Shalom Life | August 10, 2014

Op-Ed: Spending a Moment in the Shoes of an Israeli (Just Not Heels or Flip Flops)

Thoughts while on a solidarity mission to the Holy Land to show that Jewish Toronto stands with Israel

By: Alison Himel

Published: August 8th, 2014 in News » Israel

Op-Ed: Spending a Moment in the Shoes of an Israeli (Just Not Heels or Flip Flops)

Imagine this: the first thing uttered at every meeting, visit and meal - "if the siren goes off, the safe room is over ..." That's the reality of the situation. Those were the first words we heard over and over again - followed by how many seconds we have to get there. It was a very sobering experience to say the least.

In the south – in towns like UJA Federation of Greater Toronto’s Partner Community of Sderot - citizens have 15 seconds to get to a safe room or a bomb shelter. In Ashkelon and Ashdod, they have 30 seconds, while those in Tel Aviv have a whole minute.

That “situation” revealed itself to me and other participants of a recent Solidarity Mission to Israel where participants stayed in a hotel in Tel Aviv. We were reminded to sleep in clothes, and have our shoes and the key to our room ready in case we needed them in the middle of the night. And this is a 1 minute zone. Imagine living in a 15 second zone! How does one shower? Go to the bathroom? Shop for groceries?

Before heading out, we were told to wear shoes that we can run in - no heels or flip flops and ideally no skirts or shorts - hard on the knees when you need to hit the ground for cover. A constant reminder of what life can be like in Israel.

I opted for a roommate - we both liked the idea of the buddy system!

But it was all for a great cause, showing the people of Israel that Jewish Toronto and UJA Federation continues to share an unbreakable bond with the Jewish state, a bond that will never be broken. And everywhere we went, that bond was strengthened as Israelis regularly approached us to thank us for being there during this particularly unsettling time. With anti-Israeli sentiment and negative public opinion being at an all-time high, our visit came at the right time, making them feel less isolated and alone in the world.

On day one of our journey we met with a woman in the southern region of the country whose house had been hit by a rocket, and subsequently, every loud noise stressed her out. Fortunately she and her kids were tucked away in their safe room at the time, but the chaos and uncertainty she, and other Israelis live with on a day-by-day, hour-to-hour, and minute-by-minute basis is unimaginable to those of us fortunate to call Toronto home. We met a young man in a wheel chair, whose mom hasn't left their apartment in a month; we saw footage of an Israeli reporter who had been embedded in a paratrooper unit in Gaza, and then we saw footage of ordinary houses, in Gaza, that had been booby-trapped, and had tunnel entrances in the basement. It was a lot to take in, and this was still just the first day.

On day two, mission participants received an informative and eye-opening briefing on Hamas; where they come from, and the state of the current operation. The unfortunate reality is that Hama is the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood with the core belief that Jews should be killed and that Israel should be gone. So how does one negotiate with this? What does a cease-fire look like?

We then met with someone just off of his reserve rotation who explained to us. In great detail, how the infamous Hamas tunnels, are like a well planned, complicated subway system with main routes, alternate routes, electricity, communications and so forth. They are 100 feet underground, and run for up to a mile into Israel and can hide 300-400 people.

A mother from a kibbutz near Gaza says that at night she locks the doors and windows, and then has to wonder if her house should be attacked, which child does she grab first? Can you imagine when the toughest decision many of us need to make is what to order for lunch!?

My “AHA” moment came when we were in Sderot, just a stone’s throw from Gaza. We were in a room on the college campus waiting for our first speaker. The room was freezing - so I went outside to find the mini bus and grab my jacket. I was alone, walking in a practically empty parking lot - when I realized that I was in a 15 second zone (as in I have 15 seconds to get into a safe room or shelter if the siren goes off), and I had no idea where the nearest safe room was, and that no one knew that I was outside. The whole time I could hear booms going off nearby. What I experienced for a moment, is what others are coping with daily.

We also experienced a real Red Alert Siren when we got back to Tel Aviv later that day. As we all stood in the stairwell, which is also the safe area, we could clearly hear the unmistakable sound of 5 rockets. Thankfully the Iron Dome system and alarm system are watching over us.

All this being said, there is good news.

The Israelis appear to be very united. Everyone is doing what they can. We saw a group of 50 kids visiting wounded soldiers and singing to them; we saw a hundred people put together care packages to send to the soldiers, and students calling those who can't leave their homes in the south to check in and see if they need anything.

It's all quite remarkable; but that’s Israel for you.

But make no mistake- there will be a toll after Operation Protective Edge is completed. There will be physical and emotional trauma to deal with, in both the immediate future and long term.

The emergency dollars raised through UJA’s Israeli Emergency Relief Fund we send are so critical to the People of Israel. We have been providing respite for the children (camp, day programs), immediate cash assistance for families whose homes have been hit, trauma counseling, relocation, and so much more.

And thank G-D that UJA, through its Annual Campaign, has been – and continues to - support Sderot, including the fortification of a local community center so that there's always a safe place for people to be. Even for visiting Torontonians!

Lila tov.

Alison Himel is the Chair of UJA’s Women’s Philanthropy, Campaign 2015

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