On the ground in Israel

On the ground in Israel

Members of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey’s mission report back

ON THE COVER:  Paul Brensilber, Jason Shames, and Dr. Tsvi Sheleg walk together in Nahariya. (Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey)
ON THE COVER: Paul Brensilber, Jason Shames, and Dr. Tsvi Sheleg walk together in Nahariya. (Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey)

Nina Kampler of Teaneck has been on more than 100 trips to Israel. She’s lost count of the exact number. She made bar mitzvahs for her children during some of those trips and she attended weddings of close relatives and of close friends’ children during some of those trips. And she has participated in a number of missions to Israel coordinated by the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey.

But her most recent trip, a JFNNJ mission from which she recently returned, was “the most momentous and impactful,” Ms. Kampler said.

“From October 7 until literally the day I landed in Israel, I, like many other American Jews, was in a deep, deep funk. It was almost impossible to decipher the reality of what was happening in Israel. At the same time, we were being crushed by this wave of antisemitism in America unlike anything this country had ever experienced. It was entirely overwhelming.

“But when the plane landed in Israel, it was like my whole biorhythm and balance shifted,” Ms. Kampler said. “I went from feeling like I was a foreigner in a strange land, waiting for the next shoe to drop, to feeling like I was in a country where I was welcome and belonged and was part of the continuity of the life no matter what happens.

At Gilat Tachanat Rianun —a pop up kitchen that provides a hot meals to soldiers — JFNNJ visitors posed with soldiers. From left, they’re Jeff Goldman, Jeff Weinstein, Paul Brensilber, Jason Shames, Josh Weingast, Nina Kampler, Alan Silberstein and David Goodman.

“In Israel, where families are sending their kids literally to battle on behalf of the people of Israel, on behalf of Jews all over the world, and I’d go so far as to say, with the goal of preserving democracy as we know it today across the entire world by keeping evil contained, you feel an eternal sense of purpose and resilience. You are fortified by the singular determination and knowledge that good will always prevail, and that we will get through this too. And that spirit literally lifts you.”

Ms. Kampler spent almost two weeks in Israel with her husband, Zvi Marans, before the mission, and stayed on to join the JFNNJ group. Dr. Marans and Ms. Kampler visited injured soldiers and displaced families and worked with a civilian distribution command center getting supplies to bases. They also spent time with their seven nieces and nephews who are now serving in the Israel Defense Forces. “We had the opportunity to support them and their families, and to be with our good friends whose children were also called to war,” Ms. Kampler said. “We really felt that we were helping — helping the economy, helping the ecosystem, helping our friends and family, giving strength to people who were victims of this massacre.

“But the mission itself was like being impactful on steroids.”

The group spent time in the south of Israel, “walking on the ashes of Kibbutz Be’eri and meeting with eyewitnesses, meeting with survivors,” Ms. Kampler said. “We were literally bearing witness to what I call today’s Auschwitz. I think it’s essential that in the raw shape that the south is today, where you see the burnt cars, and you see the broken homes, and you see the discarded, disheveled, destroyed possessions, I think it is critical for us to lay our eyes on it so that we never forget, and we can convey that freeze frame of utter desecration to the generations that come after us.

“Somehow in this insane 2023, just having a video and photographic images does not seem to be evidence; if we’re there also as eyewitnesses, it amplifies the history of the horrific events and the recording of that day for posterity.”

David Goodman

Ms. Kampler’s father, Paul Kampler, was born in Frankfurt in 1920 and survived six years in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, outside Berlin. As her own life moves forward, and she has thought about why she is here, about why her father survived so that she is now alive, “it becomes more and more clear to me that he has passed the baton to me in a chain of Jewish survival, and it is both my obligation and my privilege to assure that I continue to pass our Jewish tradition on to my children and grandchildren,” she said. “I realize that my purpose is to make certain that the continuity of the Jewish people surges forward and that I do everything I can to help the survival of the Jewish people. I can be a fund-raiser and a letter-writer, I can lobby with AIPAC, I can be very vocal on social media, and I can visit Israel and lend support. So I have been extremely active since this war started.”

The JFNNJ group visited Har Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem and had the opportunity to be present at the Knesset during a vote on the wartime budget. It also added an unplanned visit to the Kotel. “Given what was going on, everybody felt the need to go,” Ms. Kampler said. They also spent time with displaced families. “The thing that is most incredible is that we went to let our Israeli sisters and brothers know that they’re not alone,” she continued. “We went to say we are here with emotional support, financial support, spiritual support, we’re here to give you our love and show our appreciation and infuse you with energy because we’re so grateful for everything you are doing.

