‘We better have a vision’

‘We better have a vision’

North Jersey Federation leaders make short, intense trip to Israel

Lee Lasher, president of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, and Jason Shames, the federation’s CEO, pose in front of a Iron Dome missile defense battery outside Ashkelon.
Lee Lasher, president of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, and Jason Shames, the federation’s CEO, pose in front of a Iron Dome missile defense battery outside Ashkelon.

When Lee Lasher of Englewood got the word two weeks ago that the Israeli government asked a group of American Jewish federation leaders to visit the country and see the impact of last month’s violence for themselves, the president of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey didn’t have to think twice about whether or not to go.

The call came on a Friday afternoon. On Saturday night Mr. Lasher went to get a covid test; he had to take another one when he arrived in Israel on Tuesday. He also had to take a serological blood test.

“In this only-in-Israel moment, they had a taxi waiting for me at the airport, which drove me to the side of the road where another guy came and took my blood in the back of the taxi while he was on the phone talking to his friends,” Mr. Lasher recounted.

When he got to Tel Aviv, he had to show his vaccination card. Then he was officially quarantined until he received the all-clear from the Health Ministry the next morning, though he was allowed to mingle with his colleagues on the mission, including Jason Shames, the federation’s executive director, and another 20 or so federation professionals and leaders from across America.

“It was amazing,” Mr. Lasher said of the trip.

On Wednesday, the group was taken to Ashkelon, an hour’s drive south from Tel Aviv but only eight miles from Gaza. That’s less than the distance between the federation’s Paramus offices and the George Washington Bridge.

At the Iron Dome battery outside Ashkelon.

They started with a visit to the Iron Dome anti-missile defense battery that protects the residents of Ashkelon, and a briefing on how the system works.

Then they went to the Ashkelon Resilience Center, which the Jewish Federation has helped fund. The center tries to deal with the trauma residents endure from continuing attacks coming from nearby Gaza.

“They told us that there were days when over 500 missiles were targeting Ashkelon,” Mr. Lasher said. “Every few minutes you’re running for the shelter.”

The group met with Tali Levanon, co-founder and executive director of the Israel Trauma Coalition, which runs the center. “She told us how all her staff, the therapists who are trying to give comfort, are undergoing trauma themselves,” Mr. Lasher said.

A woman there told the group about planning her youngest child’s upcoming birthday. “She said they couldn’t have balloons at the party, because of the arson attacks” sent from Gaza by burning balloons. “When a little kid in Ashkelon thinks of balloons, he thinks of fire and danger. My grandson is turning 2 next week — this really struck me.”

Then they went to an immigrant absorption center, where they met new immigrants. Many were Ethiopian — including some who arrived this past year, despite the covid restrictions otherwise in place. “They just came and the first thing they have to deal with is being under missile attack,” Mr. Lasher said.

Lod community activist Avital Blonder shows the federation delegation around her city.

Then they visited Sigal Ariely, who directs the partnership between Ashkelon and the Baltimore Jewish federation. “On the 10th day of the operation, the ceasefire was coming,” she said, as reported by the Baltimore Jewish Times.

“The last hours of a ceasefire are always very intense. My stomach was turning. I had a feeling something was going to happen. I didn’t think that a rocket would hit my house.”

When she heard the siren, she went to a shelter. Her son was still in the house when the rocket hit. When Ms. Ariely returned to the house, she saw her son was covered by debris. She screamed, and her son said, “I am OK. Take a breath. I am OK.”

“My house was destroyed,” Ms. Ariely said. “The only thing that matters is that my son and I are OK.”

“The missile destroyed half the home,” Mr. Lasher said. “You saw a painting hung on the wall in what must have been the dining room. The rubble is everywhere.

“She’s someone who works for the Jewish Agency. She was always going into the community and seeing what the needs are. Now she needs this kind of assistance and help.”

A house in Ashkelon struck by a Hamas rocket from Gaza.

The day ended with meetings with former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, Danny Danon, and with Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Conricus, the international spokesperson for the Israel Defense Forces. Mr. Conricus brought an IDF pilot to the meeting; keeping with IDF protocol, the pilot was not named.

“He flew missions during the conflict,” Mr. Lasher said. “He talked about how much effort goes in to trying to avoid civilian casualties. He gave examples of times they had to abort missions because they were concerned about civilian casualties, when there were children in the area. So when the New York Times prints pictures of dead children in Gaza — my heart goes out for any dead child — it’s because Hamas put the children at risk.”

On Thursday morning, the group went to Lod.

“It’s one of main cities of the ancient world,” Mr. Lasher said. “But it’s a very poor city. There’s extreme poverty. To give one example, there’s not one cafe in Lod.”

The group got a walking tour of the city from a woman trying to create more affordable housing in Lod. “She took us to a spot where a famous mosque, a famous church, and a synagogue are all next to each other,” Mr. Lasher said. “This was the symbol of coexistence in Lod, she said.

“And then as we’re standing there, we turn around and look a hundred feet and you see the burnt-out cars from the violence that happened. This was a very sobering picture to see in person.

A burnt out car in Lod in the wake of riots there.

“Then we went to the JCC of Lod — the Chicago federation helps fund that JCC. Its head is an Israeli Arab woman.

“We met with a brother and sister who are modern Orthodox, who grew up in Jerusalem, and both decided to move to Lod with their families. They moved for quality of life — Jerusalem is too expensive, and Lod is near Tel Aviv. They’re in their 30s and they said they liked the idea of being in a mixed city; they didn’t want to be only with people like themselves.

