By Sherrie Savett
It is not often that one gets to experience a transformative life experience. This July, I had the privilege of traveling to Israel with 35 other leaders from cities across North America on a four-day national solidarity mission. I knew the trip would be an emotional one, but getting the opportunity to support the country that I love in the aftermath of the recent Gaza conflict was an important journey for me to take.
We focused on three big issues on this trip: the 2021 Gaza conflict, Israel’s new government and its challenges, and internal social issues. Israel is ever-changing and evolving, and always seeking effective and creative solutions. While the strength and effectiveness of the new coalition government remains to be proven, many are hopeful and see its diversity as an asset. The new government has members from left- and right-wing parties, as well as, for the first time in history, an Arab party.
Israel faces many complex internal issues and external threats. Most recently, more than 4,300 rockets targeted Israel during an 11-day period. The civilian population all over the country experienced these attacks and the constant sirens warning them to run to safe rooms and bomb shelters. Residents of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem had never experienced missile attacks before and were stunned by the experience. Trauma among Israelis, and especially children, is widespread.
We were fortunate to meet many people during our trip, inspiring people, trying to overcome the incredibly challenging problems and working to heal themselves, others, and their country. Taly Levanon, director of the Israel Trauma Coalition, introduced us to talented and brave therapists who risked their lives amid rocket fire to comfort families.
Like all mission trips, our days were packed. Each person we spoke to and each story we heard were important testimonials to the unwavering strength of the Israeli people. We visited the parents of 5-year-old Ido Avigal, who was killed by a Hamas rocket in Sderot.
Despite having access to a modern safe room and being able to make it there in time, shrapnel pierced the metal and concrete of the room, killing Ido and wounding his mother. It was devastating to see the safe room frozen in time with childrens’ posters on the walls and to meet his incredibly resilient parents who honor their wonderful son and find the means to look forward.
At the Kfar Aza kibbutz in the Jewish Federation’s partnership region, just five kilometers east of Gaza, we met Chen Abrahams, a woman who lived all her life in this kibbutz founded by her grandparents. She showed us a disturbing array of rockets and weapons that had been targeted toward her community over the many years of bombings. Despite the constant threat of war and violence, there is a waiting list to live at this kibbutz, and the city of Sderot is growing rapidly. We saw this love of country and sense of community everywhere we went — an unrelenting pride in Israel, and an unwillingness to give into the terror of Hamas.
Another major issue that emerged during the recent conflict was the rioting that occurred in some of the mixed cities where large populations of Jews and Arabs live together. In Lod, where the worst riots took place, we visited a community center and saw how staff are working with the Joint Distribution Committee to help people coexist. We learned of JDC programs aimed at closing the social and economic gap between Jews and Arabs. We spoke with Arab women who participated in a program that helped them to secure good jobs in the high-tech arena.
Jewish community members often don’t understand where their money goes when it supports overseas work by organizations like JFNA, the JDC or the Jewish Agency’s Israel Trauma Coalition. Every gift to the Federation’s Jewish Community Fund goes in part to these critical efforts, which support life-saving and well-being programs that encourage positive changes to the complex Israeli society. Our Jewish philanthropy contributes to a more vibrant Israel.
I walk away from this trip with a deepened connection to Israel, as well as a firm belief that as American Jews, it is our responsibility to serve as ambassadors for Israel. We must diffuse lies and correct misinformation being spread about Israel by its detractors and the media, and listen openly and speak calmly and factually about the struggles Israel faces.
When we met at the Knesset with MK Nachman Shai, minister of Diaspora Affairs, he emphasized how American Jewry is a security asset for Israel. We open doors, protect them in our Congress and encourage solidarity. He and the other three MKs we spoke to all emphasized that American Jewry is just as important to Israel as Israel is to American Jewry.
In the end, this trip was about solidarity and support to our brothers and sisters abroad and the feeling that we must stand together as one people united by our common heritage and Jewish values. Am Yisroel Chai!
Sherrie Savett is the chair of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia Campaign.