Four months after the largest Israel mission ever run by UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey, Jersey to Jerusalem participants reunited at Temple Beth Or in Washington Township on Sunday.
They chewed on Israeli snacks while wandering through displays of photos and signing words of support on a large banner that the federation plans to send to Sderot, the Israeli border town that has been on the receiving end of hundreds of rockets from Gaza.
Front left, Itai Avidan and Mor Yehudai from Sderot and J’J participant Jean Weiss, and rear, Robert Socolof, the Jewish Agency For Israel’s regional director, and Charlotte Bennett Schoen shared stories from Israel.
During their trip in February, participants spent an afternoon in the city of Nahariya and heard stories of its struggle to return to normalcy after sustaining heavy rocket fire during last summer’s war with Hezbollah. Now Sderot, a small town on Israel’s border with the Gaza Strip, continues to be hit by rocket fire from the strip.
Itai Avidan and Mor Yehudai, two residents from Sderot who had flown in that morning, told the crowd what it’s like for Sderot to live under fire.
"The children of Sderot are really terrified," Avidan said.
Yehudai had been serving in the army when her house took a direct hit from a kassam rocket. The morning after the attack she received a call for comment from the media but she had not heard the news yet. She called her parents but nobody answered. Fearing the worst, she raced home to discover her parents had left in the middle of the night at the urging of Mor’s aunt, just before the rocket struck their house.
While Sderot had been little known before in Israel, Yehudai said "everybody knows Sderot today. Thank you for caring about us."
J’J was the first visit to Israel for David Bell of West Milford who went with his wife Sharyn. The couple had been uninvolved in the Jewish community before the trip, he said, but when they returned they joined the Jewish Congregation of Kinnelon.
This had been Bob Nowack’s second trip to Israel. A member of Temple Beth Sholom in Fair Lawn, Nowack was already involved with the Jewish community. But after what he described as the helpfulness and compassion of the federation’s staff, he plans to increase his annual donation to UJA-NNJ.
"I thought the jazz would last a week or two after the trip," said David Gad-Harf, UJA-NNJ’s associate executive vice president and COO, who learned that one of the participants had convinced her office manager to take a trip. "These people are encouraging their friends and neighbors to go to Israel."
A second Jersey to Jerusalem mission is planned for February ‘009.
Although he did not have exact figures, Gad-Harf said a number of the participants had made contributions to UJA-NNJ’s annual campaign after the trip, and one person had made a large enough donation to subsidize an entire trip to Israel for one person.
Gad-Harf credited the lack of fundraising on the trip for the involvement afterward. Unlike on other federation missions that intersperse touring with fundraising caucuses, UJA-NNJ did not ask for a single dollar during Jersey to Jerusalem.
"People don’t all spring into action if they haven’t in the past," he said. "We’re convinced that if this had been a purely fundraising trip, the experience would have been completely different. It wouldn’t have had the same effect."