“And the thing that is most shocking is that every single Israeli we met with could not stop thanking us.”

The mission was intended to enable participants to bear witness and to help them get a better understanding of what happened so they could come back and explain it to others, and be in a better position to advocate, Jason Shames, JFNNJ’s CEO, said. “I think that it’s the stories about the Israeli people, and the hardships and what’s really going on there, that have to be brought home and shared because of the fight on campus here, the fight with the media, which seems, for some reason, to be very pro-Hamas and pro-terrorist.”

North Jersey volunteers help serve food to IDF soldiers.

This was not Mr. Shames’s first trip to Israel since October 7. He went there soon after the attack and saw a somewhat different landscape then. “I would say that at this point, the Israelis are further along in their understanding of the situation,” he said. “When I went in October, we weren’t even allowed to go down south to see the carnage and the damage, and when we met with Israelis, that was like shiva and mourning. Now that you’re nine, 10 weeks out, you’re seeing the Israeli psyche shift to recognizing the existential threat to the Jewish state, especially concerned with Hezbollah up north, and trying to gather its wits and move forward. But there’s still a trauma that exists in the country like nothing I’ve ever seen.”

JFNNJ has a close relationship with Nahariya — the federation’s catchment area and the city are “sister regions” — and JFNNJ partners with Nahariya on a variety of projects. The Galilee Medical Center there is the largest hospital in the north. Mr. Shames has been to that hospital dozens of times, he’s been to its underground areas, but the recent mission was the first time he saw the underground area occupied and functioning.

“The fact that the hospital, on the 7th and 8th, relocated its neonatal unit, the ICU unit, and the dialysis unit downstairs immediately and then put everybody else in either the underground part or in fortified areas of the hospital tells a tremendous story in and of itself,” he said.

“The hospital’s director is a Christian Arab who is also a Zionist,” Mr. Shames continued. “The hospital is pretty much 50-50 in terms of both its employees and patients between Arabs and Jews. And what we heard time and time again was that both Arabs and Jews felt that Hamas had crossed the line and that this was about humanity. So the hospital, in and of itself, was rather remarkable in that respect.

“I didn’t sense that there was tension. My sense was that there were pockets here and there, but on the whole, I got the sense from the staff that there was full support of the Israeli people and the Israeli government; not total support but full support — nothing is absolute. When we spoke to the deputy director and the director, we were consistently told that everybody at the hospital understood right from wrong, that everyone understood Israel’s right to defend itself, and that everyone understood that the hospital’s job was to treat each of its patients with the same amount of care, both medically and emotionally.”

From left, Lotan Pinyan, Jason Shames, and Paul Brensilber look at the devastation in Kibbutz Be’eri.

Ms. Kampler also found the hospital remarkable, in terms of both its fully equipped underground operations and the coexistence on display there. “Because this war is creating such massive confusion in the United States between what is a terrorist organization and what is a Palestinian, between what is a jihadist and what is an Arab, because of the insane misinformation influencing America now, it seems to me that this hospital should be headline news as a shining example of how beautifully Jews and Arabs work together in so many aspects of Israeli life.

“In the NICU, we saw a young Jewish couple davening near their newborn in an incubator, next to a woman who was reading from her own holy book. And everybody appeared to be comfortable in that setting,” she continued. “The hospital is a gorgeous living example of the beauty that is Israel that is somehow invisible to the mass media and the ignorant people throughout the United States and Europe calling for the destruction of Israel.”

The group also visited Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem and found a similar coexistence among both patients and staff. “Given the war situation, it seemed particularly striking that there was such a mixed population, on both the patient and staff levels, with no antagonism that we witnessed during the visit, which I understand is normally the case,” Ms. Kampler said. “There was an environment of everyone being part of the same society, which is truly remarkable.

“It’s just so unbearably sad to me that so many people in the world, in wishing for Israel to disintegrate, in their ignorance, they have no true understanding and appreciation of the moral fiber and the deep, deep humanity that Israel is really all about.”

Jason Shames and Nina Kampler join a class at the Galilee Medical Center.

