The following is a compilation of emails sent from Israel by Vivian Grossman, co-chair of the JNF Solidarity Mission to Israel (July 27-31)
Day 1 of our mission has come to a beautiful end. Who could ask for anything more than being in Jerusalem now?! First, we cannot tell you how grateful Israelis are that we’re here! They cannot express enough how much it means to them to know that we came to support them and showed it by coming. There’s a total of about 47 people on our mission! How amazingly crazy is that? 47 people put their lives on hold, with almost no notice, just to be here and make a statement of solidarity!
Someone actually signed up yesterday and arrived today! Ron Nehring, who is running for Lt Gov of Cali and his campaign manager are with us - he’s been to Israel many times. As soon as the operation began, he started calling around to find out who is going to Israel. He totally “gets it”!
Life here is such a crazy dichotomy - the day began on the beach in Tel Aviv - amazingly gorgeous - people swimming, running, biking and paddle boarding. Life as we know it. We walked to Neve Tzedek to shop prior to the mission starting. We definitely boosted the economy! Our group met about 2pm. There are people joining us from all over the country - some with spouses, some alone, some flew in from Europe, some missed trade shows, business meetings, whatever they had to do!
We went to independence Hall, which was a pretty cool way to start. We met up with the J’lem mission (the young leaders of JNF mission) - they look like a very fun and enthusiastic group! We were also joined by some young people who have made Aliyah over the last few years. From there we went to Muss High School in Israel for a huge BBQ- saw lots of friends..the kids spoke about how this has changed their lives- amazing. My friend Leslie Rosenblatt and her brother, Louis Reinstein were there - Leslie’s son is a Muss student whose summer program ends tomorrow. Both Leslie and Louis are Muss alums. Amazingly some of the same teachers are still there (which tells you a lot) and one of Leslie’s teachers had his grade book from when she was there!
From there we traveled to Jerusalem, where we’ll start our day tomorrow with the Minister of Tourism and the Mayor of Jerusalem - along with some shopping at the shuk. We walked to a restaurant for a drink, where we saw lots of couples on their date nights. Another indicator that life continues as normal in most ways….
We’ve been fortunate not to experience any sirens yet. We’ve had a drill or 2, but that’s it. My friend told me that the slight sound of thunder I heard in the background was the Iron Dome. No one noticed it because it was not in our area and you wouldn’t know unless someone clued you in. Israelis want the world to know they would like nothing less than to live in peace. The tunnels were far more complicated and brilliant than anyone realized. Everyone was devastated that 3 boys were kidnapped and killed - but those 3 boys saved the lives of hundreds of Israelis!!! A crisis of catastrophic proportion was averted…. Just imagine what Gaza would be like if they had used their amazing crazy brilliance for good instead of building tunnels of destruction. They literally built an underground people mover system that hardly any major city has! And people can’t believe the engineering that went into it. So far they’ve found almost 40 tunnels!
It’s very late here and our day starts early. I hope anyone thinking of coming to Israel comes. We all feel so safe. We’re all so grateful to be here!
What an emotional day yesterday was. We started the day with the Minister of Tourism and then headed to Mt Herzl. The Minister said two things that really struck me: “When you show me who your friends are, I’ll know who you are” and ” when you stand with Israel, you stand in Israel”. Very powerful statements . From there we went to Mt. Herzl. We visited the graves of 5 of the boys just killed in this terror. There was a group of soldiers who were holding a service for one of their own at the end of the 7 day shiva period. We also visited the grave of Yonathan Netanyahu.
Later, we met with an amazing person - Miriam Peretz - a woman who lost 2 sons, both in the Golani Brigade, in wars. Life is about choices, whether you make them consciously or not. After such a loss, she could have easily lived in the dark forever - but she chose to live in the light. She speaks all over Israel about her love of country - her parents were Moroccan, illiterate, spoke no Hebrew except the word,’Jerusalem’! They made their way here and she transferred her love of Jerusalem to her children. She feels she now has 2 homes; her house and Mt Hertzl….she’s been to every funeral and shiva, visits the injured in the hospitals. She’s chosen to make her legacy one of lightness. To speak with her is to feel her beauty, to share her love of life, Jerusalem, family and Israel.
