Friday, February 20, 2009
We visited a yeshiva (Torah academy) in both Ashdod and Sderot, spent a night in a hotel in Ashkelon, visited injured soldiers and civilians at the Be'er Sheva Soroka Trauma Center, met soldiers in an army base in Kfar Maimon and tried to comfort trauma victims in Sderot. I had the opportunity to see firsthand both the impact of the rocket fire on the daily lives of Israeli citizens and the solidarity and unity of my Jewish brethren in Israel.Allow me to share a few examples of how Israel has been impacted by the rocket fire. Unfortunately, because the Hamas rockets are weapons of terror that hit random targets, many schools in the south were closed as a precautionary measure since the beginning of the Israeli operation to stop the rocket fire.
The Be'er Sheva Soroka Trauma Center had to move entire unprotected units of the hospital (such as geriatric & neonatal care) to makeshift areas because of the threat of rocket attacks. When we visited Sderot, we were told that if we hear a "red alert" siren, we have 10 seconds to find a bomb shelter and if we could not locate one in time, then we should lay flat on the ground... and pray. Nobody in Sderot wears seat belts, because if the red alert siren goes off, then removing a seat belt can take a precious extra second or two. In the community of Nitzan (another community in southern Israel), for a long period of time, the members of the community could not gather together to pray because there was no community center that was rocket-proof so the government did not allow groups of individuals to gather together in an unprotected area should a rocket hit that area. In Sderot, I went to the house of a trauma victim, Chana Chadida, who has lived in Sderot for her entire life. The houses of her brothers and her parents were all damaged by rockets and even though nobody was killed, she is traumatized. She has difficulty sleeping; she dreams about "red alerts" at night; music used to fill her home but now she cannot listen to music for fear that she won't hear the red alert siren. She is too scared to travel outside Sderot for fear of being hit by rockets. She told me to tell my community in Oceanside that "hahayim po aino hayim" - life here is not really life. My short visit to Israel made me witness firsthand how the lives of regular citizens had been turned upside-down by a terrorist state after Israel unilaterally had made the difficult decision to evacuate its citizens from Gaza three and a half years ago.
Fortunately, I was privileged to witness the unity and strength and support that Israelis have for each other, for the sick, for the wounded, for its soldiers and for this difficult operation to deal with a terrorist state that uses human shields to protect itself and then claims that Israel is committing war crimes. We visited the home in Sderot of a Rabbi, named Rabbi Tawil. This home had been hit and damaged a few days earlier by a Kassam rocket. A foreign news reporter then interviewed Rabbi Tawil and asked him if this attack reminded him of something, thinking that this attack meant to recall the unfortunate pogroms and persecutions that our people have endured for 2000 years. Rabbi Tawil explained that this attack did not remind him of pogroms or persecutions - why? Because we're fighting back. "It's okay if we are hit by a rocket," said Rabbi Tawil, "if we are fighting back. But if we don't fight back, then it would remind us of persecutions and pogroms."
My trip to Israel was a trip of solidarity and unity with my Jewish brethren of Israel, but it also was a time when I had the opportunity to witness firsthand the sacrifice that the average Israeli citizen endures simply by living in our ancient homeland and that sacrifice makes me beam with pride.
Saturday, January 24, 2009
people grab an old man an urge him to run to the shelter.
That old man was me and we were running for our lives just inside the Saroka Hospital in Beer Sheva.
I reached the shelter off the main lobby and I stopped for breath.
It is so difficult to describe the emotions that tore through my mind as I stood with patients nurses, and the members of our group.
First and foremost, I felt great fear.
I had spent 7 years in the U.S. Army Reserve some 50 years ago,
But I had never had to fire a shot in anger. More important, this was the first time that anybody was shooting at me.
Then I felt anger.
How could this beautiful hospital,
with all of these patients
Israeli, Palestinian and Bedouins
be a target for terror by Grad missals.
Three rockets had already struck near the hospital in the last five days.
Could this be the one that hits?
But then something wonderful happened.
