This week, while I worried from afar, my mother-in-law merited to go on a mission to visit Israel, including all the dangerous areas like Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. I couldn’t be there with her, but I am honored to post this journal on her behalf. She is a past president of AMIT , and went with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations Solidarity Mission

-Mori Sokal

My Trip to Israel July 16, 21014

By Sondra Sokal

Just a few thoughts you can share as you wish.

It is late Wednesday evening and I have just finished the formal part of a three day mission of Solidarity with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.  I will spare you the details of the geopolitical and strategic briefings, although I would be happy to share them with you when I return.

I would like to really share the emotion of being in Israel alas once again while our brothers and sisters are under attack.  The minute you get on the ELAL plane, whether you are a citizen or not, you become an Israeli.  You note the empty lounge, the short check-in lines and the empty seats on the plane.  Where is everyone? One hundred cancellations today is the answer.  The stewardess is subdued and on landing, the captain wishes you a ShavuaTov and a quiet stay!  The airport seems quieter than on my last trip just a few weeks ago, and as we board the bus we are told not to worry; in case of an alert the driver will pull over to the side and would we all please crouch below window height with our hands over our heads.

But this grim picture seems to melt away as we approach Tel Aviv with its heavy traffic and bustling pedestrian scene.  As we pull up to the hotel for our first briefing of the day, we note swimmers in the Mediterranean and surfers paddling out to catch the waves. So what’s the real story here:  war-time angst or business as usual?

As I was to find out, it was a mixture of both, with an emphasis on a steely determination to keep things as normal as possible.  So, two briefings later and after a great lunch, we prepare to depart for Sderot just as the sirens start blaring and it’s off to the stairwell for all of us.  Swimmers and surfers leave the water, scanning the sky for incoming rockets.  We are subdued and anxious but not really scared.  The Israelis among us are confident.  “Don’t worry,” they tell us, “if it’s close Kippah Barzel (the Iron Dome) will take it out.”  Ten minutes later it’s all clear and hurry to the bus–we’re late.  The swimmers, we note, are already back in the water; the surfers paddling out to sea.

First stop is a visit to one of the Iron Dome batteries placed to protect Tel Aviv.  It is a really weird sight.  Two batteries, side by side surrounded by a few soldiers and some equipment that looks a lot like and must be radar.  Not all that many soldiers are around; actually there are more media crew with their satellite up-links and cameras than military.  Lots of people, Tel Avivians it seems, are strolling around an open dirt field watching the scene; a fair number are families with children, some with babies in carriages.  The media are hoping for action; are the spectators?  It reminds me of paintings of 18th and 19th century battles with the townspeople watching the action from nearby hilltops.  But who can blame them?  The Iron Dome is truly space age technology, totally Israeli technology, of which all Israel can be proud.  In this war it has had a better than 90% success rate and is only deployed when radar determines that the trajectory of the incoming missile will cause it to hit a populated or strategically valuable area.  As Israelis, we are proud of what our start-up nation has produced.  As Americans we are proud that we- you, I and every American taxpayer – has paid for it.  And by the way, not one Israeli we met with failed to acknowledge that support, which continues to this day.

More tomorrow.  It’s late here.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

We travel straight from Tel Aviv to Sderot.  By now, everyone on the bus has downloaded one of the apps that keep us informed, minute by minute, of the latest rocket launches.  They are coming fast and furious, from Gaza, of course, but from Lebanon and Syria as well. But the roads are crowded with cars, buses and trucks, and everything looks normal.  We turn off the highway into Sderot and it really hits us that the streets here are empty.  It’s a late summer afternoon but where are the children, out of school, who should be playing on the streets?  They are at extended day camp in schools that have been kept open to provide them with a safe play environment close to shelters.  The town is trying to keep it normal for the kids but ever mindful of the threat.  We arrive at the Sderot command center, three floors underground. We are urged to enter quickly, but first we have a defiant, open-air Mincha, with Zakka volunteers to round out the Minyan.

