60 Hours In Israel - December 8, 2023

Yesterday, I returned home from a 60-hour Jewish Federation of Greater Portland organized solidarity trip to Israel with with nine community leaders from Portland and five from Las Vegas. Our goal was three-fold: 1) Experience firsthand what is happening in Israel today. 2) See how our community dollars raised for the Israel Emergency Fund are being used. 3) Be present to show the people of Israel that we care!


Without going into a full travel log, allow me to share photos and experiences that tell the story of our trip.


Our group arrived on Monday afternoon (12/4) to an empty airport -- very different than what we experienced in March with our community trip. The vast majority of people arriving were Israelis going home/visiting with a smaller number of Americans bringing bags of clothing, boots, toys, and candy to donate. Everything had to go through customs at the airport and the process was painfully slow. Why? Just look at the photo below of the line of bags to be inspected. People from around the world want to do their part to support Israel at this difficult time. The woman on the right alone brought 140 bags – inside were 75,000 pairs of socks to donate to soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

On Tuesday (12/5), our group was able to travel south and visit the Gaza envelope where the Hamas terror attacks took place across 22 communities on October 7. On our way to the area, we stopped and were required to put on Kevlar vests and helmets for “protection,” understanding that we would have only 7-10 seconds to find shelter if the rocket sirens went off.

The person above is Ron, a resident of Kibbutz Nir Oz (founded in 1955). The kibbutz is less than two miles from the Gaza border and was decimated by the Hamas terror attack on October 7. In fact, of the Kibbutz's 400 members, 33 were killed and 77 taken hostage (29 since released) – more than 25% of the people who lived there.


Ron walked us through the kibbutz – house by house. There was destruction everywhere. One by one, Ron would explain who lived in each house and the horrifying story of what happened to each person. (I have no idea how he could share the stories without breaking down.) Those still being held hostage had their “hostage poster” on their front door. Homes were burned and ransacked. You could see bullet holes on the outside and inside of the houses. My heart ached. And this happened to communities across the area.


The first house we saw was that of Bracha Levinson. Her story helped others understand what was happening that day and that terrorists were on the kibbutz. Bracha was the 82-year-old woman who had her phone taken by the terrorists. They filmed her being killed and posted the video on her own Facebook page.

The above photos are of just one house. But house after house looked the same. Smashed windows and doors. Furniture destroyed. Kitchen appliances melted from the heat. Safe rooms universally breached. Bedsheets, mattresses, walls, and floors smeared with blood. The bodies may have been removed, but the specter of pure evil remains.


Following our visit to Kibbutz Nir Oz (and yes, we did have one rocket siren where we raced to the shelter) we went to Ramat HaNegev (Las Vegas’s sister community), the closest regional council which has taken in over 1500 evacuee families from the border communities. What they have done to accommodate and welcome these new families would take too many words – trust me, it is remarkable.


What I will remember most about Ramat HaNegev is our visit to Revivim, a small community in the region. There, they expanded their community’s cemetery to honor and temporarily bury those who were murdered at Kibbutz Be’eri. Eventually, following the reconstruction of the kibbutz, all the bodies will be buried there. 

Several weeks ago, I was sent the 45-minute video that Israel created showing the atrocities of October 7 (based on footage from the terrorists). It is the one that has been written about and shown to members of Congress. Israel feels the world should see the brutality of Hamas. To date, I have not viewed the video. After seeing what I saw and hearing the stories firsthand, I never need to watch.


As part of our very short visit, we had the opportunity to hear from:


  • Osnat Sharabi Matalon-- the sister of Yossi and Eli Sharabi who were kidnapped from Kibbutz Be’eri to Gaza on October 7.


  • Idan Roll -- Minister of Knesset from the Yesh Atid party and former deputy foreign minister.


  • Saul Singer -- Co-author with Dan Senor (who will be doing a webinar for our community on January 10) of the New York Times bestsellers, The Genius of Israel and Start Up Nation.


  • Col. (Ret.) Kobi Merom – provided an on the ground security analysis at the Gaza border.


  • Ambassador Joel Lyon – Israel Ambassador to Armenia and Moldova currently recalled to Israel during the war to assist with diplomatic matters.


  • Gil Hoffman – founder and editor of HonestReporting.com (monitors the media for bias against Israel) and former political correspondent for The Jerusalem Post. Gil has spoken in Portland in the past.


  • Maj. Libby Weiss – Portland native and Portland Jewish Academy graduate who made aliyah in 2011 and is a decorated IDF spokesperson.


These speakers all had one common message – for as much as the rest of the world has moved on, for most Israelis “it is still October 8.” Everyone, 60 days later, is still trying to process what happened on October 7.


At the same time, the entire country is in agreement about two things: Hamas must be destroyed and the hostages must come home. (There are signs for them everywhere.)