Rabbi Uri Topolsky,
one of the 18 Modern Orthodox rabbis that I was traveling with;
took up his guitar and began to play a popular Israeli folk song.
Before you knew it, we were clapping hands, and dancing in the bomb shelter.
I was amazed to see the nurses and patients join in.
There we were,
a community formed in a bomb shelter.
I had experienced fear that I could not show.
Anger that I could not express.
And finally tears of joy and celebration
all in the span of 5 minutes.
I had tasted war Israeli style.
We were in the Negev on a JNF sponsored solidarity mission of Modern Orthodox rabbis,
Joined by some of their fellow Modern Orthodox rabbis from Israel.
I keep saying Modern Orthodox because
In contrast to Haredi rabbis
these rabbis are ardent Zionists who have fought in all the Israeli wars.
Some of them were wearing pistols for our protection. There must be a song about pistol-packin rabbis.
They all spoke perfect Ivrit and they were the best interpreters that I had ever had in Israel.
This was my 68th trip to Israel since 1973 and my Hebrew skills have never gone beyond being able to find a bathroom.
We were visiting wounded soldiers in the hospital.
We were split into small groups as we went on our visit.
I remember that four of us were crowded in a small room with a soldier and his parents.
He was badly bruised and his left leg was broken in several places.
We were the first Americans that had visited him and he wanted to tell his story.
He went on to tell us that he was saved by a miracle.
He was searching for the bad guys in an apartment house near Gaza city.
He was on the third floor balcony around midnight of his first day of combat.
Suddenly, a blast occurred inside of the apartment.
He was blown off of the balcony and was falling head-first for the street below.
He felt that he was going to land on his head and would surly die on that dark night in Gaza.
Suddenly his left leg hit one of the balconies below and he was spun around.
He landed on his back with his backpack and ceramic plated flak Jack hitting first.
His leg was badly broken but he was alive. He told the rabbis that HaShem had wanted him to live. I left that room with the picture of his parents
both crying with tears of joy.
After our brief stint in one of the hospital shelters,
we hopped on our bus and headed for the border of Gaza.
We began to see and hear the sounds of war,
so our guide gave us our security briefing.
In every village or town that we stopped in, there was a system of siren warnings.
There was always a shelter nearby.
If we were on the bus and not near a siren, we had a signal that would be sent by radio to the bus.
If there was a missal in our vicinity
we were instructed to jump off the bus and lay face down besides the road.
The funny thing was---nobody seemed rattled.
I saw workers going to and from their jobs as if everything was normal.
There was a war going on two kilometers away and nobody seemed to give a damn.
You should note that the Israelis had invested huge sums of money in shelters since the Gaza pull out.
Every bus stop was made of reinforced concrete.
Every house and building had a shelter built in
Human life was sacred in Israel,
but so was the people’s determination to live life as usual and hang on in Eretz Israel.
By the way
The Hamas had not invested one penny in civilian protection
What does that tell you about our enemy?
We drove down to a temporary tank base on the Gaza border.
We visited soldiers from the Golani Brigade.
These were tough-battle hardened army veterans who seemed thrilled to see us.
I couldn’t understand why they were so happy to see me. Then I found out why.
We had brought them precious gifts---
Under wear and socks.
This was like gold to the combat soldier.
One of them told me that he grabbed his back-pack from his Tel Aviv apartment
and headed for war.
The army had issued him 2 pairs of socks and two pair of boxers.
He thought he was going into combat for just two days.
For the next 14 days they lived in or next to their tank. They had come out the day before we arrived.
You would have thought we were Santa Claus.
Well I guess not Santa Claus.
But they loved us just the same.
I was talking to one tall blonde and blue eyed tanker.
He looked more like a Norwegian ski instructor than an Israeli.
But he was Sabra through and through.
He told me that the army never targeted civilians.
But that was very difficult because Hamas used that Israeli trait to hide behind women and children.
School rooms, Mosques and dense civilian populations were the best place to ambush Israeli soldiers.
Even though the Army dropped leaflets and made phone calls to the enemy
an hour before their attack,
He knew that they had still had to fire on some non-combatants.
