The 22 community members who traveled to Israel Jan. 14-18 as part of the Israel Solidarity Mission, sponsored by the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island, had an opportunity to see firsthand the situation there and to lend a helping hand.
The group volunteered on a farm in the Afula region, an area that the Alliance supports with campaign funds; worked with children from Youth Futures; and visited those injured in the war at Emek Medical Center, in Afula. They also paid their respects to fallen soldiers at Mount Herzl cemetery, in Jerusalem, and visited Hostages Square, in Tel Aviv.
According to board chair Harris Chorney, of Narragansett, it was an unforgettable experience.
“To drive around Jerusalem, where there is traffic and people are out, is a stark contrast to the significant war only 50 miles south,” he said.
“I went to show solidarity and to do whatever we can to support Israel,” he added.
Laura Freedman, of Newport, said the trip gave her insight into what Israelis are dealing with right now.
“The country and people are traumatized, and they are doing what they can to support the [war] effort. They might not necessarily agree, but the whole country has mobilized,” she said.
The Rhode Island community’s shaliach (Israeli emissary) Elihay Skital, who grew up in Ashkelon, was on the trip and was returning to his home for the first time since the war began. He said he found his fellow Israelis downcast.
“In Jerusalem, you don’t see the war, but you see it in their faces and in signs,” he said.
Skital was particularly moved during the stop at the Mount Herzl cemetery, where the group visited the graves of soldiers lost in the current war.
“These are people my age,” he said.
At that stop, group members told Jewish Rhode Island that they encountered soldiers saying Kaddish at the graves of lost members of their units, and that it was a powerful, solemn moment.
One surprise for the group was that people they met thanked them for coming to Israel.
“A lot of Israelis feel alone. That everyone supports the Palestinians. Israelis really appreciate visitors from the United States,” Skital said.
“You heard Israelis say ‘thank you,’ and they really meant it,” said Chorney. “They aren’t Jews on an island, and that’s important to them.”
Freedman said she feels a responsibility to share what she learned in Israel.
“I think Israel is an amazing country,” she said. “They plow ahead. They are resilient. People are out and about. They can’t just live sheltered in their homes all the time. It doesn’t mean it’s easy. They have to function.”
“We still need to keep supporting them,” Chorney said. “It’s important.”
Said Mark Patinkin, a Providence Journal columnist who traveled with the group for the first two days before traveling and reporting on his own: “The greatest understanding comes from being there, and the Alliance mission gave us all that gift.”
FRAN OSTENDORF (email@example.com) is the editor of Jewish Rhode Island.