Temple Chai mission: Life in southern Israel

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Joanne Schlesinger visits with a child in a bomb shelter located next to a playground outside Ashkelon. Photo courtesy of Temple Chai

Guest blogger Debbie Blyn, president of Temple Chai in Phoenix, shares her experiences from Temple Chai’s solidarity mission to Israel. She and seven others are on the mission, which was coordinated through Keshet: The Center for Educational Tourism in Israel. They arrived in Tel Aviv on Sept. 1 and the mission continues through Sept. 4. Today they left Tel Aviv and headed south.

Today started early, with another fabulous Israeli breakfast.  I am loving the fresh fruit and vegetables, delicious yogurt, cheeses and bread. I could get used to this every morning!
 
We had an emotional day as we learned about, and explored, how the lives of Israelis in the southern party of the country were affected during this recent war. Our first stop was the Beit Levenstein Rehabilitation Center just outside of Tel Aviv, where soldiers and civilians are treated for a full range of neurological issues.  We met with a prominent orthopedic surgeon who described the types of injuries common to soldiers in the Gaza war. They are seeing mostly injuries to the head and limbs because of the protective vests worn during combat.
 
We met two soldiers recovering from severe injuries. They were young, handsome and gentle. A 20-year-old paratrooper was injured five days after he entered Gaza. He had full-body injuries and has had several surgeries. He was with of group of soldiers who were initially searching for the three kidnapped teenagers, and then were sent to Gaza once the fighting began there. He was part of a squad of 16 soldiers – 15 of whom were injured in the fighting.
 
We also met with a member of the elite Golani Brigade. He has been in the hospital for two months recovering from a serious leg injury. He started walking just last Wednesday, and yet he took the stairs to meet with us because he didn’t want to wait for the elevator.
 
Both soldiers, despite serious injuries and many weeks of hospitalization, expressed a strong desire to return to their army units once they are healed. Their courage is truly humbling.
 
Our next stop was a visit to the American-built Yamach Nachshonim Army Base to meet with a lieutenant colonel in the army reserves. There, we saw some of the tanks and armored carriers that are used in battle. (Photos were prohibited in most places we visited today.) It was explained that in Israel the job of the regular army is to try to stop or delay the onslaught during an attack, and to handle ongoing security. The reserves are there to change the balance of power during a war. It used to be that the majority of the adult male population served in the reserves. Now, to save money, fewer people serve. The reserve unit we visited needs to be ready to roll within 72 hours after a call-up. They are in the process of getting their equipment ready for the next deployment.

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Blaine Light visits with children at an after-school program held at a bomb shelter near Ashkelon. Photo courtesy of Temple Chai

Our time today with the passionate Yuval Sokoloff from the Lev Echad organization was inspiring. Lev Echad coordinates volunteer efforts to help Israeli citizens in times of crisis. During the Gaza war, they mobilized 20,000 volunteers in the south to help people who were homebound and could not get to shelters, visit doctors or buy food. They helped staff emergency shelters for children, which needed to be up and running on a daily basis. During this war, school was not in session and camps in the south were canceled. However, parents needed childcare so they could go to work. Their children needed to spend their days within the safety of shelters. Lev Echad supervised and entertained the children. We visited such a shelter in the south of Israel in Kiryat Malachi where an afterschool program was underway. The shelter space is directly adjacent to the children’s playground for quick safety.
 
We were so inspired by their work that we made a donation to the organization with some of the money that had been given to us by members of Temple Chai and our board of directors. Lev Echad helps the most fragile members of the community during difficult times.
 
Next, we traveled further south to Ashkelon to visit with Dr. Ron Lobel at Barzilai Hospital. Ashkelon is just eight miles from the Gaza Strip, and when the rocket-warning sirens sounded during the war – just days ago – residents had 30 seconds to get to shelter. This is the closest hospital to Gaza, and was the first stop for many injured soldiers and civilians. Dr. Lobel discussed the challenges of preparing for a war and the mass casualties that will occur. He told us how the hospital needed to reinforce part of its buildings to withstand the constant missile attacks. When the hospital is forced to go on high alert, it must discharge 50 percent of its patients, and does so within three hours.

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Rabbi Bill Berk, rabbi emeritus of Temple Chai, who now lives in Israel, leads a discussion with the Temple Chai group. Photo courtesy of Temple Chai

At dinner tonight, we were treated to a teaching by Temple Chai’s Rabbi Emeritus Bill Berk on the biblical, Zionist and current IDF policies and viewpoints on the ethical use of force. Sitting at the dinner table in Ashkelon, just miles from the Gaza Strip, it was a fascinating and incredibly relevant discussion.

  It has been an educational, emotional, and inspirational day for our group.

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