JFNA Solidarity Mission: A visit to Mount Herzl

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A grave at Mount Herzl Cemetery. Photo by Stuart Wachs

Guest blogger Stuart Wachs, president and CEO of the Jewish Community Association of Greater Phoenix, is currently in Israel on a solidarity mission with the Jewish Federations of North America. 

Just leaving Mount Herzl Military Cemetery where 63 brave young men have been buried in just the last month. We heard from a wife and brother of a 20-year-old soldier who was just buried two weeks ago. I looked out at the cemetery filled with young men and women who where full of love who all died because of evil and hatred toward them.

We can not sit by idly  and have more and more young soldiers killed. We must as civilized people and countries fight against the evil of Islamic Jihadist killing thousands of people around the world. We must eliminate this evil and we must stand by Israel.
I can not imagine having to bury one of my children at this young age.

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JFNA Solidarity mission: Learning about Hamas’ plan of terror

Guest blogger Don Schon is currently in Israel on a solidarity mission with the Jewish Federations of North America.

While we have been in Israel, Hamas has fired more than 160 missiles into Israel. In the south of the country, they have been under bombardment for 14 years with over 3,500 missiles. For those towns and kibbutzim within 3 KM (less than two miles) there is no protection. They are exposed to short-range mortars using shells that are packed with ball bearings and other metal shreds, and to missiles which are fired from such short range that Iron Dome does not help. If that is not enough, they face the threat of terrorists killing their families after emerging from secret tunnels.

We learned about Hamas. This group of fanatics is an outgrowth of the Muslim brotherhood with an ideology perfectly in sync with Nazi ideals of hate and destruction with which they participated during the 1930s. Hamas trained with Al Qaeda and cooperated with Zarkawi. Their charter and ideology mandate not just the destruction of Israel, but the extermination of the Jewish people.

Hamas took over Gaza, quickly kneecapped and threw from building roofs every leader of the Palestine Authority they could find. They proceeded to dismantle any democratic political structures and eliminated elections.

Hamas has been preparing for this conflict for years. Captured documents demonstrate their plan was to build tunnels, infiltrate fighters and on Rosh Hashanah, start a final solution. In the meantime, Hamas infiltrated multiple college-educated terror cells into the West Bank with a plan to effect a coup and take over West Bank. The plans were discovered in the Gaza campaign and IDF arrested over 90 terrorists identified by the discovered documents.

Hamas dug over 150 tunnels for supplies into Egypt large enough to drive BMWs through. And they dug over 30 tunnels into Israel whose only purpose was terrorism against civilians. Each tunnel was dug at cost of over $3 million; a total of over $550 million. Yet they left their people in hovels and without protection from bombs.

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Daniel Gordis

Our speaker tonight was the college professor, author and journalist Daniel Gordis, who described Hamas as a cancer. The president went on to national TV after an American journalist who he knew was brutally murdered. He called out for the evil of ISIS to be eliminated. “Is Jewish civilian blood less red than that of the journalist” asked Gordis? “The U.S. will not negotiate with ISIS (nor should it), but the president wants Israel to negotiate through Egypt at the same table with Hamas as moral equivalents?” asked Gordis.

When Senator Obama visited Sderot, he stated that if someone was lobbing rockets where his daughters lived, he would do whatever it took to eliminate the threat. Why should Israel be asked to do less?

Everywhere we went, we were thanked for our love, devotion and even bravery by coming to Israel in the midst of this war. We were thanked by professionals, clerks, rabbis, by soldiers and professors; by widows and mourners, by immigrants and students. We were thanked for going to Sderot on a day when so many rockets were lobbed into it. But we were only under fire for four days!

Israel is a family which is calling out for our help. The only reason we would not be part of that family is if we do not reach back.


JFNA Solidarity Mission: Between the sirens

Guest blogger Stuart Wachs, president and CEO of the Jewish Community Association of Greater Phoenix, is currently in Israel on a solidarity mission with the Jewish Federations of North America.

We are at Kfar Ibim and we had a red alert and then could hear the rocket exploding; we believe that it was intercepted by the Iron Dome. This is an absorption center for Ethiopians and all of the sudden all the children came running into the main room we were in, which is also the safe room. Amazing to see how “normal” it seemed from the children and also so sad.
 
