This posting was written by Adam Agran, a participant in UJC's January Next-Gen Breakththrough solidarity mission to Israel's Gaza perimeter region. It was originally written for the Sarasota-Manatee Jewish News.
Imagine yourself waking up to your fire alarm going off. You’re trapped on the second floor while the first is engulfed in flames. You look out your window and see people on their phones calling 911. You yell to them that you need a ladder, it’s too high to jump. They all yell back, don’t worry, 911 is on the way. The flames get closer, you can’t wait for 911, there’s a ladder on the van across the street. You yell for someone to get it, but no one moves. You need help, but too many people are stading by, assuming someone else will do it. How would you feel if this were you? This is the situation every day in Sderot, Ashkelon, and the villages on the border with the Gaza Strip.
I recently returned from a 3-day solidarity mission to these regions. At best I would call it an eye-opening, gut-wrenching, emotional roller coaster. The purpose of this mission was to find people that refuse to stand on the sideline. People that want to volunteer themselves to help these rocket-torn communities. I visited every age demographic from kindergartners, young adults making Aliyah, and Russian Holocaust survivors that have recently immigrated to Israel. Our brethren need our assistance in a multitude of ways.
I stood outside Gan Gafar, a kindergarten and preschool in Sderot. It was the first time the children were able to play outside in over 3 weeks. A 5-year-old held a bright red ladybug with four black spots on its back. Other children watched in amazement as the bug walked around on this boy’s hand. A young boy and girl went to the sandbox to our right and started playing.
“What are you making?” someone inquired. “We’re making a place where the ladybug can be safe,” the young boy answered.
Most 5-year-olds are playing make-believe with castles and princesses. The children of Sderot are more concerned about places to be safe.
A large number of children have been traumatized by Hamas’ incessant rocket attacks.
With many parents away at work, after-school programs where children can get together are incredibly important. Sderot needs people who will spend time to create new relationships with the children that will help with the psychological distress they experience. We can help by helping the people of Sderot build a community and lives that are as close to normal as possible. The children and the parents need to feel that somebody cares about them while the government, which is supposed to defend them, consistently abandons them for political reasons, and the entire country continues on as usual.
What was the biggest risk you took when you were 18 years old? Can you picture yourself at age 18 packing all your belongings, leaving all your friends and family behind, and traveling to a foreign country to start your own life? That’s the risk all the teens at the Jewish Agency’s Calanit Absorption Center have taken.
The students of Calanit are from all over the globe. I met teens from Turkey, Argentina, Peru, Azerbaijan, and the Ukraine. They all made Aliyah on their own without help; no parents, no family, no support. In most cases, the parents objected to their children immigrating to Israel. All of them have touching stories. They all have taken a huge risk by leaving behind everything they know and love for a chance to live in Israel. They ask about possibly getting a new piano because the one they have is 30 years old with broken keys. They ask for other musical instruments like guitars or drums because music helps relieve stress when the rockets start to fall. They don’t want fancy video games and other luxuries. They want a little piece of home, a piece of the culture they left behind. They hope to get accepted into great schools like Technion so they can help Israel.
I visited the sheltered housing of Holocaust survivors from the old Soviet Union in the Neve D’kalim Neighborhood. The rockets from Hamas and the “Code Reds” made these survivors relive all the bad memories of WWII. One resident, Halina told us it brings a lot of pain back all these years later.
The elderly are at a huge disadvantage when it comes to rocket attacks. They don’t move as quickly so they can’t get to a safe room in time and worst of all, they can’t hear the sirens announcing the Code Red.
The JDC created an organization called 120 Strong that helps the elderly patients in Ashkelon. They created a supportive community that provides services through a network of volunteer neighborhood “fathers”. After a Code Red ends, the community “fathers” call or stop by to check on all their residents. The program is looking for more people to be community “fathers” because right now, each father has 120 residents to look after. The more “fathers” there are, the more residents can be served. These fathers also assist residents with repairs like leaky faucets or light bulbs, or simple errands like groceries. You don’t need to be a permanent resident to be a “father”. You can help for a week, or a month or whatever free time you have.
Israeli technology created the Code Red Pager for those that are hearing impaired.. When the rocket alarm sounds, the pager vibrates strongly and continuously so those that are hard of hearing can feel the alarm and run for shelter. The cost of a Code Red Pager is roughly 400 shekels. Many residents cannot afford these pagers, so their life is at risk every time Hamas launches a rocket.
I visited the JAFI Ibim Student village and listened to the Ethiopian student immigrants discuss the daily barrage of rocket attacks that hit their campus. There are safe rooms and shelters all over the campus. The children are happier with an education, a roof over their head and food in their stomachs with rockets landing than to have no basic necessities or rockets and gunfire. They are short on teachers to assist them in basic education as well as in English and Hebrew.
I have donated and volunteered time, money or necessities to a lot of people and so often the people I help seem more expectant than thankful or grateful. That’s not the case when it comes to the Jewish Agency SOS fund. Watching how emotional the homeowners were when they received their Jewish Agency SOS fund assistance was tear-jerking. They opened their houses to us, gave us food and drinks and allowed us to hear their stories of terror. When they received the assistance check, which was usually only a portion of what it cost them to repair their homes, you could feel the gratitude emanate from their very soul. They hugged us and thanked us so many times. You didn’t want the feeling of joy and elation to leave these people that had been terrorized for so long.
I traveled to Netivot to visit a cultural center that has been modified as a safe house. They customized the safe rooms to become recording or music studios. I met young adults and conversed about their daily lives. Even though they were in a war-torn area, they still had hopes and dreams. One girl told us that the feeling of togetherness was always at her side. She said they all loved their lives and they know they weren’t going to be chased away by Hamas. She said life is for living, not fearing. They live life every day like it completely matters. These young men and women look forward to a tomorrow when both Israeli’s and Palestinians learn to love and respect each other instead of fueling hate towards one another.
The Ayalim Village in Moshav Yachini is another Jewish Agency program where student pioneers are building villages and farms in the Negev. So far eleven villages have been built, with over 500 residents less than a mile from the Gaza Strip. They need tools to develop the land. They need students who aren’t afraid to take a risk to build a stronger Negev. They require help in accomplishing a dream very few take seriously.
This trip was an amazing eye-opener. I can’t believe how the compassion and empathy just completely envelops you. The gratitude and love these people have when you help them is completely genuine. They don’t ask for anything significant. They don’t ask for more than they need. They just need help with bare essentials to survive in a hostile environment.
I was also amazed how much of an impact music plays in everyone’s life. Music is the escape that gets them through the hard days and helps them live in a state of happiness until a tomorrow comes where there isn’t anything to fear. They feel most of the world is not their side and they are mostly alone in their plight. If Israelis don’t stay together and if we don’t help support Israel’s abandoned people, the tears of happiness I have witnessed won’t be around. The necessity to address education and poverty, social and cultural activities can be accomplished by donating your time, your money or your services to the Jewish Federation and The United Jewish Communities emergency funds. You have the ability to see with your own eyes the results of your donations. It’s time for you to step off the sidelines, grab that ladder, and save someone’s life.