This past summer, I had the privilege to participate in two OU solidarity missions to Israel—the first with fellow members of OU communities and the second with rabbinic leaders from across America. Over the course of these missions, I was able to meet with families living in southern Israel who were subjected to a constant stream of rockets fired by Hamas, as well as with IDF soldiers and commanders who fought on the front lines in Gaza.
While visiting these communities in southern Israel, we saw just how disruptive the rockets are to daily life. From the moment a warning siren goes off, one has a mere fifteen seconds to get to a bomb shelter. Mothers stopped buckling their children into car seats because they wouldn’t have enough time to bring them to safety. Parents with more than one young child were continually forced to make a “Sophie’s choice,” deciding which child to carry into the shelter first. While in Sderot, we made a shivah visit to the Tragerman family who lost their four-year-old son since he could not get to the cheder atum (sealed room) fast enough.
Living under such conditions has understandably caused many Israelis to suffer from intense anxiety. The trauma is especially prevalent among children between the ages of six and eight, who are too young to verbalize their terror. We got to see firsthand the amazing work that Makom Balev, an OU Israel program, is doing in these communities to help both children and families affected by trauma. Long before Hamas took control of Gaza and started firing missiles, Makom Balev was working with the disadvantaged youth in the communities of Dimona, Ofakim, Sderot, Kiryat Malachi and other southern cities. Makom Balev provides centers where children and teens can relax and get a hot, delicious meal and help with homework. Instead of hanging out on the streets, youth are mentored by caring young men and women who give them a sense of self-worth while modeling Jewish values. After the war began, Makom Balev stepped up its efforts to cater to the needs of its youth, and turned bomb shelters into club houses, replete with pool tables and other recreational activities. Some of the kids painted murals on the walls of bomb shelters, reflecting Jewish themes of hope and peace. Makom Balev also brought in trauma specialists to help children cope with the tremendous stress of living in a veritable war zone. Debbie Gross, a leader of the Makom Balev trauma team in Kiryat Malachi, explained that therapists use play and art therapy so that children can convey their intense feelings through art and other mediums. Because Makom Balev has already been in these communities for years, the advisors have long-standing relationships in place with the children and their families and are therefore able to do much good. A special thank you to Rabbi Avi Berman, general director of OU Israel, and the all-star staff of Makom Balev and Mashiv Haruach, an educational program for soldiers run by OU Israel, for the outstanding jobs they do on a daily basis in building, educating and nurturing the spirit of the Jewish people.
We subsequently met with soldiers and commanding officers from the Golani and Givati Brigades and Egoz Unit in the IDF, with the help of the Mashiv Haruach program. Through the generosity of our friend Neil Kugelman, we were able to procure at cost thousands of dollars’ worth of Leatherman tools, generators and high-beam lights for the soldiers to use in the tunnels. We also met with Rabbi Rafi Peretz, chief military rabbi of the IDF and a good friend of the OU, who gave us insight into the psychological and emotional strain the soldiers experience when on the battlefield.
On two occasions I had the opportunity to meet with Colonel Bentzi Gruber of the IDF who oversees 20,000 miluim (reserves). He spoke about the protocols of Tohar HaNeshek (purity of arms), a concept of responsibility and restraint in the use of arms which the IDF demands of each and every unit. There were hundreds of times the IDF decided not to hit a target holding terrorists due to Hamas’ use of human shields to guard it. The IDF keeps this high ethical code for two reasons: firstly, to be moral and try to minimize casualties and secondly, for the psychological benefit of the Israeli soldiers, so they do not have to live with the guilt of harming innocents.
At one point, we went to a grocery store and emptied its shelves; then we brought bags of food and supplies to an army base. Another day we visited two Iron Dome installations. At one of the installations, which protects Ashkelon, the soldiers, who are not religious, wanted to show us what they carried for shemirah, protection. They proceeded to pull out two objects: the first, a state-of-the-art Israeli bandage that will stop the bleeding if a soldier is shot or hit with shrapnel until they reach a hospital and the second, a sefer Tehilim. Even though they are not religious, they know that the Tehillim protects them.