‘This is what we stand for and believe in’

‘This is what we stand for and believe in’

 Jewish agencies caring for the aged send donations and a delegation to Israel

Members of the delegation talk to elders who live in Beit Shaul in Ashdod.
Members of the delegation talk to elders who live in Beit Shaul in Ashdod.

In the days and weeks following October 7,  roughly 1,400 rockets were fired from Gaza at the coastal city of Ashkelon about nine miles away. Two hundred and one of the projectiles made direct hits.

While many Ashkelon residents took refuge elsewhere in Israel, the staff and residents of Beit Halperin nursing home didn’t have that luxury. The five-building facility houses approximately 300 people, mostly of a low socioeconomic status. About 50 % of them are Holocaust survivors, and the cost for 90% of the residents is borne by government agencies.

Carol Silver Elliott, president and CEO of Jewish Home Family — encompassing a 196-bed nursing home in Rockleigh and a 107-unit assisted living campus in River Vale — said that when the 90-member Association of Jewish Aging Services learned of severe staffing and supply difficulties at Beit Halperin and at Beit Shaul eldercare facility in nearby Ashdod in the wake of the attacks, she and other AJAS board members decided to take action.

“We made the decision to do something to help these two nursing homes with the struggles they were having getting basic supplies like oxygen, and with staffing challenges,” Ms. Elliott said. “We sent $20,000 as an initial gift and then asked AJAS members throughout North America to contribute through their organizations or personally.

“That fundraising drive culminated in February at our annual conference. All told, we raised just over $200,000 as an association. I’m very proud that Jewish Home Family was the top fundraiser, amassing $20,200 from personal gifts of board members and management staff. There was no hesitation; it was a remarkable response.”

Although the money was wired immediately, Ms. Elliott suggested an in-person trip to present ceremonial checks, tour the facilities, and meet staff members and residents.

“When the board met in February, I expressed my strong feeling that we needed to go to Israel. As an association of Jewish organizations, we needed to make a statement that we are united with Israel in solidarity. From an organizational perspective, I said to our staff here that I go not for me but for the Jewish Home Family and each of them. I feel it’s so important to say, ‘This is who we are and this is what we stand for and believe in.’”

Using the contacts she’d made when organizing Israel trips for Jewish Home Family residents in 2015 and 2018 — a third trip was canceled first because of covid and then because of the war in Gaza — Ms. Elliott arranged for seven participants to be in Israel for a week. However, when the  flight out of New York was canceled, three of the group weren’t able to rebook, so four of them took off for Israel on May 3: Ms. Elliott and her husband, Tom Elliott; Dr. Jeffrey Farber, CEO of New Jewish Home in New York and chair of the board of AJAS; and Ruth Katz, the new CEO and president of AJAS.

On the way to Beit Shaul Ashdod Home for the Elderly on May 6, the group’s vehicle pulled over to stop on the side of the road at 10 a.m. in response to a siren — not a siren indicating an incoming rocket but the one sounded throughout Israel each year on Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, bringing everything to a halt for two minutes of silence.

The group poses with the ceremonial check. (All photos courtesy of Jewish Home Family)

“When we reached Beit Shaul, their day program was holding a Holocaust memorial service,” Ms. Elliott said. “We joined them and listened to the singing and the program, feeling very united and privileged to be together.”

Beit Shaul Director Israel Eden told the visitors that a staff of 164 cares for 200 residents in the facility’s nursing home; half of them are from the former Soviet Union. The staff also cares for 90 people in the day program; half of them were born in North African countries such as Morocco and Algeria.

“They told us about their experience during the early days and weeks following October 7 and the need they had to take in more elders, both from hospitals that needed the space for wounded and from private homes, from which aides had left,” Ms. Elliott said.

“They added 30 residents in less than a month to a building that was already full, squeezing a third bed into a number of their rooms. Today they are still at about 15 people over their capacity.”

Ashdod residents have 45 seconds to get to shelter when they hear sirens. Because Beit Shaul does not have designated bomb shelters, workers were told to take shelter in stairwells when the red alert was heard, but “as we might expect, staff refused to leave the elders for whom they were caring.”

Mr. Eden told them that they prayed. And fortunately, although debris from a rocket shot down by the Iron Dome anti-missile system landed next to the facility, Beit Shaul was not damaged.

“One of their staff said to us, ‘This place saves us. We need to be strong for them,’ the elders, ‘and there is a lot of happiness here.’

“We presented them with a facsimile of a $100,000 check, and they presented AJAS with a beautiful plaque in gratitude.” The plaque contains a scrap of metal from a rocket shot down by Iron Dome.

