I was nervous,” she acknowledged. “But my family and friends encouraged me to go and once I arrived in Israel I was calm and began to enjoy myself.”
What struck Safer were the reactions of Israelis, particularly business owners affected by the dearth of tourists. “The people were so glad and grateful to see us,” she said. “We were hailed as heroes, and most of the stores gave us ‘war discounts.’”
Lisa Sachs of East Brunswick said she was “blessed to be there in solidarity with our people in Israel.” She also noticed that the streets were packed with Israelis, but few tourists. “We shopped a lot,” she said. “You put hundreds of Jewish women in Israel, and they can do a number for the economy. “
Michele Klotzin of Manalapan, on her first trip to Israel, said it was made even more special by her becoming a bat mitzva at the Kotel.
“I’ll always remember how blessed we all were to come to Israel at this time,” she said.
In addition to visiting such places as Yad Vashem, the Western Wall, and Masada, the women made hesed stops at an orphanage, a home for the elderly, and a program supporting terror victims. At an army base, they handed out gifts, cards, and such basics as toiletries and underwear. They also attended lectures on principles of Torah.
It felt “like a spiritual spa,” said Sachs.
Rachel Frenkel, whose son Naftali was one of three yeshiva students whose kidnapping and murder was one of the precipitating events of the war, addressed the group.
“There was an audible gasp when she was introduced,” recalled Gross. “Her tragedy was so fresh and yet she was willing to share with us. She told us she didn’t know why it happened but she trusts in God and knows there’s a reason. Even though her family has been tremendously affected she could tell her other children they will be happy as a family once again and they will be okay.
“We couldn’t believe a woman who has been through such a tragedy was so happy, smiling, and positive. It was inspiring, and we were all crying.”
Terry Stein of Freehold was impressed with the lack of bitterness Frenkel displayed toward the Palestinians, recalling that she said, “We have to learn to live with one another.”
A visit to Mount Herzl, where they saw the fresh graves of soldiers killed in action, was “very emotional,” said Gross. “A lot of women on the trip have children the same age safe back home in America. These boys gave their lives for their country.”
Rikki Samel of Highland Park saw her son Menachem, a sergeant in the Israel Defense Forces who had served in Gaza (see related story), and daughter-in-law Chevie for the first time since January. The couple spent Shabbat with the group.
“He thanked God for protecting him and his fellow soldiers,” said Samel. “He spoke about the overwhelming support the soldiers had received from Jews all over the world from all walks of life. The ahdut [unity] was palpable.”
She said Israelis are overwhelmingly in support of the war effort because “it’s something they have to do to secure Israel and make it a safe place.”
NJJN writer Alan Richman contributed to this story.