In addition to the resilience and humanity of Israelis, mission participants saw some of the trauma resulting from the attack. The group toured Netiv HaAsara, a moshav in the south that lost 20 people on October 7. Later, they met with some of the moshav’s residents in the Tel Aviv hotel where about half the community is now living — the other half is staying in a Jerusalem hotel. They heard from five 12th-grade boys who had lost two of their classmates on October 7. Now the teens are living in hotel rooms and going to a new high school in an urban area. “They’re not only hurting and mourning, but they feel trapped, and these are 12th-graders,” Mr. Shames said. “Compounding this for me is the fact that in six to eight months, they’re going to be in the military themselves. I don’t think that we as Americans think long and hard enough about the impact of that. If you feel strongly about Israel and its centrality to global Jewish life, and having a strong Israel, then we need to do everything we can to make sure that the people living there are given the proper support and tools.

“I have a 12th-grader,” Mr. Shames continued. “My 12th-grader doesn’t have to worry about someone coming into her house trying to kill her, about locking herself in a safe room. My 12th-grader has to worry about where she’s going to college next year, she doesn’t have to worry about joining the army and what that means and all the implications that come and go with it. And so I feel, as a leader and CEO of the Jewish community, a sense of obligation to ensure that these kids have as much of a quality of life as any other American, or Jew, or free nation-state teenager would.”

Meeting the teens from Netiv HaAsara also resonated with David Goodman of Paramus. Mr. Goodman joined the mission because he did not want to “sit by when I see people that I’m connected to suffering,” he said. Years ago, he cofounded JFNNJ’s Klene Up Krewe in response to the devastation in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. “I went to school in New Orleans and saw these people suffering,” he said. “And I felt that I needed to be in Israel now to show solidarity, I needed to be there to bear witness to what had happened, and to be able to come back and share my story of what I experienced and saw.”

At Netiv HaAsara, a member of that community showed the group around. He told them about two boys from the moshav who had gone fishing on the morning of October 7 and had sent videos of themselves to their friends. When the boys saw the terrorists, they tried to hide, but the terrorists found them, murdered them, videoed the murder, and sent the video to the friends. The teens the group met in the Tel Aviv hotel later that day were the friends who had received the horrific video. “It was just so painful to meet them,” Mr. Goodman said. “They shared with us that the two murdered teens were their friends. Looking in their faces, they’re really stressed out — they’re living in hotel rooms in an urban area, they’re in a new school, their whole life has been turned around. It’s horrible.

“We’re not getting that story here; that’s not something the news is sharing with us,” Mr. Goodman continued.

From left, Josh Weingast, Jeff Weinstein, Alan Silberstein, and David Goodman prepare food at the pop-up kitchen.

The group’s guide at Netiv HaAsara survived the attack and is unable to work right now because of what he saw and what he experienced that day. Now he shows visitors what happened; he keeps going back to the moshav and telling the story. In a similar vein, a member of Kibbutz Be’eri showed the group the devastated kibbutz grounds and talked about what happened there during the attack. A therapist who was working with the guide to help him process his experiences on the 7th joined the group for the tour. He told Mr. Goodman that it’s therapeutic for the guide to return to the kibbutz with visiting groups and tell the stories, but that he still has a lot of issues to overcome.

“Now think about the hundreds of thousands of people that have these needs now,” Mr. Goodman said.

He found the visit to Har Herzl very emotional. “We went to the site where the new graves are. We saw the tributes made to these young soldiers, graves that were adorned with photos and personal effects. It’s really sad.” And he was impressed by the underground blood bank. “It’s a shame that you have to build a blood bank five stories underground, but the technology’s incredible, the facility’s amazing, and it’s a place now that they can protect the blood supply,” he said. “Just like they have underground hospitals, now they have an underground blood bank.”

Overall, he found the country in a very different state than he had seen on earlier visits. “Everybody is walking around like they’re shell-shocked,” Mr. Goodman said. “It’s hard to see that. They’re tough people, but whatever’s happened has impacted every single person in the country.”

From left, Paul Brensilber, Nina Kampler, and Jason Shames stand together in Nahariya.

The group also spent time serving lunch at a facility near Gaza that provides meals and other respite for soldiers, and Mr. Goodman found the visit uplifting. “The soldiers are so brave and so appreciative,” he said. “They were so glad that we were there volunteering and helping out. They’re inspirational. These are people that are right on the front lines in Gaza.” And he feels fortunate that he was able to be in Israel and to come back and tell the story. “The individual stories are impactful and people need to hear about them,” he said. “And the story about the country itself” and about the challenges the country faces now and going forward, needs to be shared too.

The group heard from a number of speakers. “We met with a member of the Druze community who talked about what it’s like being a Druze in Israel, and about their community — how they support Israel, what opportunities they’ve had because they live in Israel,” Mr. Goodman said. They also met with academics who talked about the electoral system in Israel, how the government is functioning, and some of the existential issues that Israel faces.

