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Two Wars- One Heart -Israel+Ukraine + US

Debbie Kardon -Action-PSJ and Ella Gonchorova-Action for Ukraine
During our six-day journey in Israel, our goals were to explore post-October 7th Israel, to immerse ourselves in this historical moment, to support and actively address urgent needs with a lens on the unique needs of those living through two wars – all while hearing the echoes of our organization's history from the Refusenik era and the possibilities for creating bridges between Israel, Ukraine, and the US.  

Two Wars – One Heart

As the Executive director of Action for Post-Soviet Jewry (Action-PSJ), I am deeply engaged in our work supporting adults in need in fifteen communities throughout war-torn Ukraine, including three currently under Russian occupation. At the beginning of the war in Ukraine, when Mariupol was destroyed, a number of our elders evacuated to Israel. After October 7, it was clear that Action-PSJ is comprised of people holding two wars in one heart. During our six-day journey in Israel, our goals were to explore post-October 7th Israel, to immerse ourselves in this historical moment, to support and actively address urgent needs with a lens on the unique needs of those living through two wars – all while hearing the echoes of our organization’s history from the Refusenik era and the possibilities for creating bridges between Israel, Ukraine, and the US.  

Art by Nadiya Sadirova

I have led and been involved in many trips to Israel, and every time I go, it is a different experience, and I come away with a more profound understanding and knowledge. I expected this to be amplified this time and was not disappointed. I share these reflections to educate and amplify the voices of people and places going unheard, focusing on three images, three things I felt, and three things I learned leading this solidarity mission to Israel with an Action-PSJ lens – though each could be its own blog.

Action -PSJ’ Israel solidarity mission supported by Combined Jewish Philanthropy of Greater Boston. Education and logistics organized in partnership with Kesher Israel Educational Journeys.

In addition to the people we met who helped us understand the magnitude of the October 7th terror attacks, I am thankful to the many people we met in Israel who shared their personal stories, worries, and hopes about living with two wars. We visited with  Yemin Orde and learned about their services to children from Ukraine, The Ministry of Absorption in Haifa, and heard about the journeys of our Action-PSJ participants who escaped the destruction of Mariupol and the supportive community being created by and for young adults from the war-torn Ukraine region at the Moishe House in Haifa. They all share a unique experience and have found support and community in this understanding of one heart holding two wars.   

At the Ministry of Absorption in Haifa, hearing testimony from Action-PSJ elders who left Mariupol
Listening to the leaders of Moishe House in Haifa.

Images

The young people’s village at Kibbutz Kfar Aza is less than 2 miles from the Gaza border. What happened here can only be described as a pogrom – an organized massacre of Jews. The terrorists who attacked had detailed information about the kibbutz from the Palestinians who worked there and were believed to be trusted long-time employees. They targeted the young people’s village, where we saw how each house had been riddled with bullets, ruined by explosives, and violently ransacked – doors blown off and wanton destruction and death evident everywhere. Walking through six months later, the violence was still palpable. The intent was not only to spread terror but also to annihilate the next generation and to leave such a lingering stench of hatred it could never be eliminated. I am a Holocaust educator. I spent two weeks studying at Yad Vashem. I have been to the killing fields in Ukraine.  I have never seen or felt such intentional evil. 

Kibbutz Kfar Aza–A third-generation resident and survivor and an IDF soldier who worked to rescue the community on Oct. 7th
Kibbutz Kfar Aza– a row of houses from the young adult village

Looking into Gaza from Sderot from a hilltop lookout less than a mile from the Gaza border – on one side, an empty subdivision of homes in Sderot and, on the other side, an empty village in Gaza – two neighborhoods less than a mile apart. It was hard not to compare this distance to my home, where the public high school is less than a mile from my house. Children walk freely there. Yet here, there is a security wall, checkpoints, and forbidding signage. It would be deadly for children from either side to walk across into each other’s neighborhoods. I imagined I would experience a wide range of feelings being so close to a war zone, but looking back and forth between the two deserted communities, the picture was one of deep emptiness and sadness.

In Sderot, looking over into Gaza

Going to the Kotel on the last Friday of Ramadan began with trepidation. Worry about safety was omnipresent on this trip. As I approached the Old City of Jerusalem, the traffic stood still, and people on foot streamed toward the gates to enter. Hundreds of buses lined the streets, filled with Muslims celebrating the end of Ramadan. What a site to see people of all ages and stages dressed in everything from ripped jeans to tallit and black hats to robes and hijabs. I saw priests with collars, a monk with a burlap robe, and a nun with a habit. It was crowded, and people were walking close together, in step with one another. Under the watchful eye of Israeli guards and military police, some even carrying riot gear, the eclectic gaggle of people strolled through, and the guards stayed on the sidelines. Despite a backdrop of war, sirens, and hatred, the scene was peaceful and hopeful. 