This was tragedy
But it was war
When Hamas killed Israeli children then they won. And when they lost their own children
---they would still win.
I must tell you that in spite of it all
----the morale among soldiers was sky high.
Two and one-half years ago
I was on the northern border between Israel and Lebanon in 2006.
the war had just ended.
I knew some of the soldiers that had fought in that war.
On the nights just after the cease fire we had long discussions about the conduct of that engagement.
In some cases they were not properly equipped.
Many of their high ranking officers seemed confused about their mission.
They kept changing tactics and goals everyday.
Their intelligence had not prepared them for the strength of Hezbolla.
Two and one half years later it was a totally different story.
The call up of reserves showed a compliance rate of 115%.
Even those with exemptions wanted to fight.
Many were sent home.
The intelligence was extraordinary.
Shin Bet had done its job.
Today, as we speak, there are scores of murders going on by Hamas
because they are convinced of security breaches.
And in many cases
they are probably correct.
Our tanks were equipped with new electronic anti-tank rocket deterrence.
Our soldiers were fully equipped.
And best of all,
The soldiers that I talked to had complete confidence in their military leaders.
I could see it their eves.
The soldiers that I met Wednesday before last were ready and able to go back into combat.
After our stay with the army we arrived in Sderot.
Sderot is a town of 30,000 people on the border with Gaza.
Today, after eight years
and 4500 Quassam rockets,
it is now a town of 20,000 determined people.
A lot of the people
who could afford it,
had moved north.
Hamas was determined to destroy the will of the people of Sderot.
We saw homes and businesses all struck by rockets.
Actually, the Quassam rocket war head is not designed to destroy most buildings.
It is designed to spread terror.
In every Quassam war head there are as many as 500 ball bearings.
After the explosion, you can easily see the pattern of ball bearing smashing into the nearby walls.
These rockets are designed to maim and shock its victims.
When we arrived in Sderot
we received our ubiquitous security briefing.
Only this time we were told that we had only 8 seconds to run for shelter because Sderot was only 1 kilometer away from the Gaza border.
I can’t even get up out of a chair in 8 seconds.
But again everybody seemed calm and collected.
We broke into very small groups and we went to visit different homes that had been damaged in Sderot.
We were met by a delightful family who had moved from Morocco to Sderot in 1960.
They were incredibly hospitable.
Best Berekas I ever tasted.
The parents couldn’t speak a word of English,
But two of their four children were fairly fluent.
The rabbis came to my rescue again as I talked to Abba.
He had moved to Sderot as a very young child.
This was the only home town he could remember.
His house had been hit four times in the past 5 years.
You cannot imagine the terror that these people had survived.
They broke my heart when they told me that we were the first visitors that they had in a long time. Even their own family would not travel to Sderot to be with them.
Abba had been wounded twice,
but that alone cannot describe the terror that they had experienced.
We saw where they slept every night.
They did not trust that the warning siren would give them enough time, to get out of bed and head for the safe room.
So all 6 of them slept in the small safe room in the center of the home.
The 6 mattresses literally filled the room.
As Abba was talking,
I kept wondering how we could fit all 10 of us in that tiny room.
His was story of true Zionism.
He understood what kind of victory the Hamas wanted, and he was determined not to give it to them.
If this town was anywhere else in the world, it would probably have been evacuated by now.
But this is Eretz Israel. If they left Sderot,
What would be next.---Tel Aviv.
This is not just a problem for Israel.
This would be disaster for Jews everywhere.
For that matter the whole world.
Just as John Kennedy once said that he was Ein Berliner
I believe that you and I must become citizens of Sderot.
Our people have waited 2000 years to return to Israel.
This is our time to stand up
And declare that we have returned
If not in body
Then at least in spirit
Even if you will never visit Israel, the Negev, or Sderot , you are here and now a citizen of Sterodt.
The Jewish National Fund understands this stake that we have.
That is why we have launched Operation Security Blanket: southern Israel.
We are funding a secure indoor recreation center in the middle of Sderot.
My family and I visited this indoor center last August.