Mayor Alon Davidi greets us and explains how the command center operates.  It’s open 24/7 with senior people, the mayor included, taking rotations for night duty.  Security cameras and multiple screens scan the streets. There is the ability to pinpoint a hit, see what the damage has been and dispatch police and medical help as needed.  The Mayor makes it a point to thank Rabbi Dov Fendel and the Yeshiva for their presence, support and involvement in all aspects of the community.  He thanks AMIT for the work they continue to do with the children of Sderot, including the summer day camps. He recalls that the last time he and I met, we were also in a bomb shelter.  That time, it was erev Purim and we were bringing Mesheloach Manot to soldiers on the Gaza border, when we came under attack.

The Mayor dwells on the resilience of the population, their determination to remain in Sderot and not abandon their homes.  Like everyone we will meet, his praise for Iron Dome and the funding from the US which made it possible is effusive. The economic impact is most apparent here in Sderot, the community which has endured the longest and most intense bombing from Gaza. He speaks of the special impact this long-term situation has had on the children and tells us about his two year old daughter who does not know what clouds are.  She thinks they are rocket interceptions.

But the Mayor is, over-all, upbeat and optimistic about the future.  As we leave the shelter to board the bus for Ashdod we get waves from a group of Sderot residents enjoying dinner at out-door tables in the café across the street. On the bus we learn that during our 45 minute visit, Sderot had come under attack several times, with all the rockets landing in open spaces.  Business as usual.

Before the day is out we also visit Ashdod and Ashkelon.  In each the scene is very similar.  We witness the tremendous resilience of the population, their ability to adapt to the abnormality of their lives, their optimism, their discipline in following procedures outlined by the home-front command, their support for the way the Prime Minister is handling things, their willingness to make major sacrifices for long-term peace. Perhaps the major impression I have is that Hamas’s campaign has failed completely in its objective, that of causing widespread fear, despair and terror.  People feel in control despite the random unpredictability of the attacks primarily because of the huge success of the Iron Dome defense system.  I know I did when we came under direct attack in Tel Aviv and the system took out two rockets above our heads.

On our final day we have the privilege of meeting with Racheli Frankel, mother of Naftali, z”l.  We are overwhelmed by her emunah and courage.  This Shabbat is Naftali’s Bar Mitzvah Parsha she tells us, as she explains how she and her family are learning to breathe again and to face each first without their son. The mother in all of us cries with her.  But we are lifted by her hopefulness and her belief in a better future for Clal Yisroel.  She talks of how comforted she was by the thousands of calls, letters and visits she received from Jews around the world.  She felt and continues to feel a sense of ACHDUT which she hopes will continue.  She says this ACHDUT is the key to our strength and our future. We stand silent in the presence of this magnificent Jewish mother and teacher.

So after the site visits and the briefings, what are my action  take-aways? Several thoughts to share.

1. Now is the time to be in touch with the White House and Congress, expressing thanks for the financial aid which made Iron Dome possible and urging continued financial support.  Israel will need to replenish its defensive weaponry and build many more and upgraded defense batteries and quickly.  The range of Hamas’s rockets has vastly increased and attacks have already been launched from three fronts, requiring protection for many more cities.

2. Now is also the time to express support for the administration position which declares Israel’s absolute and unconditional right of self-defense. At present there is not yet a ground war.  [AS of this posting, unfortunately, the ground was has started.] If one should start, we need to be constant in urging that no pressure be put on Israel to stop before “the job is done.” The response to charges that we are killing innocent people should be “Hamas is killing their own women and children by using them as human shields for  offensive weapons and weapon caches.

3.Now is the time to travel to Israel.  We need to do this this not only for the obvious economic boost tourism provides.  We need to do this to show our unity with our brothers and sisters in Israel who are enduring this on a daily basis.  Every Israeli I met, from President Peres to my taxi driver, expressed sincere gratitude that we had come during this difficult time.  It boosted morale and gave a sense of not standing alone on the front lines which is also important.

4. Now in particular is the time to buy Israel.  From oranges to bonds, every purchase helps the economy stay stable and strong.  In an era of BDS we can and should be proactive economic supporters of Israel.

5. Now is the time for a supplemental Tzedakah allocation to Israel.  Consider as a priority those organizations that are providing immediate assistance to victims of terror with special emphasis on the most vulnerable populations: children, the elderly and new olim.

6. Now is the time for Tefilla for the safety of our people, the wisdom of our leaders and unity that will help us overcome these difficult times.

Sondra Sokal, Jerusalem, Israel