Walking into the Old City towards the Kotel

Feelings

We are all responsible for each other. We went straight from landing at Ben Gurion airport to hostage square in Tel Aviv, still dressed for cooler weather. As we stood outside the tent about the Nova Music Festival, the woman who was there to tell us about hostages she knew took one look at us, sweltering in the hot Tel Aviv sun, and immediately ushered us into the shade of the tent, commanded us to sit down, and poured us glasses of water. When I noted that we were here to care for her and others like her, she said, without missing a beat – “I am first and foremost a Jewish mother. I have to make sure everyone is cared for.” We experienced this time and time again.  Our young guide at Kibbutz, Kfar Aza, who could barely hold back tears while sharing his family’s and his Kibbutz’s story, ended with, ”I hope this gives you some strength to go back and fight all the antisemitism you face.” The hospitalized soldier in rehab wheeled himself around his room to move chairs into a circle so that we would all be comfortable as we heard his difficult and dramatic story. And on our end, as we learned of yet another Russian attack on Dnipro, our sister city in Ukraine, we immediately reached out to offer support and care. We are not free until we are all free. It is a mitzvah to care for others and others to care for you. We gave and received on this mission, and for me, these intersections provided the deepest feelings of hope.

I am a Jewish mother first. At hostage square Tel Aviv.

 

Deeply in a liminal space, Liminality is the space between what is and what will happen next. It refers to the actual space or time in which you shift from one phase to another. I was struck by this feeling of liminality on many levels. How can anyone move forward from October 7th when there are still hostages in Gaza?  How can Israel move forward from October 7th with so much trauma?  How can anyone move forward when issues of trust, respect, education, and politics are intertwined with everything that makes the memory of that day so horrifying? How can the region move forward at all? Last year, I was in Israel to joyfully witness, celebrate, and show support for Israel’s 75th year of statehood. Sponsored and organized by Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, I joined a cohort of other leaders of non-profit organizations as part of a 300+ person mission.  This year, I was in Israel to witness, consecrate, and show support to Am Yisrael Chai after Oct 7th.

Nova Festival memorial

I thought a lot about enduring dilemmas as I witnessed and experienced values in tension – seemingly impossible to resolve. How can people call for Israel to stop the war without the surrender of Hamas?  How can Israel exist as a Jewish nation, and the Palestinians have their own space and be responsible for themselves? How can the hostages be freed and there be a ceasefire when the two parties in power do not seem to want to end the war? How can there be a call for a ceasefire without a call for the release of the hostages? How do you balance ethical and moral responsibility with the realities of war? How can people carry so much heartbreak and still have hope? 

Hersh Goldberg-Polin participated in a teen Israel trip a led in 2017.

Learnings

Bomb shelters did not have locks. These shelters are specifically designed to protect from bombs. With often mere minutes to seek safety in the event of an attack, a locked door could prove to be a fatal obstacle. This fact was known to the Hamas terrorists, enabling them to perpetrate heinous acts of violence against innocent Israelis. 

Mezuzah on a bullet-ridden front door in the young adult village of Kibbutz Kfar

War is not a fencing match. It’s imperative to recognize that war is not like a fencing match. There are no referees or, rules or clearly defined boundaries. We heard firsthand accounts from numerous IDF soldiers, ranging from those undergoing rehabilitation to those actively serving or returning from reserve duty. The split-second decisions these individuals make can profoundly impact the lives of many. The reality of war in Gaza is grim: it is dirty, chaotic, smoky, and loud. But above all, it is about life and death—not solely one’s own, but that of countless others. It entails an immense responsibility in unimaginably dire conditions.

At Soroka Medical Center

There is a difference between looking at the war, being involved in the war, and living in the war. This is self-explanatory. It’s crucial to distinguish between observing a war, being directly involved, and living through it. While reading reports, watching live feeds, and engaging in activism offer some insight, it pales in comparison to the firsthand experiences of individuals living amidst conflict. Hearing the sound of bombs in the background of conversations, knowing someone who has fallen in battle, or having a loved one held hostage are experiences that cannot be truly comprehended or judged by those removed from the situation. We also need to remember some people are enduring the reality of simultaneously living through two wars – one in Israel and one in Ukraine – as the people we met in Haifa who described their experiences in and escaping from Mariupol are doing.  Two wars – one heart.

Debbie Kardon -Action-PSJ and Ella Gonchorova-Action for Ukraine

This mission was made possible through the generosity of a grant from the Combined Jewish Philanthropy of Greater Boston. 

Background: As the Executive director of Action for Post-Soviet Jewry (Action-PSJ), I have been deeply embroiled in our work supporting aging adults and adults with disabilities in fifteen communities throughout war-torn Ukraine, including three that are under Russian occupation. At the beginning of the war, when Mariupol was destroyed, a number of our elders evacuated to Israel. We understand there is a unique cohort of people who, with one heart, are holding two wars. During our six-day journey in Israel, our primary objective was to explore Israel deeply post-Oct. 7th to immerse ourselves in this historical moment to support and actively address urgent needs, with a lens through the unique needs of those living through two wars and with the echoes of our organization’s history from the Refusenik era and all the while keeping open to the potential to create bridges between Israel, Ukraine, and the US. 

 

About the Author
Debbie Kardon is the Executive Director of Action-PSJ. She holds degrees from Syracuse University and Hebrew Union College in Social Work and Jewish Education. Debbie’s journey in the Jewish community began during her college years when she started teaching part-time at a local congregation. Following her graduation, Debbie dedicated many years of her career to working with homeless and at-risk teenagers. Throughout this time, she maintained a part-time involvement in the Jewish community, showing her commitment to both causes. After a period focusing on raising her three children, Debbie returned to the workforce, taking on leadership roles within Jewish non-profit organizations. Debbie’s reputation as a change agent and organizational leader is well-established. She has been instrumental in establishing innovative programs, securing funding, and leading the design and implementation of these initiatives. Her passion for Israel, yoga, teaching about the Holocaust, and spending quality time with her now-adult children are integral aspects of her life.
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