Former North Jerseyites respond to the operation in Gaza
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Former North Jerseyites respond to the operation in Gaza

Yoni Zierler is on high alert. As a training officer in the Israeli infantry, he is responsible for getting his recruits ready to take over for more experienced soldiers being sent to the front in Gaza. They will do guard duty and security patrols in heavily Arab areas that are already seeing increased tensions and violence stemming from the military’s incursion into Gaza on Saturday.

This former Teaneck resident confesses that he would prefer to be leading his troops into the war zone.

“That’s where the action is and will be,” said Zierler, the son of Rabbi Lawrence Zierler of the Jewish Center of Teaneck and his wife Bernice. “After a year of crawling in the mud and training hard, you want to do something that speaks to the fighter they’ve created in you.”

His parents also feel a sense of high alert. “Yoni and his friends are on the secondary and tertiary battle lines,” said his father, who is asking his congregants to add a prayer for the soldiers’ welfare into the grace after meals. “I’m worried for every chayal [soldier]. It’s not just about my son; it’s about all these wonderful young guys who have everything to live for.”

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to the operation in Gaza

Like everyone else in this tiny country, former North Jerseyans are affected by the war even if they or their children are not in the line of fire.

Elana Leichman, this reporter’s daughter, handles human resources at a large army supply base in the Negev 15 kilometers (about nine miles) from Gaza.

Many personnel at her base live in Sderot, Netivot, Ashkelon, or Ashdod, coastal cities that all suffered casualties from incoming rocket attacks in the 48 hours following the incursion. One driver on the base, who works at an Ashdod catering hall on his weeks off, lost that job when the hall shut down and moved north right after the operation began.

Similar “ripple effects” were reported elsewhere.

Joe and Aviva Offenbacher, former Teaneck residents living in Chashmona’im in the Samaria region, live only a kilometer from Modi’in Illit, where four people were stabbed Monday by an Arab construction worker. Later that day, the Offenbachers went to the town to do some errands.

“The whole place was closed down,” said Joe Offenbacher. “There was nobody on the street. The paper goods store where we were heading was locked. It turned out that everyone had been told to stay indoors.”

The couple did find an open supermarket, where guards were searching all incoming customers. Aviva Offenbacher said she was “floored” to see that the market’s Arab workers were still on the job. In other nearby communities, Arabs had been prohibited from entering that day.

Their son Rafi, 20, is a paratrooper. At press time, paratroop units were not involved in the conflict, but some of his friends in other Israel Defense Forces units were already on their way to Gaza.

“It’s scary for them, but at the same time this is what we have trained to do and this is what we need, as Jews and as a country, to do to protect ourselves,” he said in a phone interview Monday evening.

Earlier that day, Offenbacher had gotten into a conversation with a man delivering pizza to the base. He told the young soldier that his house in Ashkelon does not have a bomb shelter and he had brought his kids to his sister’s house. The man not only lives in range of the missiles but also works in Sderot, which has been a frequent target for years.

“If you don’t live or work there,” said Offenbacher, “you can’t even understand what it’s like.”

Also on Monday, former Teaneck resident Jonathan Feldstein, the Israel representative of American Friends of Magen David Adom, tried to deliver Chanukah treats to staffers in hard-hit areas in the Gaza belt. (See A visit with MDA heroes.) MDA functions as the Israeli Red Cross and also as first responders to medical emergencies throughout the country.

Feldstein said AFMDA launched an emergency fund-raising campaign on Sunday, in anticipation of increased needs. “We are placing an order for 50 new ambulances for 2009, and there’s a question of whether we will need more,” he said. “After the army, MDA is the first line of defense. We will manage, but I don’t know how.”

He placed advertisements in two English-language newspapers on Tuesday, appealing to visiting Jewish and Christian tourists to donate blood.

Yoni Zierler, meanwhile, is emphasizing to his untried soldiers-in-training that even though they will not be going to Gaza, they have a serious job to do. “I told them that what’s important is that we are preparing for the next time, and for doing whatever we can for our country,” he said.

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