“I learned things we don’t hear about in the media,” Mr. Goodman concluded. “I got to see the faces of people and the pain they are experiencing right now. There’s a feeling of a lack of security, there are people who don’t trust the government to protect them anymore. It’s going to be really hard to fix it, but these people are so determined to keep Israel safe. They’ll find a way to deal and hopefully move forward.”

Paul Brensilber of Tenafly, another mission participant, returned home with a newfound appreciation for the Israeli spirit. The country experienced a horrific massacre, and Israelis “are dealing with it and rising above it,” he said.

It was immediately apparent that the country is at war. “The airport is empty,” Mr. Brensilber said. “It doesn’t have the normal feel of an airport with people coming and going. There’s no traffic on the roads, and then you get to the hotels, there’s nobody in the lobby.” He saw pictures of the hostages in the Knesset viewing area. When the group served lunch to soldiers who were on their way into, or out of, Gaza, Mr. Brensilber met a soldier who works at Microsoft. He thought about how Israelis are putting their lives and jobs on hold to defend their country. Then he thought about Microsoft’s Israel office and other Israeli businesses and about whether they are able to operate with so many people being called up.

From left, Jeff Weinstein; Nina Kampler; Paul Brensilber; Dr Tsvi Sheleg, the deputy director of the Galilee Medical Center; Ravit Steinmetz Shemla, the director of NJJFNJ’s Israel office; and Jason Shames stand in front of the medical center in Nahariya.

When the group was in Nahariya, they went to the Lebanese border. “The most glaring thing you see is the deserted towns,” Mr. Brensilber said. “Residents within five miles of the border were evacuated. It looks like a Hollywood set, it’s like a sci-fi movie — but this is real.

“Nahariya is seven miles from the border,” he continued. “If Hezbollah invades, Nahariya is the first city in its path. The mayor is running his office out of a shelter now.”

Mr. Brensilber was struck by the fact that the Galilee Medical Center is operating almost entirely underground and that half of the facility’s patients and staff are Arab. “The world is really not hearing what the Israelis are doing,” he said. “This war is about Hamas, not Palestinians.

“The academics we met with said they don’t understand what’s happening on the American college campuses and they don’t understand the antisemitism,” Mr. Brensilber continued. “They don’t understand how 1,200 people get massacred, 240 people get taken hostage, and people aren’t able to say that this is a bad thing. This is wrong.”

For Mr. Shames, the takeaway from the trip is “what’s going on with the Israeli psyche, the hurt and the pain and the frustration and the threat, and the need for Israel to have far greater support around the globe for what it’s fighting, what it’s up against,” he said. “And the moral and ethical conduct that Israel has that, quite frankly, is superior to what our enemies have.

Ravit Steinmetz Shemla is at the Har Herzl military cemetery, putting a rock on the grave of a soldier from Nahariya who fell in this war.

“Israel is still in deep mourning,” Mr. Shames said. “We were at Hostage Square in Tel Aviv, and there were a lot of tears. And I think that Israelis feel like they are in a battle for the nation state in and of itself, that they legitimately are on the forefront of fighting for Jewish rights globally, and that this is a war that they have to win. And everyone’s been touched.

“Israelis are pretty well connected, and everyone there has been directly affected or knows someone who has been. It’s Israeli resolve in the face of total destruction and loss. This is about, for me, Israel having the moral high ground and not being held to a double standard.

“I think the fact that Israelis and the IDF are not targeting civilians, that they in fact help civilians, sometimes gets lost. There’s a recent story about an IDF brigade in Gaza that found a 4-year-old wandering around. The soldiers fed her, they took care of her, and then they turned her over to the proper authorities so that she could be returned to her family. If Hamas had found a 4-year-old Jewish kid wandering around, they either would have killed her or taken her hostage. And Israelis don’t rape Palestinians, they don’t purposefully harm civilians, there’s no moral equivalency between the two, and therefore we have the high ground on this.

“It’s as clear as night and day. Israel’s a peace-loving, humanitarian-driven society, and these terrorists are bloodthirsty. Israelis don’t celebrate dead people but Hamas certainly does.

“You just have to hear the stories of the survivors — of what their life was like before, and what their life was like that day, and what their life is like now — to understand what’s going on,” Mr. Shames concluded. “Israel didn’t start this, Israel didn’t want this, and now the world needs to get out of the way and let Israel finish it.”

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