Today Israelis demonstrated once again the meaning of unity — that we are indeed, one people. More than 30,000 Israelis attended Max Steinberg’s funeral, a “lone soldier” up until today, who died in combat but was mourned by a nation, his extended family. Max’s mother said at his funeral: “No longer a lone soldier — forever at his home.”
On the 16th day of Operation Protective edge 32 Israeli soldiers have been killed in battle and dozens injured. Sadly a third civilian, a Thai foreign worker who had just arrived in Israel two months ago, was killed when a Hamas rocket exploded nearby.
While Israel’s skies are closed by most airlines, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced his plans to fly to Tel Aviv on El Al to “show solidarity with the Israeli people and to demonstrate that it is safe to fly in and out of Israel.” It was a nice show of support from someone who can catch the media’s attention. And an even nicer message: That he, too, is part of our family.
Jewish peoplehood — that sense that we are all one family — expanded today when flights to Ben Gurion airport were diverted. Jewish residents of European countries used social media to invite Israelis into their homes. These are people who have no idea when or how they are going to get back to Israel. Hosted by Jews they never met, these Israelis experienced that sense that wherever we go, there’s a family member to help, just because this is what we do — share what we have, help when we can and provide a sense of home wherever we can.
In the midst of all this, I took off today, and drove down south with my daughter to volunteer. We spent our entire day focused on children — their beauty, their misery and their absence.
At one of the bomb shelters in a community just a few miles from Gaza, a special therapist came to lead activities encouraging the children to calm themselves by breathing correctly. The therapist used balloons and soap bubbles to demonstrate deep breathing and then led a conversation with the children encouraging them to share their feelings, which they did. They spoke about their hope for a cease-fire, and expressed fear when they hear shooting nearby (being so close to the fighting they can’t avoid hearing the sound of war). The children described their reaction when the siren goes off and how all these threats impact their lives. How abnormal is that- four-year-olds are familiar with “grown up” terms like cease-fire, siren, terrorists, war and bombs?
As part of my visit, a friend took me to see his kibbutz, less than a mile from Gaza — a kibbutz that, at the moment, looks more like an army base than a kibbutz. A kibbutz from which all children have been evacuated, because it’s too dangerous for them to remain (if only Gaza would protect and evacuate their children as well); a kibbutz where rockets have hit two empty kindergartens, empty only because the children were not there.
I then drove to Sderot, the city most associated with Hamas’ missile attacks. In Sderot, I met older kids who have grown up all too soon, forced by a reality no child should have to live with. They have become part of their community’s strength. Social workers realized, as these children matured under 14 years of rockets raining on their town, that a way to assist them is to allow them to be part of the volunteer system. By helping others, they are helping themselves. I joined these teens as they walked from house to house to check on local residents. We wrote down who needs what, who needs to see a social worker, who is lonely, who is too afraid to leave the house to get medication, to visit a doctor, to shop. I was overwhelmed with appreciation for Israel’s real heroes, residents of our country’s south who have lived with this constant threat for 14 years.
My intention today was to volunteer and help as much as I could, but I now realized that I got so much more out of this experience than what I gave. Seeing the solidarity throughout Israel’s south, driving by temporary army bases, meeting other volunteers, spending time with children at a bomb shelter, visiting families to check on them, talking with local teens, who find the power to help others rather than pity themselves. Witnessing all this today brought me an incredible feeling of pride — pride in my fellow Israelis, pride in our soldiers and pride in our Jewish values.