From the CEO: Dispatch from Israel

Alan H. Gill

This blog appeared in another form on the Times of Israel.

No matter how long one lives in Israel, you don't ever get used to the sirens, the break in the calm, the-wait-to-see if the missile that is approaching will be intercepted, or not, by the Iron Dome.

The ongoing crisis has utterly exhausted so many Israelis. They are raw from missile attacks reaching deep into the country, the boom of explosions, blaring sirens, and the funerals of the young fallen soldiers on TV. Sleep is elusive as one never knows when the next missile will be launched and the sirens will sound.

I heard their stories over the last several days while visiting JDC’s emergency operations in central and southern Israel with our stalwart professional colleagues, who are working day and night, and got to see for myself, again, what the constant assault from Gaza has wrought.

The people here are resilient, keeping a stiff upper lip despite the continuous barrage and frayed nerves. And their stories are a stark reminder of the reality they live with every day:

·      The twenty seconds to determine which safe space or bomb shelter a father can make it to with two children in his arms, half asleep and terrified, as he sprints for the four flights of stairs …

·      The answers a mother can provide to her just-potty-trained child who is afraid of using the toilet out of fear that a “bad guy” will come up from the tunnels below …

·      The 80-year-old determining if it's easier to sleep on the floor in their safe space or chance having to wearily climb out of bed when the siren wails …

·      The father living just 10 kilometers from the Gaza border, phone constantly in his hand, assessing if it's safe for him to give his daughter permission to go the local market, knowing full well a missile could fall at any time …

·      The parents having to decide between going to work or ensuring their children are not left alone during the day, unable to go to summer camp because they are closed …

·      The professional caregivers, working 15-hour days, having to find time – and a quiet, private space – where they can break down and cry, worried about showing their pain to their families or the seniors they serve …

·      The children worrying why mommy seems so nervous all the time and why daddy was called away …

·      The shiva visits to the mourning families of the fallen soldiers …

In this atmosphere, it does not seem like relief, or hope, is near.

But that’s when I met “Shula,” a mother of three deaf children, who was together with her family at one of the dozens of respite activities JDC is running for thousands of vulnerable Israelis living in heavily bombarded areas.

We bused her from Ashdod to experience a day away from the relentless sirens and missile attacks. Shula approached me immediately, her two adorable twin girls in her arms. She told me about her worries, the lack of sleep, the concerns about missiles and tunnels, and general anxiety.

And then she told me, pointing out to the crowds enjoying the water park, “You don't know how much we needed this.”

She was overflowing with gratitude, tears welling in her eyes. “I feel like I am alive again,” she said.

At that moment her son, covered in freckles and standing by her side, looked up at me and reached out.

And I picked up him up – reflexively as I do with my own grandkids – and began lifting him in the air as he smiled and giggled.

And suddenly, in that moment, and for for several moments thereafter, all was fine in the world.  We were standing together laughing and enjoying the simple pleasure of a child’s joy.

We were all uplifted. Me, a mother, her children, and those all around us.

Yes, we all knew they would return to the constant onslaught of missiles.

But for that short period – an oasis during wartime – we understood the power of connectedness, of reaching out to another person in pain, and the living, breathing ideal that we are all responsible for one another.

On the long ride home I said a prayer for better days and for our courageous soldiers who are doing everything within their power to keep us safe.

And I felt deeply privileged that I am part of a global response that gave Shula and her children a chance to experience normalcy again, even for a moment, even for a day.

Am Yisrael Chai!

Alan H. Gill is the CEO of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

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