Life in the War Zone
After much jetlag, I can finally report on my recent trip to Israel.
The trip was taken with much anticipation and trepidation.
On Tuesday evening August 8th I received a call from a friend telling me about a volunteer mission to Israel sponsored by an ad hoc group named CareforIsrael. Morey Kellman was the energetic leader of this group.
About the first of August he began to plan a volunteer mission to help in the war effort. Less then 2 weeks later 100 people were on their way on Saturday evening August 12th to help in whatever way they could.
As I mentioned, I only found out about the mission a few days prior to departure. My flight was only confirmed on Thursday the 10th 2 days prior to departure and I packed my bags only hours before Shabbat. I ran out of the house minutes after Shabbat was over to be on time for the flight.
Except for the fact that the flight left in a timely fashion and that I had been without sleep for days, the flight was uneventful.
We arrived Sunday evening August 13th to Israel. Buses took us to Jerusalem to the Kings Hotel where we met with a trauma expert who advised us on how to deal with the citizens of the North whom we would be spending our time with in the next few days.
A ceasefire had been tentatively agreed to on Friday to take effect on Monday at 8:00 AM but the war continued to rage.
I could not sleep well that Sunday evening. Consequently I rose at 5:15 AM and headed to the Kotel for Vosikin minyan. Despite the fact I couldn’t catch a taxi, I found someone who stopped to give me ride. He was also heading for Vosikin, so he took me back as well.
I always find the silence that takes place at Neitz at the Kotel an eerie feeling, yet at the same time invigorating.
After heading back to the hotel for breakfast, I grabbed some clothes for three days and a sheet to take with me. I wasn’t going on a camping trip. Ten of us were heading up north to be in the shelters for three days.
It was bit nerve wracking, not knowing what would await us. Yet I had little to worry about.
As we were about to leave, Morey received a phone call from Lev Achad. They were our coordinators for what we would be doing up there and they told us not to come that day. I assume it was because the ceasefire had taken hold, but I can’t be sure.
So instead of heading North, new plans were made for the 10 of us.
We were whisked off to a soup kitchen called Hazon Yeshaya. When we arrived we were put on KP duty peeling hundreds of potatoes. If I had stayed home I wouldn’t want to peel even one, yet here I felt comfortable putting in the hours. After a few hours, we served the locals who came in for a meal. We also tried to give them Chizuk. One of the members of our group, Arnie, had a guitar. He started playing some lively music, so we joined in to dance with some of the patrons. It was uplifting to see the smiles on so many faces.
This particular soup kitchen which serves Jerusalem with some 2500 meals a day, also serves 3000 additional meals to other areas of Israel. Additionally, they made 4000 more meals to be taken up North. The head of Hazon Yeshaya shown on a video visualized to us the horrors that were taking place in the North. As they were driving through some Northern Town trying to deliver food, an air raid siren went off. They hurried off their transport and tried to head towards a shelter. The shelter however was closed, so they had to stand on the outside of it until the ‘all clear.’
Later, they delivered to shelters where one woman said they had not left it for 17 days. No one, she said had come to visit them or to bring food until Hazan Yeshaya had at that moment.
But the shelters were not the only places that needed food. Climbing up 4 stories to a top floor, the soup kitchen crew delivered food to an old couple who could not leave their home, despite the fact that shells were raining around them.
It was extremely troubling to see that the government had abandoned these people. The Israeli papers quoted government officials that they were not delivering food because they did not want the Northern population to become dependent on the State. It’s interesting that this is coming from a State that is dependent on the US, the Jews of the Diaspora and new Olim. It was quite despicable.
Following our time in the soup kitchen, we went to donate blood at Magen Dovid Adom. They took blood from most of group, but I was so weak from the trip, they told me to wait a week. Oh well, I tried.
The next day I was still jetlagged so I woke again for Vosikin. This time I found a cab. After davening which ended about 6:15 AM I walked back through the shuk. It was eerily empty except for 3 or 4 old Arabs who were opening up their stores. It was a quick walk, however, rather then going through the Armenian quarter.