Getting briefing from a leading reporter in Israel. Interesting fact, the civilian casualties number that the UN uses come from UN advisers in Gaza who are Palestinian and approved by Hamas. Big surprise that the number of innocent civilians is so exaggerated. The IDF intelligence shows that about 1,000 have been Hamas terrorists.
 
Other interesting facts:
Each tunnel Hamas has built takes 350 truckloads of supplies. With those supplies, Palestinians could have built 86 homes, six schools or 19 medical clinics. Instead they build tunnels for the single purpose of killing and terrorizing Israeli civilians. The tunnel system is truly like an underground city network going from one building to another. There is no way the Palestinians did not know this network of terror tunnels was being built. We saw footage of IDF soldiers in Gaza fighting Hamas and destroying the tunnels. Their commitment in destroying Hamas and their terror capabilities was clear. What an amazing group of young men and women. The IDF is strong, determined, mighty and also the most ethical troops in the world.
 
Have to go now, a siren just went off and we have to go to a shelter.


JFNA Solidarity Mission: Rockets fly again

Guest blogger Stuart Wachs, president and CEO of the Jewish Community Association of Greater Phoenix, is currently in Israel on a solidarity mission with the Jewish Federations of North America.

As rockets again fly into Israel from Gaza, we once again see the evil that Israel is up against as these rockets are sent with the only intent to kill civilians in Israel. Today we will head south to learn more about the struggles those living under this recurring terror are under and to show them our support.
 
As Israel is once again under fire, it makes our experiences yesterday even that much more meaningful. We met with IDF soldiers at the hospital who had been very seriously injured. We met with a brother, mother and grandmother of a soldier who was killed in Gaza just three weeks ago. In all of these cases, the amazing spirit of the Israeli people shined. There was no talk of hatred, no talk of revenge, just talk of pride in the Jewish state, pride in being Jewish, the importance of valuing life and fighting for that freedom and for all of us to have a Jewish homeland to come home to.
 
Amongst the comments of the wounded soldiers and grieving family members was a consistent thread that they were not heroes, they were simply doing their job and what had to be done. They all expressed a deep appreciation for us being here in Israel in these trying times and that we are all in this battle together for the survival of Israel and for freedom and democracy.
 
No one here is afraid. Not even anyone on the mission. Everyone I spoke with last night was eager go to the south even as rockets were once again flying. Israel is a magical place, the people of Israel are special and it is an amazing honor to be here right now to learn and show our support. I encourage everyone to come to Israel and to come soon. They need to see and hear that we as Jews in the Diaspora and as Americans stand by Israel. I cannot explain how important that is to Israelis.


JFNA solidarity mission: A firsthand look at life under constant barrage

Guest blogger Don Schon is currently in Israel on a solidarity mission with the Jewish Federations of North America. Here is his account of the delegation’s first day.

Today we went to Sderot. The sirens went off three times; Iron Dome protected us twice. It really works. Once we were caught outside, as 15 seconds is really a very short period to get to shelter.

We started this morning with a video and lecture about the Gaza campaign. What we are not shown by our news media was disturbing. Hamas had been preparing for years for this war which was supposed to end very differently and with mass murder of Israeli civilians. There was an underground city with alleys, command and planning rooms, interconnected streets. Using this,  the fighters would disappear and reappear at will making it very difficult for the IDF.

More than 30 tunnels were discovered going into Israel, five into an agricultural kibbutz, Navaot. The only purpose of this could have been murder of large numbers of civilians. Many of these tunnels were over one-mile long.

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Don Schon

Next we drove south to Sderot, to an absorption center for new immigrants, almost all Ethiopian. The sirens rang and over 30 children rushed into the room. We watched and participated in a therapy sessions using role playing for preteen children. We heard about the trauma to the children from constant missiles and the feeling someone hates you and wants to kill you.

We went to a high school for science and technology built by an American philanthropist. It is built to be bomb proof so the kids can learn without constantly jumping and running. The walls and roof are at least 18 inches thick reinforced cement. The overhangs are massive for protection if case the kids are caught walking outside. There are safe structures easily reachable. We were caught outside. They work.

The principal told of his goal, which is to teach the children not to hate those who are trying to kill them. This is both for their mental health and so eventually they will be able to live there after there is peace. We spoke with a 16-year-old who told of her life under constant barrage. What bothered her most was the way they are presented by the international media. Her father works for Intel; she was born in Mesa.

We met with the mayor. He is determined that they will grow their city and not be driven from their homes.