It was a thrill to see how much progress had been made in a few short months.
This project was conceived last April and will be open for Purim
The mayor had told me that this is what they needed to get the kids out of their homes and go to a secure place to play.
This will be the largest and best of its kind in Israel.
The families that we talked to cannot wait for the play-ground to open.
In safe times and dangerous time this will serve as a magnet for the kids of Sderot
and the returning families
after a cease fire is secured.
The money that we raise through Operation Security Blanket will be used to fund this play ground
Operation Security Blanket will provide the following:
To send families from SDerot to JNF summer camps to provide respite from the constant attacks.
To build a new fire station in Sderot and provide five new fire engines for the southern Negev.
That is in addition to the 78 fire engines we have already provided since the last Lebonan war.
To build a new security road along the border with Gaza to protect the area’s residents as they travel to work and school.
We must do all of this and still maintain our commitments to Beer Sheva and Alle Negev as part of our plans for Blue Print Negev.
I know who I am talking to.
I am there with you.
Many of us are not financially in the same place that we were a year ago.
But this is when we the Jewish people reach for new heights.
We have shown that we can handle what ever comes our way.
We may or my not be the Chosen People but we are a special people.
You should know who I am
I am passionate giver to the Jewish National Fund
Therefore, I am a passionate fundraiser
I feel very much a part of our fight to return to and to hold on to this tiny precious land called Israel.
In the gentlest way that I can
I am asking you to join me in support of our fund
Give to Operation Security Blanket
Let us take on this sacred task together.
I would like to leave you with one more poignant memory of my forty-eight hours in the Negev.
Our group stayed the night the in Sderot Hesder Yeshiva.
In fact, we slept in cots in a very cold but very safe bomb shelter at the Yeshiva.
I don’t know which was louder
The sounds of war a kilometer away or the snoring of my rabbis.
The kids in this Yeshiva were fantastic.
At Hesder yeshivot
kids studies for 2 years after high school
and then they go to the army for two years.
Most of them choose combat units.
They come back to the Yeshiva after service to finish their rabbinic training
As I said, these kids are special.
They have been an anchor to the beleaguered town of Sderot.
They spend much of their time performing acts of kindness for the people of the town.
Because of them
I will leave you with one beautiful picture.
I climbed up six flights of stairs to be with the boys on the roof of the main building.
I looked out towards Gaza
On that crystal clear night
and I saw and heard the war that was going on that Wednesday night,
The rabbi spoke and then the boys began to sing and dance.
This time I just stood there and drank it in.
I suddenly had a feeling Hamas was watching us.
They were trying to terrorize our people and drive them out of the Promised Land.
And instead of being terrified, these boys were dancing.
Through my tears I looked up to sky to ask a simple question.
When will the world know that our word is stronger than their sword?
Friday, January 16, 2009
January 15, 2009
I ended my last email with a naïve hope that I would be getting some sleep in the Kurtzberg home in Sderot. But let me ask you, how do you possibly shut your eyes when you know that if a rocket is launched from Gaza you have exactly ten seconds to get into a shelter?
I watched a YouTube video yesterday depicting a young girl playing hide and seek – counting down from fifteen (- as the rockets have improved, the time has been reduced to ten seconds since this film was made). During those fifteen seconds you see all the children running… but when the counting is over, all you hear is a big boom. Just to give you a sense of how short those seconds might be.
So there I am, in our chazzan Ofer’s bedroom, two floors above their private shelter. Could you wake yourself up quickly enough, in the dead of sleep, and get down those two flights, in the dark, in time? Would you even be awake enough to hear the air raid siren within ten seconds?
It’s not easy to sleep your first time in Sderot…
Frankly, it’s not easy to sleep any night in Sderot for the past eight years.
One family we met, the Da’ans, have slept for the past two years, every night, in the private shelter in their basement. Just to give you an idea, these shelters are about 8x8 feet square. It’s only enough to squeeze three little cots side by side. The Da’ans are a family of six. Abba and Eema, Eden(18 yrs), Lidor(16), Morag(13), and Zohar(8). Every night, for the past two years, they sleep on top of each other in their shelter, because they’re too afraid to sleep anywhere else. Here is a picture of Eden and Zohar in their decorated shelter. Zohar is holding some of the stuffed animals I gave her. (Special thanks to Shoshana!)