“They were stunned by the violence and the extent of the violence and the speed of the violence. Neighbors turned on neighbors. Their kids played together, had been on soccer teams and scouts together. They felt like there was some progress, and it was really shattered pretty quickly.

“They were friends with this Israeli Arab woman who heads the JCC. She said she got a lot of grief from the Arab community for coming to meet us; she implied that she got threatened.

“They hugged each other, and said they’re going to need some time to process what happened. They said it was very painful. They didn’t want it to end their dreams of a city of coexistence.

“There’s no choice, they said. We have to figure out a way to live together.”

Another house in Ashkelon struck by a Hamas rocket from Gaza.

The remainder of Thursday’s meetings were with Israeli political leaders, first in Jerusalem and then back at the group’s hotel in Tel Aviv.

In Jerusalem, the group met with Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu in the cabinet room in the prime minister’s office. The prime minister showed videos of bombing missions in Gaza. “You hear the people speaking — ‘uh, I see children, abort.’”

Mr. Netanyahu said this was the presentation he had shown the U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken the day before.

They also met with Isaac Herzog, chairman of the board of the Jewish Agency for Israel, who was elected president of Israel in a secret Knesset ballot on Wednesday. Mr. Herzog told the group that “the Jewish federation system is the backbone and strength of Jewish life in America.”

In Tel Aviv, the delegation met with Foreign Affairs Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, Knesset member and potential Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Merav Michaeli, who heads Israel’s Labor Party, Knesset Member Betzalel Smotrich, diaspora Affairs Minister Omer Yankelevich, and former Knesset Member Michal Cotler-Wunsh.

“It’s a pretty wide spectrum of people,” Mr. Lasher said. “Their message was pretty consistent: appreciation for the American Jewish and diaspora community. ‘We need you and you need us and we are one family.’ That’s my takeaway.

Fatten Alzinaty, an Israeli Arab, heads a community center in Lod.

“They’re concerned obviously about seeing the news media and the progressive and even some Jewish groups that are coming out against the State of Israel and they just can’t believe it. They’re amazed that anyone would side with a terror regime like Hamas, let alone Jewish groups.

“We discussed anti-Semitism a lot. Netanyahu said in terms of the anti-Semitism, we have to be proud Jews. We have to know who we are, we have to understand the facts of the conflict, understand the history, and just be proud Jews.

“They were all very honest about the dysfunctional government, how four elections in two years is not sustainable and not good for the country. Budgets are not getting passed. When we went to Lod, we heard one of the reasons the police didn’t stop the riots is because the police budgets were not completed and they’re working on a shoestring budget and waiting for more money to come in.”

Mr. Bennett — who as this is being written seems likely to be the next prime minister of Israel — “was very genuine when he met with us. He was asking a lot of questions. Tell me about anti-Semitism, he said. He was trying to learn from us what was really going on in the Jewish communities.”

Mr. Lasher said he met Mr. Bennett before. (As a child, the American-born Israeli leader had lived in Teaneck for a short time, and he’d been enrolled at the Yavneh Academy.) “He wanted to understand more. He said, why do people like AOC and the Squad have the power they do?

“He also said a very scary thing. He said he considers himself a history guy and noted that there have been three Jewish commonwealths. The first kingdom, led by David and Shlomo, lasted less than 70 years before splitting. Then the Second Temple was rebuilt, but except for about 80 years of the Hasmoneans, the people were totally fragmented.

Jason Shames, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, laughs with Israeli soldiers.

“He said, ‘Think about it. The State of Israel is 73 years old. We’ve shown in our past two attempts we couldn’t make it past 80 years. So we better unite, better find common ground as opposed to our differences, we better have a vision because bad things could happen.’ That was a little bit sobering.

“If he becomes prime minister, he said, he see the role as prime minister of Israel and all Israeli citizens — religious, secular, Jewish, Arab — and he said, ‘I see myself as the leader of the Jewish people around the world.’

“That really resonated for me, because I believe that’s what the prime minister of Israel should be.”

The mission to Israel was only one piece of the federation’s response to the crisis in Israel. As the missiles were flying last month, the Israeli government reached out to the Jewish federations, asking for $1.3 million in emergency funding in the wake of the missile attacks. It covers extra support for the Jewish Agency to replenish its Victims of Terror Fund, which provides immediate cash relief to victims and their families within 24 hours after an attack, to work with the recently arrived Ethiopian immigrants experiencing trauma from the violence, and to support the MASA students who had just arrived in the country after the Jewish Agency and federations had pushed hard to get these students permission to enter Israel post-covid. It also includes extra support for the Israel Trauma Coalition and for the direct support that the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee provides to the social welfare of Israel’s most disadvantaged.

The request was divvied up among the federations based on size — North Jersey’s share came to “$26,000,” Mr. Lasher said. “We started the emergency campaign and the community was wonderfully responsive. We had to commit to a specific number right away. I said, what if we do $36,000 to show them we want to exceed our fair share?

“Within a couple days we were at $30,000, so we upped it to $50,000. I think we’re over $50,000 now. We continue to receive money, and continue to need money. In Ashkelon the calls to the trauma center are up 50 percent. The needs are outrageous and unbelievable. You go to a city like Lod that is trying to build coexistence — what funding can you do to help a place like that?”

Mr. Lasher said he felt that he represented the entire community when he was on this mission. “It wasn’t just the two of us” — he and Mr. Shames, he meant. “We got a lot of support from everybody. That’s something we felt very proud about — we went on a moment’s notice to show our support for our brothers and sisters in Israel.”

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