Nachshon Solidarity Mission visits the IDF Engineering Corps in the field.
A group of 18 Chicagoans traveled to Israel with JUF Aug. 10-12 on a special Nachshon Solidarity Mission. Chaired by Skip Schrayer, chairman of JUF’s Jewish Community Relations Council, the mission demonstrated the support of Chicago’s Jewish community for Israel and its people as they endured the onslaught of terror during the war with Hamas in Gaza.
“This was a mission of the human condition... not your typical military and political tourism,” said participant Keith Pascal.
The 55-hour mission included briefings with IDF Major General Israel Ziv; Professor Uzi Rabi, Director of the Moshe Dayan Center; economist Dani Halperin; and Alon Ben David, senior military correspondent for Channel 10 TV. The mission visited an Iron Dome missile defense battery near Ashdod and a Sderot home that took a direct rocket hit.
“We stood on a [Sderot] hilltop and looked out at Gaza about a mile away, and then counted to 15,” said participant Jeff Rosenkranz.
“In Sderot, you have 15 seconds to reach your shelter,” explained Pascal. “Fifteen seconds means it’s hard to move about without being near a shelter. Every bus stop is a shelter.”
Participants visited JUF-funded sites that serve immigrants, including one that specializes in those with disabilities, and one that is resettling new immigrants from France, who are moving to Israel to escape increasing anti-Semitism.
“We visited with the CEO of the JUF-funded Israeli Trauma Coalition, which helps people deal with the threat and reality of constant terror attacks. We are not talking about ‘being anxious,’ we are talking about clinical anxiety that needs psychological treatment,” said Pascal.
“Obviously the Iron Dome is a godsend and has saved Israeli lives—but it can’t protect Israelis from the fear of rockets, the constant sirens and the need to retreat to their safe rooms,” said Rosenkranz. “It was scary to hear of what the residents of JUF’s Partnership Together Region—Kiryat Gat, Lachish, and Shafir—have been going through during the war, but wonderful to hear how JUF dollars are providing security for residents and respite from the trauma of the current battle.”
Throughout the trip, the group met with soldiers, delivering letters written by JCC Camp Chi campers to an IDF base, and dining with lone soldiers in Tel Aviv.
“It made me feel proud that JUF supports them— the lone soldiers have given so much for Israel,” said participant Rick Woldenberg. “Lone Soldiers” are those serving in the Israeli Army with no parents in Israel; most are new immigrants or volunteers from overseas.
“One highlight was our lunch with a battalion from the Engineering Corps,” said Rosenkranz. “This group was responsible for clearing the way for the ground troops in Gaza. The commander explained how they found and collapsed the tunnels. These are all amazing young men and women—mature and poised, given responsibility at a young age that most of us will never get.”
The mission also met with wounded soldiers. “We visited Tel-Hashomer hospital to deliver gifts from Chicago to soldiers who are being treated for various injuries,” Rosenkranz said. “We spent time in the head-trauma and orthopedic units, and met a number of very brave, very lucky soldiers. Some lost eyes, some lost limbs, and one showed us a bullet that had been removed from his leg, but they were all very positive and focused on getting better. Each of them had a parent staying in the hospital with them—reminding us again that while each is a very brave soldier, they are all kids, just like many of ours. … We can only wonder what kind of psychological scars these kids will have after suffering these physical traumas and in many cases, seeing friends killed next to them.”
“I had met [Lt. Colonel Roey] last October on another JUF mission where he took our group to the Gaza border and explained the threat of the Hamas tunnels, one of which had just been discovered,” said participant Sandy Perl. “Sadly, Roey, who shared his story, was wounded in Operation Protective Edge and his two colleagues were killed, all in a single incident. His courage and clarity of purpose is an inspiration, and makes me so proud of the IDF and what they stand for.”
Participants also met with the family members of wounded soldiers at the hospital. “Talking to the boys was easy,” said Pascal. “Talking to their moms—different story. I couldn’t imagine what it felt like to get that phone call and to see their 19-year-old boys so severely hurt.”
“We met with four women whose husbands were serving in Gaza,” added Rosenkranz. “All of them spoke of the hardship inherent in having a spouse away from home for weeks at a time with little or no contact, and also the worry that comes with having a spouse in combat. They have all been raising their kids, essentially, as single parents—with the added worry of their husbands’ safety— while dealing with rocket attacks that threaten them and their children. What was incredible about these women was their pride in having their husbands fighting for all of Israel and their absolute understanding of the stakes of that fight. Clearly, their husbands are heroes, but so are these women.”
Mission participants were glad to have made the trip. “The challenges in Israel are great but the spirit is even stronger,” said Rosenkranz. “It was good that we came and clearly important for everyone we met—soldiers and citizens alike. Now was the right time to show solidarity with our fellow Jews, but the real answer is that the best time to visit Israel is always ‘now.’”
A summer of solidarity
The Nachshon Solidarity Mission was one of several missions to Israel with JUF participation during the recent war. In late July, American Jewish communal leaders participated in an emergency solidarity mission organized by the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), led by JUF Chairman David Brown.
“On one hand, we observed the normalcy of life,” he reported, “but the terror and trauma is there every day from the rockets raining on Israel. I can tell you, talking to the young kids— they need to get away from the terror. I had the opportunity to attend the funeral of a lone soldier— over 20,000 came to pay their respects. We went to an absorption center, and Natan Sharansky walked into the room and hugged the new olim from Ukraine; 1,300 came in one week. After seeing the services we provide, like helping people get to shelters, I know that all of us should be proud of what we’re doing and of what the agencies are doing on our behalf.”
Andy Hochberg, Chairman of JUF’s Government Affairs Committee, recalled visiting a hospital filled with soldiers wounded in the conflict during that mission. “It was a heartbreaking, and also heartwarming, experience. The waiting room was packed with families waiting for news. They had covered the walls with get well cards, showing a real cohesiveness of the Israeli public.”
A JFNA Campaign Chairs mission was already in Israel when the attacks began. Linda Fisher, incoming campaign chair of Women’s Division, was on that mission, and was at a program for Holocaust survivors. “I was looking at this woman, Leah. On her arm were numbers. She talked about being hidden in the forest in Poland for three years. Then the sirens went off, and I shared the safe room space with her in the hotel. And here she is hiding again 70 years later. We were supposed to go to Modi’in to give respects to the three [kidnapped and murdered] boys at their graves, but couldn’t because of rockets. So the family of Gilad Shaar came to us after they finished sitting shiva. It was one of the worst, seminal moments of all of our lives. I can’t stop thinking about Israel. My heart’s there, my soul’s there, my tears are there.”
Bill Silverstein, incoming JUF Chairman, who also participated on a solidarity mission, had a global reaction to Israel’s situation.
“We are all under attack,” he said. “Those rockets aren’t being fired at Sderot, or at Israel. They are being fired at Jews. We are all being targeted.”
To provide short- and long-term humanitarian support to Israel’s people during the conflict and after, in July JUF created the Israel Emergency Campaign at the request of Israel’s Prime Minister. JUF immediately sent $1.5 million to JUF partner agencies to address urgent needs; significant additional allocations have been made throughout the summer. To donate to the Israel Emergency Campaign, please call 312.357.4805 or visit donate.juf.org/IsraelEmergency.