After a break for lots of shopping, the group went onto Ammunition Hill for an amazing dinner and meeting with a man who fought in the battle there in 1967 and then went to work for Raphael industries in the Iron Dome. Back at the hotel, I met a friend for a drink and Ron Nehring spent some time with us as well. We sat with him while he was interviewed by a conservative talk show host in San Diego. We were so impressed with his understanding of the situation. He made the analogy of a clock image, beginning with Lebanon as noon, Egypt as 9. What a time zone Israel is located in!
We have yet to hear a siren - we walk, laugh, and have amazing days. It is hard to believe that just a few, far too close miles away, a war is going on and people are in such danger. Yesterday was a horrible day during which 10 soldiers killed. Yet, for us, it felt like we could have been anywhere. Some people have a rocket siren application on their phones so that we will all know when they go off. Israelis wants us to know that life goes on here. Somehow it works.
This morning we meet with a representative of the foreign ministry - he told us about a specific operation going on in Gaza. There is a church that is housing children with physical and mental disabilities and cannot be moved. The building has been marked on a ‘no fire map’- the Vatican has become involved, the IDF is very aware, but the soldiers are being fired upon from the building. Hamas is using the church for coverage. Hamas has been notified but they will not cooperate. It’s an ongoing negotiation to try to ensure the safety of these few innocent children, yet Hamas isn’t playing by the same rules. This has been a much longer operation than anyone thought it would be. We were told that militarily the IDF does not want to conquer the Gaza Strip!!! They could have done that by now, but are avoiding it at all costs because it would involve massive casualties. Israel is willing to go back to a ceasefire where they stop firing but Hamas is not willing. Israel needs to figure out how they didn’t know about tunnels - within 12 months they will have a system to find and destroy them. Intelligence says there are about 40 tunnels, they’ve found 31 so far and think within the week they will find the rest.
Israelis believe the political power within Hamas would have wanted the fighting to have stopped a long time ago - and even, to have never started. The military faction are the ones that want it to continue. Their hope is international community will put pressure on Egypt to open the borders and seaport so that more money can come in. Hamas leadership says that they still have weapons and people to fight. Weapons have been smuggled in from as far away from no Korea!
Our day today has all changed and we’re waiting for the IDF to tell us where/when. We feel very safe and we’re all beyond grateful we came…. We are the most eclectic group- Jews, Christians, kids, grandparents. There is no place else we’d rather be.
Russell Robinson spoke to us about getting the word out about Israel - as he said, ” If you go out on a first date and talk about about how your family all died in the Holocaust, and your country is always at war and the cost of living is so high” - you’re not going to get asked out on a second date. But, if you tell them “Wow, my family brought an ancient language back to life, my family makes the world a better place through medical advances, technological, scientific… My family is awesome”. This is a whole different story.
Every day in Israel is fascinating and filled with lots of learning, emotions, laughter and tears….,and that’s true even when there’s quiet. I consider myself fairly tough. I’m not known as being highly emotional or one to just break down and cry -but- I get off the plane in a Israel and I’m always on the verge of tears, and find myself crying in a New York moment. I’m once again going home with tired red eyes…
We arrived in Be’er Sheva yesterday and hit the mall. We shopped for about an hour. Everyone wanted to support the economy, buy things for the kids in Sderot, and soldiers. Our friend, Sheryl, insisted on buying lipstick for the women soldiers. The salespeople in the drugstore were so overwhelmed (after a bit of translating) they couldn’t believe it! - truly, neither could we….red, orange, pick…she bought 30 (Sheryl always does everything big…). Afterwards, about 4 of us ended up in a bookstore- including one woman from Long Island had been given $1000 from a colleague to support Sderot. The guy who helped us was born in Be’er Sheva. He couldn’t believe that we, people who lived an ocean away, would put our lives on hold, come to Israel just to say we’re all one, we support you and you’re not alone. He had no clue JNF was active in Be’er Sheva and was shocked when we filled him in on what we’ve done in his backyard. After we spent a lot of money in that bookstore, he brought the boxes of books to the bus. He then got on the bus and started talking to us….he needed to express his thanks…”Kol HaKavol” he kept saying, “We can’t thank you enough” …. And then he started tearing up. “How can we ever thank you? I can’t believe you came here for us”, he was crying. We tried to tell him “How can WE thank YOU? You make our lives in America better. You do the hard work.” Everyone we’ve encountered hugged us, thanked us, couldn’t believe we’d come to Israel just to show solidarity.