Let me get back to that Ten Seconds.
In case, you are still confused, allow me to explain. I had the unfortunate personal opportunity to count down from ten yesterday morning at about 8:00am. I was outside the Yeshiva in Sderot, packing my bags up to move on to our next destination, when the siren blared, “TZEVAH ADOM! TZEVAH ADOM!” – “RED ALERT! RED ALERT!”
It was the first time I had heard an alert in Sderot and I was confused for a moment. That cost me three seconds. Suddenly everyone was shouting, “RATZ B’FNIM!” -“RUN INSIDE!” I turned to run with them. Six seconds left.
I was first to the building just about 35 feet away (I’ll credit that to my long legs and the adrenaline rush), and I tried to push the door open when I was supposed to pull.
3 seconds left.
I pulled and about 13 of us rushed inside.
0 seconds left.
Our eyes opened wide. This was very real.
The yeshiva students, seasoned to this experience, headed right back outside. Those in our group were still frozen in shock in our places. A good thing too, because immediately, another TZEVAH ADOM ALERT went off, and they all rushed back inside.
Ten seconds later, the BOOM was much louder, which meant it was much closer. We felt the ground shake upon impact.
Last night, as we watched the news, we discovered that the second rocket went through the living room wall of a family in Sderot. The family was home, but miraculously, nobody was hurt… at least physically.
Oh, did I mention that the rockets are each filled with ball bearings, so that when they explode, steel balls shoot out from the point of impact? You can see those ball bearing marks throughout the city...
Every resident we met in Sderot spoke of the countless miracles they’ve experienced surviving these rocket attacks. But of course, not everyone has survived and the entire city is traumatized for life. Young children have grown up only knowing a world of raining rockets. Right now, one million Israeli residents are within the 40 kilometer range of Hamas’ terror. How do you live like that?
Eden Da’an is now in her first year of National Service and is teaching in a school in Sderot (post-high school women have the choice of enlisting in the army or serving in the National Service program – a non-military option). Eden told me that she could have chosen any place in the country to serve – and even in America. But she chose to stay in Sderot (after sleeping two years with her entire family in a shelter!).
In her words, “I did not want to leave Sderot remembering it only as a place of terror. This was my beautiful home for 18 years. I wanted to stay as long as it would take until I could learn to confront my fear and overcome it. So here I am.”
By the way, all schools within 40 kilometers of Gaza are currently closed. Eden spends her days indoors at home, hoping…
This is my final email from our mission. I leave with a new awakening of the situation in Southern Israel. An intimate awareness of the daily life of residents in Ashkelon, Ashdod, Sderot, Gediera, and Be’er Sheva. I have a better sense of what is going on in the minds of our young, holy soldiers as they hope they won't have to discharge their weapons each day. I have met countless individuals and organizations who spend their time trying to help provide a unique form of support. And I have seen with my own eyes a country that just wants peace, struggling to live next to neighbors that just want us pushed into the sea.
How do we respond?
In so many ways, but let me share with you briefly a few that I encountered:
We visited Carmit - which is just acres of dirt in the desert, but will soon be the next big city of the South. One member of our mission, Rabbi Asher Lopatin in Chicago, has already signed up with the Carmit planning officials to make Aliyah there in two years, hoping to bring 50 families with him and build more Jewish homes in the Holy Land. Let's turn the swords into plowshears! Here is a picture of myself and Rabbi Lopatin doing a mock ground breaking of where his home might one day be.
Another response: to respond to Terror with love. Here is a picture of a mini shelter in the new town of Nitzan - created with caravans to house the residents that were expelled from Gush Katif in a move to give land for peace to the Palestinians. Today, rockets are being launched from the former homes of Jews in Gush Katif and landing throughout Southern Israel. Residents of one such former town, Nisnit, have painted their mini shelter with peaceful doves and their town's hebrew name on its side.
