Jersey Shore Community Members Stand with Israel – in Person

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Victor Cohen 

 

Since October 7th, our community has responded to the horrific attacks by Hamas by seeking to deepen our connection to the land and to the people of Israel. We pray for the welfare of our brothers and sisters, send financial aid, and organize shipments of supplies. One of the most crucial activities we have done, though, is to go to Israel ourselves. 

 

Normally, Israel trips are fun, with visits to the Kotel, Mearat Hamachpela, the Dead Sea, Masada, etc. Whether the trip is for a bar mitzvah, winter vacation, or otherwise, these trips leave us with memories for years to come. 

 

Anyone visiting Israel now, especially those participating in solidarity missions, will also have memories of their visit for years to come, but in a very different way. Of the many missions that were organized since Oct.7th, they usually share similar itineraries. Participants typically visit the attacked areas, meet with families of hostages, meet with families who lost people in the conflict, and also spend time doing hesed. 

 

I had the privilege of speaking in depth with some members from the Jersey Shore Solidarity Mission, which ran for five days near the end of December. After returning to Deal, some gave speeches, inspiring others to go as well. A second Jersey Shore mission was set up for mid-February. 

 

Let’s hear about the experiences mission members relayed after returning home. 

 

Starting with Hesed 

 

The group arrived at night, and  group members reported feeling right away that something felt different. It was not just the absence of a feeling of happy anticipation being in Israel for a simha or a hag. There was just a different feeling in the air altogether. 

 

 The group’s first official stop was at the hesed organization Yad Ezra v’Shulamit. The organization’s initial mandate was to send food boxes to those in need throughout Israel. The focus shifted after Oct.7th in order to help those affected by the war. The demand for food boxes skyrocketed. The Jersey Shore group went to work on the assembly line to help fill those boxes. 

 

Heading South to the Gaza Envelope 

 

The next day, the group visited the South, close to the border of  Gaza, where the October 7th attacks took place. The group’s first stop was at Moshav Tekuma, a religious communal settlement less than three-and-a-half miles from the border. Although other kibbutzim were attacked, Tekuma, with its closed front gate due to Shabbat observance, was passed over. In the area right outside of the kibbutzim where Hamas attacked  there is a literal graveyard of at least 1,500 piled up cars  that require excavating and searching to properly identify the bodies of those trapped within. Even months after October 7th, this daunting task has not been completed. One organization that is performing this heart-wrenching work is ZAKA. The full name is “ZAKA – Identification, Extraction, and Rescue – True Kindness.” ZAKA has groups of voluntary community emergency response teams all around Israel. The avodat kodesh that group members perform is legendary. Members of the mission met with ZAKA members and heard their personal stories. 

 

Kibbutz Be’eri and Kibbutz Alumim 

 

The group also visited Kibbutz Be’eri, one of the first places that was invaded. There, they were introduced to a woman who is a member of the kibbutz who gave the mission members a tour. Group members were horrified by the sight of roofs blown off, pieces of buildings missing and burnt, and a feeling of rampant destruction. Their guide told stories of who lived in each house and what happened to them. One member of the group commented that the level of brutality seemed to intensify the deeper they went into the kibbutz. One building, however, remained untouched: The shul. The group stopped there to pray minha. 

 

The next stop was Kibbutz Alumim. Although Kibbutz Alumim is closer to Gaza than Kibbutz Be’eri, Alumim was less impacted. The head of security told the group that Alumim, like Moshav Tekuma, is a religious settlement. Because of Shabbat, the gate to the kibbutz was locked. Therefore, terrorists could not easily get in. Also, the gate provided security for those inside of the kibbutz, giving members enough time to mobilize. When the terrorists did break in on one side, the kibbutz security fought back and actually took out the Hamas commander. While some lives were lost in Kibbutz Alumin, many more lives were saved due to that one locked gate. And, of course, due to Divine protection. 

 

To the Site of the Nova Festival and Ofakim 

 

The next part of the solidarity mission was the most emotionally challenging. Although it touches your heart even if you are far away when you hear the stories and see the pictures of what happened, it is something different to actually stand at the site where the atrocities happened. As members of the mission told me, the purpose of the mission or the “theme” was to connect directly with the people themselves. By meeting the people who had been there on the ground, and giving them support, even just by the group’s presence, they felt that would be a way to offer solace to our brothers and sisters who were hurting. 