On May 7, Bonat Levy, the director of Beit Halperin in Ashkelon, and some of her team took Ms. Elliott and her companions around the facility.

From left at the Kotel on May 9: AJAS Chair Dr. Jeffrey Farber, Jewish Home Family president and CEO Carol Silver Elliott, AJAS President and CEO Ruth Katz, and Tom Elliott.

“Bonat recounted that they woke up to the sounds of sirens on October 7, and while this is not wholly unusual, within a few minutes they knew that something different was happening. Bonat was on maternity leave, having given birth to her son just days before. She spoke to her staff and told them to close the windows in their bomb shelters and to prepare to move the residents because only some of the units had bomb shelters.

“They moved 150 people in the span of a day to other nursing homes in central Israel,” Ms. Elliott continued. “The head nurse recounted that they practice every year for a full evacuation, but that nothing could prepare you for the real thing. A missile landed on the grounds of Beit Halperin, near the entrance. Fortunately, it did not explode.”

Beit Halperin provided free taxi service for staffers, although some members of the team chose to stay onsite in those first difficult days. The facility offered programming for staffers’ children because schools were closed.

“They talked about one couple, both survivors, whose grandchildren were both murdered, and another survivor whose grandson helped to save his wife and child before being killed,” Ms. Elliott said. “One of their nursing staff had a sister who was kidnapped and, thankfully, released. Two other nurses had their homes completely destroyed.

“We presented them with a replica of the $100,000 check that represents donations from our AJAS members, and which has been wired to them, for which they were very grateful.”

The facility earmarked the money for oxygen generators, as oxygen is one of the essentials  severely affected by supply-chain difficulties during the war.

“What they have experienced is unimaginable, but their commitment to the elders they serve remains steadfast,” Ms. Elliott said.

The AJAS foursome also visited an elder daycare center in Sderot that serves 10 kibbutzim and one moshav.

“They had been closed from October until March and are now still operating only three days a week, spending the other days visiting or calling their clients who have been evacuated,” Ms. Elliott said.

Carol Silver Elliott, second from right, and members of the group present a ceremonial check for $100,000 to Beit Shaul Ashdod Home for the Elderly; the facility’s director displays a plaque containing a scrap of metal from a rocket shot down by Iron Dome.

“The manager of the center, Chaya, described the situation on October 7, the understanding which began to build in the early morning hours. The mayor of their town was murdered that morning, as were 80 residents. Eight more remain hostages.”

They also visited the former Sderot police station, which will become a memorial site marking the massacre of more than 20 police officers that took place there on  that terrible day.

The group  next was taken to the sites of the worst Hamas attacks, including Re’im Forest, where hundreds of young adults had been attending a music rave that morning. This, too, has become a memorial to those killed or kidnapped.

“As you walk the field, you see photo after photo, beautiful faces filled with light and life, and realize how brutally their lives were cut short. Everyone who walks the site is quiet, clearly feeling that this is hallowed ground, and the overall feel is overwhelming, as if the mind cannot fully grasp this senseless loss of life.”

They toured the Gush Katif Heritage Center at Nitzan commemorating 17 Jewish communities of the Gaza Strip that were forcibly evacuated in 2005, and they stopped at Moshav Tekuma, where more than 1,000 vehicles recovered from along Highway 232 and Re’im Forest are being examined for further evidence of the atrocities their occupants suffered..

Among other  stops on their itinerary, they toured the world’s first underground protected blood center, run by Magen David Adom in Ramleh; visited wounded soldiers at Loewenstein Rehabilitation Hospital in Ra’anana; and met with members of the United Hatzalah, an Israel-wide network of some 7,000 neighborhood-based first responders.

“Finishing our day and our visit, we went to the Kotel, the Western Wall,” Ms. Elliott wrote in her daily blog about the trip. “I had a bag of about 125 notes that our elders and staff had asked me to take to place in the Wall. I asked each member of our group to take some of the notes and to place them in crevices of the Wall. Each of us did just that, understanding the importance of ensuring that each person’s heartfelt words were delivered to the sacred place for which they were intended.”

She said she felt grateful for “the opportunity to be in Israel, to see what must be seen and hear what must be heard and to provide what help and support that I could” and that she was impressed by the resilience and determination of all the Israelis they met.

“Many of them recognized, and talked about, these ‘seven months of sorrow.’ Yet they stand firm, they are coping with what has happened as well as what is in front of them, and they are going on. As they must.”

Ms. Elliott will talk about her experiences with the Jewish Home Family. She noted that on June 2, “we’re going to march for the first time with our elders and staff in the Celebrate Israel Parade in New York.”

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