Someone I know in Philadelphia put together this YouTube video - his attempt at a response to terror raining down on our people: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E4FBQKmcvgo
Here is a picture of me with soldiers from the Tank Brigade operating in Gaza. We brought them warm fleeces, new underwear (they can spend up to 2 weeks in Gaza without fresh clothes), warm hats and gloves, and homebaked chocolate chip cookies :)
Here I am with Ohr, the Israeli soldier who I mentioned in my last email, who has shrapnel wounds throughout his abdomen from a mortar attack. He and sang together with his family songs of peace, healing, and strength. This humble Rabbi can only fight war with love and a guitar!
And one final treat... 3 of Ofer's siblings - Ariel, Orit, and Meirav, during our late night kumzitz in their home in Sderot. I couldn't sleep, so we sat up late and played!
Thanks for taking the time to read through this whole email... I plan to return on Monday, January 19th, and I will speak about my experiences next Shabbat. Miss you all... especially my beautiful family.
Blessings and Shabbat Shalom,
Meeting with a commander form the Golani Brigade and getting ready to hand him books of letters from RMBA students to Israeli Soldiers.
Talking to Lee’els mother and mother-in-law
Talking to Lee’els commander
Participants of the mission saying Tehillim for Lee’el Cohen
Photo of myself and my chavrutah, one of the students at Yeshivat Hesder Neve Dikalim where we stopped on the first day to study, eat dinner and begin our ongoing dialogue with the rabbis of Tzohar. The yeshivah is now situated in Ashdod after its beautiful building in Gush Katif was destroyed following the pullout.
Our 40 hour mission was to visit those wounded in the recent rocket attacks, comfort mourners, sleep with the people in their bomb shelters and study torah with them in schools only 10 seconds by missile from the border. I expected a country war torn, angry and depressed, but instead I saw one of nobility and spiritual vision. One that is continually being built, infused with moral and spiritual vision.
I saw that only in a Jewish land can the living of torah in the every day facilitate the emergence of Judaism’s values and meaning into the real world. The torah of Israel is not like the torah of the Diaspora, which is often simply a proscription for doing all things ritual and interpersonal. The torah of Israel is much more and only it has the potential to be, as God explicitly commanded each of our forefathers, a blessing, “to all the peoples of the world.”
One small example of which I experienced many: The city of Lod has become over the past 30 years an inner city blighted by Arab drug trade, some violence, the influx of many poor Jewish immigrants and much “white flight” to newer suburbs; over the past 10 years though 200 religious Jewish families have moved to Lod. In conversation with the rabbi of the community, in his comfortable but modest home, I asked why religious Jews would move to a city with little observant infrastructure and much difficulty. Was it for lower housing prices? Was it to establish an observant presence and thereby bring their non-observant brethren back to torah? Is the government paying them to move here? His answer was no on all counts. He said observant Jews were moving to Lod for something much more basic, to help stabilize the city.
I was in awe. In the United States, Jews for whom torah and observance are central do not move to the inner city “to help stabilize the city.” But this Orthodox rabbi and 200 Orthodox families had moved on their own to live here with noble and outward looking values in their hearts. Not to make their own community separate from others taking advantage of cheep housing prices, but to help stabilize a town that needed them. I was witnessing the torah’s values brought to bear on the real world in a way they could never be in the Diaspora. I realized that only in Israel, because all of life there is by definition an expression of the Jewish People, can we live a Jewish life that is not separate from our life in society and the greater world. Only there can we cultivate a world vision colored by torah and focused through Jewish lenses that truly has the potential to be a blessing to other peoples.
My farewell to the land as I looked out the airplane window was seeing the baggage handler putting my bags on the plane. He was dressed in a jumpsuit, orange safety vest and kippah. A Jewish ritual head covering indicating the awe and humility we have before God. A strange sight for an American such as me, but not for a Jewish land. Only in Israel, only in a Jewish land can a Jewish society informed by Jewish values possess the potential, perhaps not yet fully realized, to be truly of the world and thereby a blessing to it.