U.S. Jewish Leaders See What Life Is Like Under Rocket Fire

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A house damaged by rocket in Sderot on July 3. Representative of U.S. Jewry came to witness the damage for themselves, and see what they could do to help. Credit: AP

Her daughter accused her of putting her job ahead of her life and her family, but that didn’t stop Deborah Corber from boarding a plane this week bound for Israel.

Corber, the director of the Jewish Federation of Montreal, is one of several dozen leaders of the Jewish Federations of North America here on a three-day solidarity mission. As if to provide proof that her daughter’s fears were not totally ungrounded, barely a few hours after she touched down at Ben-Gurion International Airport, Corber experienced her first rocket siren.

“As soon as I got to the hotel, I asked where the shelter was and they pointed me in the direction of a room right across from where I was staying,” she recalled over breakfast at the Tel Aviv David InterContinental Hotel on Monday. “But when the sirens went off and I ran for the door, it turned out to be locked. Suddenly I noticed a sign saying that the shelter had been moved to another room on the other side of the hall, so I ran in the direction. I ended up being the only person there. So I sat there, huddled in the room all by myself, until they announced over the loudspeakers that it was OK to leave.”

Corber and her travel companions were getting ready for a busy day of touring locations around the country targeted in particular by Hamas rocket fire over the past week. They were to start the day at the Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon and from there continue to the southern town of Sderot for what their itinerary described as “a typical afternoon,” which included a visit to a protected playground and meetings with families whose apartment building suffered a direct hit. They were to end the day with a meeting with kibbutz farmers on the border with Gaza.

“It’s important for us to be on the ground and see what’s happening here,” said Alisa Doctoroff, president of the UJA Federation of New York, who was having breakfast with Corber. “It’s really hard to understand what’s going on unless you come here and experience it yourself.”

Corber said that as an outsider visiting Israel’s hardest hit towns, she felt a bit like a voyeur, which made her uncomfortable. “And I’ve told Israelis that’s how I feel and asked them whether that’s how they saw us, but they reassured me that they appreciated all those people who come here to share their experiences.”

Even though, as she went on to note, these experiences weren’t all that similar considering that the JFNA delegation would be “traveling around in an armored vehicle with a security guard around at all times.”

Jerry Silverman, the president of JFNA, said the solidarity mission was organized very quickly last Thursday. “The Federations have always had a strong connection to the people of Israel, and Israel is part of our Jewish identity,” he said. “Our thoughts and prayers are good, and our financial capabilities are good, but our message is about action and being there. We believe that when there is a situation that challenges Israelis, we should be there standing shoulder to shoulder with them.”

The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations has also sent a solidarity mission to Israel this week for a two-day trip.

Last week, the JFNA launched “Stop the Sirens,” an emergency fund-raising campaign to provide immediate assistance to those communities in Israel suffering from the recent barrage of rocket fire. A partnership with the Reform and Conservative movements, the campaign is being run together with the Jewish Agency, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Israel Trauma Coalition, among others.

Silverman said the initial goal was to raise $10 million. “We’ll achieve that and exceed it, I believe, based on the reactions of communities thus far,” he said.

Dede Feinberg, chair of the JFNA executive committee, said she did not think twice about coming to Israel during these tense times. “For me, it’s instinctive – if Israel’s in trouble, you come,” she said. Feinberg added that her goal was “to bring home a more balanced picture of what’s going on here – something more balanced than what comes out in the media back home.”

Before heading south on their bus, the delegation members were briefed by Eran Lerman, the deputy head of the National Security Council on events of recent days as well as the overall geopolitical situation. The best Israel could hope for at this point, he told them, was another few months of quiet from Hamas.

“Deterrence is an ugly concept,” he said. “It involves your willingness to do terrible things if necessary – the same way it was central to the ability of Western civilizations to survive and prosper under the Soviet challenge until the Soviet Union collapsed. The very freedoms that you enjoy and that Europeans enjoy today were secured by the willingness of the United States to kill tens of millions of Russians.”