We heard about the Jewish Agency for Israel’s trauma program and spoke to women from Kibbutz Navaot on the border. We heard of the trauma to teens and families who have repetitively been forced to run for their lives for 14 years. One group met with a mother and daughter who lived in a very large house. They were so traumatized, they had abandoned life in all parts of the house except the basement.

All I could feel was anger. Anger at a situation and world that makes people live like this.


JFNA solidarity mission, day one: Politics and Beit Halochem

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Members of the Jewish Community Association of Greater Phoenix delegation include Association President and CEO Stuart Wachs, fourth from left, and Shahar Edry, director of the Israel Center, second from left. Photo by Don Schon

Guest blogger Don Schon is currently in Israel on a solidarity mission with the Jewish Federations of North America. Here is his account of the delegation’s first day.

Ninety seconds! That’s the amount of time that people in Tel Aviv have to get to a shelter after the sirens sound and before a missile strikes.

 This day started and ended with political discussions with Israelis, both a stranger (a tour professional) this morning and a family this afternoon. The sentiments expressed were strangely similar. The Israelis both times expressed anger at the fanaticism, cruelty and hatred of Hamas. They expressed approval of their government’s response to the crisis. Then they expressed frustration that their political process has not brought them closer to peace and security.

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Beit Halochem is a sports, rehabilitation and recreation center in Israel serving disabled veterans and their families. Photo courtesy of Don Schon

In between, we went to visit an inspiring institution (actually a collection of five branches), Beit Halochem, or the House of the Warriors. This tiny country has dealt with 50,000 disabled war veterans since 1948. They have done so by developing this amazing place for the war casualties to go after they leave hospital-associated institutions. Beit Halochem has over 11,000 visits per month. It provides a panoply of services, including counseling to hospitalized serviceman/woman and food vouchers for their families. Once they are released, it provides long-term rehab services, retraining, emotional support, educational grants, quiet places for those with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and noisy places for their families and children. It does this with 85 percent of its funds coming from donations and user fees and a director with a Ph.D. in business and experience in private business and community service.

Torture Apparatus

This ceramic piece was made by an IDF soldier who spent five months in Hezbollah captivity in Syria; making these ceramic pieces was part of his therapy. Photo by Don Schon

Before we left, we had a session with an IDF soldier who spent five months in Hezbollah captivity in Syria. He explained his ceramic representations made as part of his therapy. They are torture equipment his capturers used to extract information. For four and a half months, he underwent daily torture. He was strung up with chains with a bag over his head and spun and beaten over a polished metal blade, knowing if they felt he had no value he would be murdered. As a bonus, they threw him to the ground and stomped on him, beating and cursing him. The third ceramic is of the imaginary scenes he visualized to maintain his sanity. He went on to correctly predict in dreams his eventual release and his successful career in business. He described his unexpected near death in an auto accident, economic decline and bankruptcy and the repossession of his home. In spite of all this, he chose to concentrate on the miracles of happiness which visited his life every day. He gave back by helping the next generation of wounded and disabled veterans. We sat there in silence embarrassed that we ever felt justified in complaining about anything.


A tale of two tunnels

Guest blogger Dan Gordon, an IDF reservist from Arizona, sent us this post from Jerusalem.

I’m in Jerusalem today to do an interview on a Christian Television network about being a Sar-El volunteer and about a few things that the mainstream press doesn’t seem to want to cover. This is not a “G-d is on our side” thing, I promise you. 

It’s more in line with putting things in their proper historical perspective. To paraphrase Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, in order to live in Israel, one has to be a realist; which is to say, one must believe in miracles.

For your consideration. Make of it what you will. 

A few days before the first terrorist tunnel attack, a group of religious Jews who make what is called matzah shmura for Pesach, were busy looking for very green wheat. Now this particular matzah that they make is made from special wheat, without blemish and is literally watched over, for every step of the process, from planting to harvest to grinding, to baking the final matzah for the Passover meal. The same meal that formed The Last Supper, commemorated by our Christian brothers and sisters.

Next year is a year is shmita, the seventh year in which the Bible commands us to literally let the land have a Sabbath, to let it rest, replenish itself. Oddly enough, today’s agronomists applaud the process as being ecologically sound. 

Because the land will lie fallow next year, these guys needed particularly green wheat, which could be stored for two years before being used to make the matzah. They found the wheat they were looking for in an agricultural community next to the Gaza border. They cut a deal with the farmers who sold them the wheat and they went out and harvested it all, so that the field , which had just held tall green wheat, was now completely barren.