That morning we headed towards an Army base in Tzrifin which is south of Ramle. We were there to pack food packages which were to be airlifted to the remaining troops in Lebanon. If only much of these packages were sent earlier. Stories of soldiers having to take water off the dead Hizballah fighters, breaking into stores for a morsel of food or eating at the local Lebanese populace homes were the stories we heard time and again.
The food was packed on an assembly line. Sixty people placed products such as tuna, canned vegetables and the lot in boxes which were for 4 Meals in a 24 hour period. Each box weighed about 4 pounds and were stacked 180 high on a gurney to be fork lifted away and then parachuted to the troops. On that Tuesday, I had to place canned chocolate in the boxes. First I was placing them gently, but the conveyer was moving so fast at times, I began throwing them in. It was almost like the famous “I Love Lucy” episode where Lucy had to wrap chocolates arriving on a conveyer belt. The belt, however, was moving so quickly that she had to eat most of them just to keep pace.
Later we headed to Sderot which for some time, along with Gush Katif, had been hit by thousands of Kassam missiles. We met with the deputy mayor and saw the extensive damage. We also met with some children of the town who at first said that everything was alright. Then one of them said he was so scared that he needed his father to stand outside the toilet to hum to him, so that he knew he was safe. At all times he knew where the nearest shelter was, so that he could go there on a moments notice.
On Wednesday, the 16th, we headed up North. We met with soldiers stationed in the Golan, who had just come back from the fighting and had lost four men in the last days of the ceasefire. One of their fallen comrades Uri Grossman was the son of a leading novelist and “Peace Now” activist. The father had just been at a protest against the war prior to his son’s death.
Soldiers were now crowding around a newspaper which discussed the funeral and eulogy for their fallen comrade. Mr. Grossman said that Israel will have to ascertain what it lost during this war. He does not have time for that. He is busy with what he and his family had lost, the loss of his son.
Some of the soldiers eventually started talking of their experiences. One, tank commander, told us of the anti-tank missiles which were being shot from kilometers away. They never saw them coming. When they tried to return fire, the Hizballah terrorist surrounded themselves with children. They could not return fire.
Later that day we went to Kiryat Shemona. I was surprised by the lack of destruction. Kiryat Shemona had almost 1000 missiles fall in the center of the city. I saw only mostly blackened fields.
We went to the Hesder Yeshiva on top of the city, sitting directly on the border. One of the ‘bochorim’ showed us the blackened windows of the Beit Hamidrash, the apartment buildings which received a direct hit, and the remnants of Katyushas.
We next headed to the mall in Kiryat Shemona. It wasn’t quite as busy as the ‘Kanyon’ in Jerusalem but people were there. I didn’t notice any damage.
We next met with an officer of the ‘Home Front’ in a forest on the outskirts of Safed. He emphasized that this war was not over and that we were only at the ‘halftime’ break.
That evening, in Jerusalem, we met with Yuli Edelstein. Though he was reluctant to criticize the Olmert administration, he made it quite apparent that Israel was not in a good situation.
The next morning, we met with Natan Sharansky who basically reiterated the same trepidation as Edelstein. He also mentioned that when he resigned from the government last year, he told Sharon that he hoped he was wrong about the Disengagement from Gaza. Unfortunately, he was not.
That Thursday morning we headed back to Tzrifin to pack some more food. This time they put me in charge of the assembly line. It might sound like a piece of cake to press an ‘on’ button and then an ‘off’ button but if you have to watch people getting their fingers caught in machinery, people dropping heavy boxes coming at them at top speed, boxes getting caught in the taping machine and all sorts of problems, I felt like I needed five pairs of eyes.
That evening we heard from an IDF spokesman who said that we can look at this war as a glass half-full or as glass half-empty. It wasn’t a great analogy but it’s all I came away with.
Later that evening most of the mission went back to New York. I stayed for Shabbat to recuperate.
All in all, it was a worthwhile trip, though I am afraid that we are trailing badly at halftime. Moreover, even if we win ‘the game’ our losses which are heavy already will be far worse unless there is major change in leadership.
May this coming year be one of Guela Shlaima, a homecoming from our exile, and a healthy and happy one for one and all.