 

After visiting the kibbutzim, the group travelled to the site of the Nova Festival. A guide showed them the memorial display dedicated to the 364 people who were murdered there. The guide recounted that those attending the festival heard loud booms, which, of course, were unnerving. However, they were reassured that those booms were from our side shooting into Gaza. In one kibbutz member’s words, “You could see the war going on around you.” 

 

Afterwards the group traveled to Ofakim and heard the famous “Savta Rachel” story about Rachel Edri. Rachel saved herself and her husband of 41 years from five armed Hamas terrorists that infiltrated her home by offering them coffee and homemade maamoul, date cookies.  

 

The group heard another story of amazing heroism that took place across the street from the Edri’s. The woman telling the story was the mother of a man who singlehandedly saved a family of 11,  including a one-month-old baby. Tragically, the son himself could not make it out. In that house, the dining room was set for Shabbat. It remained untouched. 

 

Finally, the group stopped at the northern Gaza border, right where the army trucks went in. They visited with the soldiers there and donated pairs of tefillin. 

 

Back to Jerusalem 

 

 The following day the group visited the military cemetery in Jerusalem, Har Herzl. Har Herzl includes a number of different sections, including, for example, leaders of the State of Israel, victims of terror, and fallen soldiers. At Har Herzl group members spoke with people who had lost family members, including those who had lost parents and others who had lost children. The group attended a yahrzeit ceremony for a soldier who had fallen long before October 7th. 

 

The group then went to speak with a woman named Deborah, who lost two sons last February, as they did not want to overlook the other tragedies that happened before Oct.7th. The group was inspired by the immense strength of Israelis after enduring such tragedy. Those who had suffered so much actually gave words of encouragement to others. Their resilience is an example for all of us to emulate. 

 

Out to a Horse Ranch in Samaria and Back to Jerusalem 

 

As the last activity of that day, the group visited Ruti’s Horse Ranch in the small settlement of Ma’alei Michmash in Samaria. Here is where a number of cowboys from the U.S. came to volunteer, even though they are not Jewish. The group wanted to get a chance to speak with the cowboys with the Southern accents, but they refused, saying that they needed to get this fence finished before the sun went down. 

 

In Jerusalem, there is a museum that was transformed into a warehouse after Oct.7th. The Institute for Advanced Jewish Studies, Kehillat Eretz Hemda, worked tirelessly to convert the museum into a hub where organized shipments went out to the logistical officers in every army unit. The head of the operation uses his connections to procure tactical equipment, such as thermals, binoculars, and other supplies. Also, each box sent out contains handwritten notes addressed to the soldiers. The mission group members stopped to help out and wrote some of their own notes to soldiers. Due to the proximity to the conflict, the supplies were delivered within a few hours. 

 

Hospital Visit, Hostage Square 

 

Group members were deeply affected by their visit to the Tel Hashomer hospital in Ramat Gan, which acts as a rehab facility for all injured soldiers. The group visited the hospital rooms of approximately 10-15 soldiers. The group members danced and played music with the soldiers. Their goal was to give the injured soldiers encouragement and to bring some light into their lives. 

 

Finally, the group ended up at Hostages Square, an open, outdoor public display where art related to the Oct.7th atrocities was posted. At the site was a long table with chairs in place for each of the missing hostages, numbering over 200. For each of the kibbutzim attacked, a place was designated for them. One group member walked to the Kibbutz Be’eri section and met with the man there. As he explained, he saw what happened there only two days ago and had no idea of what words he could say or how to help. So, helping in his own way, he gave the man a hug. 

 

Ishai Ribo Concert – Uplifting Broken Souls 

 

That night, the group attended an Ishai Ribo concert at the Ramada Hotel in Jerusalem, that was organized for families of those affected by the war. This was especially meaningful for families attending, who have had such trouble smiling for the past few months. Here they had an opportunity to be uplifted by Ishai Ribo’s beautiful music and to fully engage and enjoy. One could feel the special energy in the room. 

 

Jersey Shore Solidarity Mission 

 

There is so much more to the Jersey Shore Solidarity Mission. There is not enough room in one article to fully describe the many-faceted experiences the group was exposed to, and how each of them returned home changed in some way by what they saw and by the people they encountered and spoke with. 

 

I strongly encourage everyone to please take part in one of these missions to Israel. There are many to choose from, as Jews the world over mobilize to visit their brothers and sisters and to give hizuk and to comfort them in the aftermath of a harrowing experience and a war that continues. And, we all know that there are some things in this world that you really have to see with your own eyes to truly understand them. This is definitely one of them. 

 

May Hashem send healing to all those affected and may our efforts bring comfort to those in need.