A few short days later the field yielded an unexpected crop. 

 A homicide tunnel opened up and a dozen Hamas terrorists came out,  intent upon murdering and maiming, and taking captive dozens of Israeli men women and children, in what would, and, indeed, should have been for them, ” A Divine Victory.”

One can only imagine their dismay when they found that the field of tall green wheat , which was  to have been their camouflage, had been completely cut down! They were, thus, spotted immediately, and half of them killed and the other half driven back into Gaza by the IDF, thereby averting what would have been the worst terrorist attack in Israel’s history. 

And all because some religious Jews were fulfilling a biblical commandment.

So I’m in Jerusalem and one of my dearest friends, Lt. Col. Danny Grossman, a highly decorated fighter pilot, makes me an offer I can’t refuse. Tonight is Tisha B’Av , It is one of the saddest days in the Jewish calendar, the worst luck day of the year. It commemorates the destruction of the First Temple and the Second Temple, and of Jerusalem,  and the start of the Spanish inquisition. 

Some of the most traumatic events in the history of the Jewish people have occurred on this day and religious Jews gather at the Western wall, the remnant of the Holy Temple, to mourn and lament these disasters, in which millions of our people were slaughtered, our Temple, twice destroyed, and in which,the adversaries who sought to destroy us, seemed absolutely assured that the Jews were finally wiped off the face of the earth.

So Danny offers me a triple-header. First we’ll get to pay a visit to my girlfriend. My girlfriend is Danny’s 88-year-old mother, who plays a mean piano, sings the best bawdy songs of her own composition, and has a pixie smile that could light up the darkest night. I’ve told her on more than one occasion that if I was 30 years older, I’d be chasing her around the home with my walker. 

The second thing he offers is a tour of the tunnels under the Western Wall of the the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Amazingly after all the years I’ve lived in Israel and all the visits to Jerusalem, I’ve never been in the tunnels that run beneath the wall and bring you as close to the Holy of Holies as it’s possible for a Jew to get, since the Temple Mount is home now to the Al Aksa Mosque, and the sight of a Jew praying there, much less one in uniform, would literally set off a riot that could start the Third Intifada. 

 So we will visit this holiest spot of the underground portion of the Western Wall close to the sight of the Holiest of Holies, tens of meters above us.

The third part of his offer is to be at the Wall for the Tisha B’ Av  prayers. Of all the Jews there are on the earth, tonight my friend Danny and I will be amongst the few who will be able to represent our people and be a living strand of Jewish DNA, in a history of our people’s connection to Jerusalem, and this land, that stretches back thousands of years before Islam was born, and a thousand years before the birth of Christianity. 

We are the living tree of which both Islam and Christianity are branches.

 We go down into the tunnels under the wall. The tunnels were actually built by the Mamluke Muslims 700 years ago. They cover the original steps which led around the Temple and that portion of the Western Wall closest to the Holy of Holies. Our guide, a former IDF paratrooper, points something out on the wall. It seems the Mamlukes used what was basically 1,300-year-old garbage to construct the tunnels. 

They used the stones of a long-dead Roman Empire with which to build their wall. 

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If you look closely, you can just make out the letters of one of the stones, which spell ” FRET,” short for Fretensis, which is the name of the 10th Roman legion. Photo by Dan Gordon

I take a picture. If you look closely you can just make out the letters of one of the stones. The letters are ” FRET” That is short for Fretensis which is the name of the 10th Roman legion. The 10th Roman Legion is the one which not only conquered Jerusalem. They also destroyed the Temple and slaughtered our people, with a thorough viciousness that would not be matched again in two thousand years, when another dictator built a Reich he was sure would last a millennia.

Several years later, this same Roman 10th Legion not only put down the Bar Kochba revolt, the last time the Jewish people were sovereign until the modern state of Israel,  but their leader also changed the name of Jerusalem to Ilya Capitolina and the name of Judea, to Palestine. This was meant to not only wipe out the Jewish people, but the last vestiges of our memory as well. 

There would be no Jerusalem. 

It would be wiped off the map. 

It’s very name would be erased.

There would be no Israel, no Judea, indeed no Jews. 

The greatest empire in the history of the world had finally crushed these stiff-necked , Hebrew speaking, monotheists, who worshiped the G-D of Abraham.

