I was asked recently by a local organization to speak about my experiences on the February mission to Israel sponsored by the Women’s Division of UJA-NNJ. Much of that trip was centered in Haifa and Nahariya. I told the folks who invited me to speak that the cities I would be describing have changed a great deal over the past month, and to talk about them as they were before the current crisis would be unrealistic.
That was a difficult statement to make, and the implications are heartbreaking.
Haifa, the third-largest city in Israel, is also one of the most beautiful. A seaport on the Mediterranean coast with areas both below and atop Mount Carmel Haifa is a wonderful study in contrasts. Religiously and ethnically diverse, the city embraces both elegant, well-tended homes surrounded by carefully nurtured gardens, and a vibrant, crowded, sometimes chaotic downtown area. Spectacular views of the Mediterranean compete with gritty industrial areas, and people come from all over the world to walk through the superb Baha’i gardens.
Rachel Ronen, right, looks on as Orli, who lost her husband to terrorism, views a photo montage of her husband at Yad L’banim in Nahariya. North Jersey women visited the organization in February as part of UJA-NNJ’s Women’s Mission to Israel.
My daughter lived there for about eight years and I visited her often, walking freely through the streets of this wonderful city all hours of the night and day. Whether buying fruits and vegetables at an open-air market, stopping for hot chocolate and cake at a local patisserie, or visiting one of the crowded downtown clothing stores, I always felt the deep satisfaction of being someplace Jewish, exciting, beautiful, and safe.
Now, buildings have been shattered and lives have been lost. My daughter, visiting relatives in Tel Aviv, tried phoning her old friends in Haifa. She did not get through to even one person. Are they safe? Have they left? We are asking questions we hoped we’d never have to ask.
Nahariya where the UJA group spent so many hours visiting agencies receiving support from the northern New Jersey community, as well as enjoying the home hospitality of local families has experienced even more destruction and dislocation. I have been sent accounts from women I met there women who welcomed us into their homes and shared with us their food, warmth, and family stories describing the damage done to their homes and businesses.
When Jacob Berkman wrote his report in last week’s Standard describing Nahariya as a "ghost town," I took it personally. And when I took a close look at the woman on the cover of the issue who was surveying the damage done to her business, I realized with a shock that this was Rachel Ronen, the same woman who spoke to us at Yad L’banim, an organization that supports families who have lost loved ones in wars or terrorist attacks. Ronen, the organization’s director, lost her first husband during the Yom Kippur War.
The war raging between Israel and Hezbollah represents a fight between good and evil, between a democratic nation and a terrorist group, between people who love peace and people who glorify war. We must care about the causes and we must care desperately about the outcome. But Israel is so much more than an idea or a set of circumstances. It is a country where people live, work, build, argue, and dream.
I always planned to go back to Haifa for the cake, and the views, and the comfort. What a frightening and sad thought that this might no longer be possible.