One simple principle made Rabbi Joel Mosbacher leave Mahwah to travel to areas of Israel under fire from Gaza: “You go see your family when they need you, not only in the good times,” he said.
Mosbacher, the spiritual leader of the Reform congregation Beth Haverim-Shir Shalom, elaborated. “I wanted to see the situation for myself so I could understand it on the ground and at large as much as possible, to find out more about ways in which American Jewry can connect with Israelis now,” he said.
Mosbacher was the sole New Jerseyan in a delegation of 12 lay and professional leaders from the Jewish Federations of North America who made a two-day emergency solidarity mission to Israel’s south during Operation Pillar of Defense and made a $5 million commitment to the Israel Terror Relief Fund.
A delegation from the Rabbinical Council of America, led by its president, Rabbi Shmuel Goldin of Englewood, followed close behind JFNA. And a separate Englewood group, inspired by congregational rabbis Goldin (of Congregation Ahavath Torah) and Zev Reichman (of the East Hill Synagogue), gave up Thanksgiving at home to be with Israelis on the front lines. Ahavath Torah’s assistant rabbi, Mordechai Gershon, also was part of the group.
“I was very torn initially,” Ahavath Torah member Scott Herschmann said. “I knew that practically speaking I wasn’t going to contribute much, but as I watched rockets being fired on cities in the south from the comfort of my couch, I had to get up and do something to help – whether by buying products from stores in the affected cities, or bringing supplies and words of appreciation to soldiers. I left my wife and four kids at home to be in the middle of a war because I felt that joining my brothers and sisters in Israel shows ‘am Yisrael chai'” – the nation of Israel lives.
Speaking to the Jewish Standard en route to Tel Aviv from Ashkelon, Mosbacher recounted that his group had met with a trauma specialist in Sderot, the border city that has absorbed thousands of rockets from Gaza over the past dozen years.
“I did some chaplaincy work with first responders after Sandy,” last month’s destructive superstorm, “so to watch Israeli first responders struggling with their own emotions and needs and obligations has been impactful for me,” Mosbacher said.
The JFNA group spent time with a family whose home was struck by a missile, with elderly citizens of a southern Israeli moshav, or cooperative village, and in one of 60 Ashkelon bomb shelters.
“I spoke with a 9-year-old girl who was painting a tribute to the Israeli army on the wall of the shelter,” Mosbacher said. “That resonated with me, because my son is 9. I asked her how she is doing and she said, ‘Down here we can’t hear anything.’ To see Israeli strength and vulnerability has been very emotional.”
The RCA group, 20 strong, had a packed schedule from Tuesday afternoon through Thursday night, mainly arranged on the fly. “The things we’ve done have been unbelievable,” Goldin said.
“We said Tehillim [Psalms] in an apartment in Kiryat Malachi where three people were killed, and we made a shiva call to one of the families of the victims,” he said. “We’ve had military lectures explaining the situation to us as it was developing. We went to an Iron Dome installation near Beersheva, and we visited four injured soldiers at Beersheva’s Soroka Medical Center. People kept thanking us for coming, and I kept turning it around to say, ‘We thank you for being here and defending the country, and thus defending world Jewry.'”
On the day before Thanksgiving, the RCA and Englewood groups traveled together and experienced the panic of a “red alert” signaling 90 seconds in which to find cover from incoming missiles.
East Hill Synagogue member Brian Haimm watched the Iron Dome missile interception system at work. “While we were there, an alarm went off and in seconds you heard a popping in the sky,” he said, noting that the Hebrew for “Iron Dome” is Kippat Barzel. The word “kippah” is more often used to mean “skullcap.” “Wearing a kippah is to acknowledge that God above is protecting all of us,” said Haimm, who also helped deliver 2,500 pre-Chanukah jelly doughnuts to soldiers massed on the border with Gaza.
David Wisotsky, a pediatrician and member of Ahavath Torah, was especially moved by his visit to the Jewish National Fund’s 21,000-square-foot sheltered play space in Sderot.
“The children in Sderot haven’t been able to play outside for the 10 or 12 years that Sderot has been under rocket fire,” he said. “Soldiers were playing games with them instead of nannies, but that was normal for them.”
Wisotsky’s son Adam, 34, a social worker from Passaic, recalled that on a NORPAC lobbying mission to Washington several years ago, he used the political action committee’s talking points to encourage lawmakers’ support for “a certain mode of security for Israel. I did not know much about it, but later I heard it had passed.” That was, of course, the economic assistance package to build the Iron Dome.
“About two days ago, I was standing there looking at rockets pouring over Sderot, and Iron Dome shooting them down, saving countless lives,” Wisotsky continued. “Because of that little bit of involvement that I didn’t even understand at the time, thousands of lives have been saved. In the same way, we may not fully understand the benefits of our presence here, but people really do care that we came, and you never know how it impacts each person.”
Goldin added that many of the group had debated whether their presence would matter. “Every time we’ve come as a community during times like this, uniformly everyone we met thanked us for coming and thought it was just wonderful that we came,” said Goldin, who led a congregational mission in 1999 to bring toys, shoes, and medicine to children in a Macedonian refugee camp during the war in Kosovo. “When they see people dropped everything to come, that is a message you can’t give any other way.
“You should never question your effectiveness. Just go.”