And yet here we were in that tunnel,looking at that scrap from the dust bin of history, all three of us speaking Hebrew, the language that was spoken here two thousand years ago, when the mightiest army in the history of the world was sure they had put an end to us. 

And here I am in the uniform of the Israel Defense Forces,and our guide,Yuval says, “These stones you are standing on are the actual steps that lead around the Temple. Your name, Dan, is the name of one of the 12 tribes. You speak in the same language that was spoken here two thousand years ago and if you give a piece of the Dead Sea scrolls to any Israeli high school student, he can read them. And where is the Roman legion now? And where are we?”

I have two photos of my foster father, Chanan, who served in the Jewish Brigade of the British Army during WWII. It was the forerunner of the army whose uniform I so very proudly wear today. 

Hitler’s empire was going to last a thousand years and he would build his Reich, he was sure, on the graves of our people after making Europe Jew-Free. He was as sure of it, as the Roman 10th Legion, as sure of it as the Spanish Inquisition, as sure of it as  Hamas is of it’s next Divine Victory.

The first picture is of Chanan, with three other soldiers of the Jewish Brigade. They are holding an Israeli flag as they stand beneath the Arch of Titus, the arch Ceasar built to commemorate the ultimate victory over the Jews and the final destruction and sacking of Jerusalem, the city that would never rise again. And there Chanan and his fellow Hebrew soldiers are, not only still here, still speaking Hebrew, but victorious. And where is Titus?

The second picture is of Chanan and the same three other soldiers of the Brigade . They are standing in front of the Munich beer hall where a third-rate painter dreamt of a thousand-year Reich, built on our graves, in a Jew-Free Europe.By the time the picture was taken, Hitler was dead in his bunker. And Chanan was having a beer with the other soldiers of the Jewish Brigade who had just helped defeat the Nazis, and soon would literally fulfill the vision of the Valley of Dry Bones, and help the remnants of our people come up out of their graves, as the Almighty would breath life into them, bring sinews and flesh up onto their skeleton like bodies, and bring them home into the Land of Israel.

So, in this, my second to last day in  the Uniform of The Israel Defense forces , for a while, a quick note to Hamas:

We’ve heard louder noises than your rockets.

We’ve seen more terror than any you could ever dream of burrowing beneath our borders.

We’ve faced tyrants and empires, armies and marauders who make the worst you can do think of doing, look like the mad ravings of a fevered child.

Your own people now look at you in disgust. 

No less than Abdullah, King of Saudi Arabia has called what you’ve done in Gaza , ” a collective massacre” caused by you, Hamas.

The Palestinian people of Gaza will look at the misery you’ve brought down upon them and ask, what was this for? Of the 1,600 Palestinians who are now dead, because of the war of your making, 1,400 would be alive today if only you had accepted the cease-fire  which Egypt proposed and the Arab League and the President of the Palestine Authority endorsed, and which Israel accepted immediately and unconditionally, and which you rejected by launching a terrorist tunnel attack against us. 

Because you hadn’t enough pictures of dead babies to show an all too gullible world, so you could claim the mantle of victimhood.

And you hadn’t yet managed to pull of the spectacular, ” Divine Victory” terrorist attack that would demoralize the Jews.

And it all failed!

Your more than three thousand rockets, launched against our civilians, were shot down by our Iron Dome. 

Your half-dozen terrorist tunnel attacks were all foiled by the IDF.

Your tunnels, which you built, instead of building homes and hospitals and schools for your people, are in ruins.

And what was it all for?

We haven’t occupied Gaza for 10 years.

There was no siege until you began attacking us with rockets aimed at our civilians.

You promise your people the same thing that Titus and the 10th Roman Legion and Hitler promised theirs.

You promise to annihilate us.

And you may manage to kill a few of us in a terrorist attack. We know the price we must pay to live in this, the land of our forefathers; the land that gave birth to our language and religion and culture. The land that gave birth to the tree of which you are a branch.

Tonight we will lament the tragedies that have befallen us at the hands of other tyrants. 

But we will also give thanks to a merciful and gracious G-d for saving us from the tragedy you had planned. I believe He did it with a handful of religious Jews who followed His commandments by gathering wheat, and I know he did it with the soldiers of the IDF, who stand in a tradition stretching back to David and Joshua, and the Maccabees, and the Haganah and the Jewish Brigade.

Three words to you then on this Tisha B’Av:  Am Yisrael Chai.

The People of Israel Live.

Dan Gordon 

Capt. IDF ( Res)