Our plans have been fluid as you can imagine, but as much as we hear we might not go to an area, we’ve pretty much stayed on schedule. We went to the Sderot Indoor Recreation Center last night. There were soldiers, new immigrants, children-both with special needs and without, and us…. If you haven’t been to the recrecreation center - put it on your ‘must do’ list!!! Then we had a real treat - David D’Or performed!!! He’s sung for Obama, Clinton, and us! Everyone was loving it! The soldiers couldn’t believe it!! While he sang his heart out and we all partied, you couldn’t help think about the craziness that exists only 1/2 mile away. If the terrorists could only flip a switch in their hearts and minds, they could experience the life that we were - A life that celebrates living, that values people- whomever and from wherever, special needs, boring, exciting, nice, not so nice. Just values life and people. It was not lost on any of us.
We experienced our first siren last night. We were sitting in the bar about 9:30… Everyone got up walked to the stairwell… No panic….someone pulled out her camera to video each of us and a few minutes later we went back to doing exactly what we were doing. Perhaps it’s our naivety, plus everyone has the siren app on their phone so we’ve been hearing it the sirens all week…but after a few minutes we went back to our drinks, hung outside, and stayed up far too late.
Today was amazing. We visited Aleh Negev, a rehabilitative village for the severely developmentally disabled. As someone said, “it is a jewel in the JNF crown”. Doron Almog, the chairman of the village, has an infectious passions - how can you not stand taller when one of Israel’s greatest military heroes tells you his greatest professor was his special needs son, Eran? He talked about how we’re judged not when life is easy, not with areas in which we do well, -but when we have to step outside our comfort zone and help in ways for which you’ll never be thanked. Afterwards, we were in the Halutza region in the south western area of Israel about 3 miles from Gaza, and alongside the Egyptian border. We boxed packages for the soldiers, ate far too much, and tasted the first crop of pineapples!! In Halutza, they’re growing tiny, sweet as sugar, pineapples!!! Just wait til you try them! Much harder to grow than the bigger ones. There were 2 or 3 sirens. The babies were crying so we all started singing. Am Yisrael Chai..and they stopped crying. I think, JNF’s CEO, Russell Robinson was singing the loudest!
We also visited Siroka Hospital - visited several injured soldiers, heard some details about the NICU and the life challenging difficulties in moving the babies to a temporary area. They created a state of the art NICU with a glass ceiling so the babies could be on their circadian rhythm. Well, with the rockets, a glass ceiling doesn’t work so they have to relocate the entire NICU. We saw Shimon Peres, some reality and soap opera stars…they said everyone is coming. It’s been forever since Israel has been so unified, so supportive of the soldiers. People line up to make sure the soldiers are taken care of!! It’s amazing. We visited a soldier who has become the symbol of the war! He was badly injured, and thought to be dying and insisted on putting an Israeli flag over his face because having the flag meant more to him than living!!! He was on the cover of a newspaper and has meant so much to everyone! He’s fine, beyond adorable, and radiates warmth. We all thought his injury was probably minor at best - and would be back on the field sooner than later. We didn’t find out until tonight how badly he was injured. He just wants to be back with his men! (See link to an article about him at the end of this post).
We keep hearing Israel will come out if this and will be ok, but that it’s much tougher than they thought. We keep hearing about the extremes that the IDF is going through to avoid casualties, knowing too that the mainstream media papers back home continue to talk about how oppressive and aggressive Israel is. The Doctor at Siroka Hospital put it best: “If it takes $1 million to build a trauma center and $1 million to build a tunnel, Israel invests in the well being of its people”. There used to be doctor exchanges between Israel and Gaza, until Hamas decided that Israel benefited more! There are Palestinians today still being treated at Israeli hospitals that end up living at the hospitals for years. Israel values life - all life. We see it wherever we go!
We felt amazingly proactive today. Come to Israel! Don’t hesitate! You’ll get lots of hugs. Tomorrow is our last day and it feels very bittersweet. I am glad to say that I’m coming back next week and that JNF is thinking of putting together another solidarity mission in a few weeks since this was so successful and the requests keep coming in - So…if you want to come, now is a good time!