Missions accomplished


Local volunteers help out in Israel

By Yaffi Spodek

Issue of Jan. 23, 2009 / 27 Teves 5769

Chana Chadida won’t listen to music anymore, fearing that she’ll miss the blaring, yet all too familiar sound of a siren warning of an incoming rocket. A resident of Sderot, she is one of many Israelis whose life has been so severely disrupted by the constant barrage of rockets that she is now considered a trauma victim.

“Ha’chayim po einam chayim,” she says simply, explaining that she can no longer maintain a normal existence. “Life here is not a life.”

Chadida told her story to Rabbi Jonathan Muskat, who joined 20 fellow rabbis on a two-day solidarity mission to Israel last week, organized by the Jewish National Fund (JNF) just before the IDF ended its operation in Gaza.

“We went to see different communities in the South to express our solidarity and see the matzav (situation) there,” said Rabbi Muskat, the mara d’atra of the Young Israel of Oceanside. “You saw how the rocket fire affected daily life and you saw how the lives of ordinary citizens were being turned upside down.”

Nobody in Sderot wears a seatbelt when driving a car; when you only have 15 seconds to run for cover from an incoming rocket, a single moment can’t be wasted unbuckling your belt, Rabbi Muskat explained. For many, a simple trip to the grocery store is deemed too risky. Children attend kindergarten in bomb shelters and some don’t go to school at all.

But despite these restrictions, Rabbi Muskat found comfort in what he called “the unbelievable unity and achdus” he sensed from talking to the families and soldiers.

“They appreciate the fact that people from America came and expressed their solidarity but at the same time, my sense was that they have the conviction that what they are doing is correct,” he observed, referring to Operation Cast Lead. “They appreciate that others share their view, but they clearly feel that they are right and this is what has to be done.”

Several people from the Five Towns who also visited Israel shared similar sentiments. Though not traveling on an organized mission, each found ways to help out and connect with their Israeli brethren.

Dr. Asher Mansdorf of Woodmere, accompanied by his daughter, Devorah, rented a car and drove back and forth to the South multiple times over the duration of his week-long stay. They were in Sderot, visited children attending school in a bomb shelter, met with residents of nearby Netivot and five moshavim, donated supplies and, more importantly, their time, to care for and sympathize with the people.

“I went down there for one reason –– I wanted these people to know that everybody believes in them and is standing behind them, and they’re not alone,” said Devorah Mansdorf, 22, a student at Stern College for Women.

Through an organization called Standing Together, the Mansdorfs, joined by the Lindenfeld family of Woodmere, distributed food, drinks, and supplies such as socks and toothpaste to soldiers on an army base.

“We’re thanking them [the soldiers] and they’re being shy about it,” said Valerie Lindenfeld. “I feel like a mother to them and would do anything for them...They are so young and such heroes.”

Standing Together, founded by David Landau, takes groups to visit soldiers on active duty, allowing them to distribute neccessities ranging from food to clothing to cell phone charging units. The soldiers benefit from these visits and enjoy sharing their message with others.

“Everybody, I think, was disappointed that the operation had ended,” said Asher Mansdorf, referring to the unilateral ceasefire that was declared Saturday night. “The soldiers are sure they’re going back because they said the job wasn’t done. They told me that they scrawled on the walls in Gaza: ‘Gilad, we were here looking for you.’”

Raising close to $15,000 from his congregants at the Young Israel of Oceanside, Rabbi Muskat also delivered supplies to soldiers at the Kfar Maimon army base, through an organization called Yashar Lachayal, which provides essentials to those serving in the IDF.

Another stop on the heavily scheduled JNF mission was the Soroka Medical Center in Beersheva, where visitors experienced a “tzeva adom” (red alert). There, Rabbi Muskat visited families of wounded soldiers.

“The families had no anger, only pride for what their children were fighting for,” he said.

Others were more visibly upset. While visiting the community of Nitzan, populated by Gush Katif evacuees, Rabbi Muskat sensed a feeling of bitterness from those who had been forced out of their homes during the 2005 disengagement, on the promise of peace, and were now suffering the consequences.

One highlight of the JNF mission was Wednesday night, Jan. 14, when Rabbi Muskat danced with yeshiva students in Sderot, on a rooftop overlooking Gaza.

“To hear them sing words like ‘lo yitosh Hashem amo v’nachalato lo ya’azov’ [Hashem will not abandon his nation or leave his land] and ‘v’shavu vanim l’gvulam’ [we will return to our borders] was an emotionally charged exerience,” he recounted. “It makes you realize how our brethren in Eretz Yisroel sacrfice so much. They teach us how to cope with sacrifice and retain our pride with dignity.”

Dr. Mansdorf related his own emotional experience davening at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

“You heard people blowing a full set of tekiyot at the kotel in the morning, as a sign of solidarity and fervor for what was being done,” he recounted. “It really gave you the chills — the kehilla showing that degree of unity, and it didn’t matter what minyan you were davening in.”

Like Rabbi Muskat, he also witnessed the impact that the rockets have had on local ctizens in the South.

“The streets of the moshavim are bare of people, and the parks have no kids in them,” he related. “We visited an entire playground built as a bomb shelter [a project of the JNF], so that when bombs go off, children can run in, as if they are still playing. No matter where they are, there’s a place to hide.”

Mansdorf was heartened by the positive show of solidarity that he witnessed from fellow Jews. He recounted an experience one afternoon in which a caravan of taxis drove down to Sderot from Tel Aviv, just so the drivers could buy lunch from local stores and give a financial boost to the suffering businesses.

The Mansdorfs also spent time at a warehouse in Ra’anana, with an organization called to Table to Table, helping them open and organize thousands of packages that had come in from around the country to be shipped to soldiers.

Other local visitors volunteered their services in other parts of Israel as well.

“At first, I was determined to go down South and find ways to help out, possibly going to teach in a miklat (shelter) or just going around to show my support,” said Talia Miller, 22, of Woodmere. “Then, I realized that there were other ways that were just as important for me to help.”

Miller, vacationing in Israel on a break from school, dedicated an afternoon of her trip to playing with children who had come to Jerusalem, seeking shelter from their Kassam-ridden communities in the South. A yeshiva in Har Nof was hosting several families on their premises, feeding them and sending their children to the local schools.

“There were many children taken out of their natural surroundings, away from their homes, school, and friends,” Miller continued. “I realized that what I could do best was provide them with friendship, spend time with them and remind them that they can continue living, playing, and enjoying life. I was able to take part in teaching them the important lesson that we as a nation will always be there for each other.”