At our farewell dinner, one of the participants asked each person to provide a one-word summary of what we learned while in Israel. My answer was “resolute.” Despite world and media pressure, Israel will not stop until it achieves its two goals. It must for its citizens to feel safe and secure.


With that in mind, our speakers took umbrage to those calling for a ceasefire. They raised questions. Outsiders condemn Israel for how it is managing the war with the (Hamas counted) number of civilian deaths. Notice there is no distinction between civilians and terrorists? There are false charges of “genocide” and “ethnic cleansing.” If Israel wanted to do that then why would they drop 1.5 million leaflets and make five million calls and texts to warn people and encourage them to evacuate from certain areas of Gaza? Israel has created and is protecting “safety corridors” and multiple “safe zones” to minimize the number of casualties. But Hamas is forcing people to remain in harm's way and just yesterday they were shooting rockets from those "safe" areas.


Israeli officials are very clear – Hamas is solely to blame for this war and its impact on the Palestinians living in Gaza. Where is the world today in condemning Hamas (just look at the UN's inability to call out the rapes and mutilation that took place) and calling for them to end the rocket fire that continues every day and to release all the hostages? It is always calls for Israel to "stop this or to do that." Hamas is the sovereign elected ruler of Gaza and thus it is their responsibility to protect its citizens -- not Israel's. Do you ever hear Hamas call for a two-state solution? No, because their mission is to destroy the State of Israel. As pointed out several times, if the world wants this war to end immediately, then Hamas must surrender and return all the hostages.


People can have their own strong (and different) opinions about the above assessments, especially as we look through our American lens, but this is where Israel is today.


To conclude our visit, on Wednesday (12/6) we met with many of our leading social service partners on the ground. People were immensely grateful for the Jewish Federation’s immediate mobilization and significant financial support. We visited Hadassah Hospital to understand the challenges hospitals faced on October 7 and beyond with the increase of patients needing major care. We met with leadership from the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI)American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), and United Hatzalah (Portland was the first Jewish Federation to send them funds at the start of the war). In total, these three organizations alone received close to $1.6 million from our Israel Emergency Fund. Each shared the incredible impact they are making on Israeli society – and the work is only beginning -- because the number one issue today and for the long-term is emotional trauma care.


At the conclusion of our solidarity trip, our group visited the Kotel, the Western Wall. I must say, it was eerie seeing so few people at the Wall. Each of us, however, had the opportunity to take a breath, say our own personal prayers, and be in that holy space.

Let me share this very moving story that helps put perspective on the tone of this war. A woman was presenting to our group and while she was speaking, her phone rang. She had to look. It was her son. She answered the phone and you could sense worry in her voice. She started asking if he was okay and if he needed anything. She finished the call and shared with us that her son is a commando in the army and called to let her know he was going back into Gaza and his phone would be turned off. He would call when he returned. Sadly, no parent knows when that may be. A few minutes later, while still presenting, her phone rang again. She looked at it. She did not answer. She says to us, “That is my other son. He is not in the army. He can wait.”


You can feel the sense of love, worry, and pride for everyone in the Israel Defense Forces. Donations are coming in from around the world…family members wait anxiously for the phone call from their son/daughter that says, “I am safe”...and the country is unified in defeating Hamas and the return of the hostages. Kol Yisrael areivim zeh bazeh – All of Israel is responsible one for another.


I am very proud we did this trip and I am grateful for everyone from Portland and Las Vegas who participated. It was the right thing to do at the right time. Everywhere we went people thanked us for being there. Israelis do not want to feel alone. In fact, while at Hadassah Hospital we met with a brother and sister injured by a rocket on October 7. The brother said, “Instead of you staying home and being there and us being here — you came because we are am echad, one people.” Amen!


To continue to learn more about Israel, sign-up for our weekly Wednesday webinar series and hear voices on the ground in Israel. This past week we heard from an IDF spokesperson – recording hereNext week we will hear from a survivor of Kibbutz Be’eri. More information here.


I also want to bring to your attention a unique project featuring close to 200 donated artworks from over 20 Portland artists and community members called “Creating Hope.” This event, taking place on Monday, December 11 from 7:00 – 9:00 p.m. at the Eastside Jewish Commons, is dedicated to raising funds for the release of hostages in Gaza -- #bringthemhomenow campaign. Registration is required


Last night was the first night of Chanukah. Here is a calendar of local Chanukah happenings and a Chanukah resource page.


I do hope our entire Jewish community proudly displays their menorah to SHINE THE LIGHT for all to see. In fact, last night members of Kibbutz Be'eri near Gaza, where over 130 people were murdered, lit candles in the windows of each destroyed home on their kibbutz while hundreds here joined the menorah lighting at Pioneer Square. We will not let our enemies win.

Shabbat Shalom and joyfully celebrate the Chanukah holiday.



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