Reflections from Day 2 - Alan Viterbi

Written by Alan Viterbi on November 28, 2023

Another day of mixed emotions.  All in Jerusalem.

First, two quick items I omitted from yesterday.  Both have San Diego connections and both are elements of the amazing resiliency in this country.  In the morning, we met Jonathan Ellman, the son of San Diego leaders, Claire and David Ellman (and a cousin of our son-in-law, Josh).  Jonathan immigrated to Israel and is a high tech entrepreneur.  He met us down in Sha’ar HaNegev, where he is considered a good friend of the community.  The front-line kibbutzim were without power, as their infrastructure was damaged in the Hamas terrorist attack on 10/7.  Jonathan spearheaded a project to raise the funds to buy three new high capacity generators, sourced them in Turkey, shipped them into Israel, and got them installed in a matter of weeks to bring power back to these communities, for residents to be able to return and collect items, and for the soldiers living in the kibbutzim right now to have water and sewage properly pumping, and electricity for light and to be able to cook.  A former San Diegan, now an Israeli, who stepped into help our partner community, when the national government was nowhere to be found.

Second, we saw Elad Yeori, a Kibbutz Erez resident and former head of the SouthUp business incubator, which San Diego helped to co-found.  Elad became a tech entrepreneur in a Sha’ar HaNegev startup to build a highly energy efficient compressor to reduce the power consumption of air conditioning systems.  Elad had just completed the first prototype of their system, which was in their offices on the kibbutz.  Fortunately the rocket and gunfire missed it.  He returned, recovered this and other critical equipment, moved it into a home near Mitzpe Ramon where Elad and his team have been displaced to, and they are back up and working on their start-up, and are already planning for their return to Sha’ar HaNegev when security is restored to create more green, high tech jobs.

Now for today.

Courtesy of the Encinitas-based Leichtag Foundation, which is deeply involved in supporting civil society groups across the mosaic of Jerusalem (secular, ultra-religious Jewish and Arab), arranged for us a morning of exposure to chamals, the ‘operation rooms’ created often by the evening of October 7th to meet the needs of a deeply wounded society, whose national government was completely frozen and incapable of responding to the massive needs that emerged starting in the first hours.   Charlene Seidle of the Leichtag Foundation began the morning by sharing a phrase coined by Israeli thinker, Micah Goodman, “Optimism is passive.  Hope is an actual act of defiance.”  From the very beginning of the tragic events of October 7th, people throughout the country began to hope by taking action.  The war and the yearning for the hostages is everywhere in this country.  You cannot escape it.  But today we got to experience hope.

In Jerusalem, a massive chamal, now named Lev Echad (One Heart) sprang up from a handful of volunteers using the arts campus in the center of the City.  From eight people, it has grown to over 4,000 volunteers, many are art, theatre and dance students, but it has gone way beyond.  This chamal now consists of 23 teams, addressing every possible issue facing internally displaced refugees, reservists, active duty soldiers.  From early on, the government and even IDF unit commanders began to call them for help obtaining resources and assistance.  We met leaders of four of the teams.  One founded by Shira, who was getting her first book published and worked days as an editor at a publishing house in Tel Aviv, dropped everything and came to create a call center in Jerusalem to help people with anything they need.  Citizens of every aspect of society call her with needs, many unique and very particular, as well as from donors with unique things to offer.  Her customer service reps do intake and then seek to address the need, often through the other teams.  Shira highlighted that one of the greatest services they provide is simply listening to a traumatized caller, who sometimes just wants someone to listen.  Shira’s team consists of 120 volunteers answering the calls.  One of the most unusual was the donation of a reception hall with full catering from an American donor who was scheduled to celebrate her son’s bar mitzvah in Jerusalem.  Shira’s team turned it into a celebration for dozens of families with upended bar mitzvahs, including people displaced from their homes in the south and north, to be able to use the already scheduled celebration to be their celebration.  Talia, a dance student and choreographer, set up a team immediately after the attack to help find housing for internally displaced people that the government either didn’t know how to help, or who were bureaucratically prevented from getting housing away from the rocket attacks in the south and north – she focused on families with a disabled member, and pregnant women in their third trimester (at risk for giving birth prematurely due to the ongoing trauma in those zones).  Nadav set up a center to deliver needed goods (diapers, formula, winter clothing, army uniforms and winter gear), whatever is needed and to deliver it as a personalized package meeting exactly the specifications of the requesting party.  Refugees are calling in for items, and now reservist army units are as well, because the government has not been responding.  Finally, we spent some time sorting clothing donations for a no cost clothing store set up in an empty storefront.  Thousands of items have been donated.  The store is set up with racks and changing rooms, so refugees who need clothing don’t lose their dignity digging through boxes or piles on the floor, but instead feel like they are shopping for new clothes, because they fled with only the clothes on their back 53 days ago, and winter is now upon them in Jerusalem.  Each of these young people, running large teams has quit their day jobs or studies, and is volunteering full time to serve people they have never met.

Next we met with four haredi (ultra-orthodox Jewish) young people, who were on the other side of the religious/political divide these past nine months.  Today they are running a major chamal in Jerusalem serving needs throughout the country.  Inspired by the needs of so many, and the service of others, they sprang into action after the Sabbath ended on October 7th.  Two women established an operation to support the thousand plus families which needed to bury their dead loved ones and go through the first week’s mourning rituals and thirty day mourning rituals in Jewish tradition.  On some days there were 30 to 40 funerals of victims.  Some had to be held in the middle of the night due to limited available cemetery workers.  People needing a quorum of ten people to say the prayers at the burial and at the house of mourning would reach out.  In Israel, funerals cannot be delayed for convenience.  They arranged dozens, and often hundreds of volunteers to attend funerals and comfort the bereaved at their homes.  At a 1:00 am funeral which the family thought no one would attend, hundreds turned out to comfort the family.  Most of these families were secular, from the music festival or the kibbutzim.  This never came into the minds of these ultra-orthodox women.  Two men set up a team to fill the needs of soldiers.  From delivering hot home-cooked meals to troops at the front (cooked by mothers of large families, accustomed to cooking in large volumes) to getting dumb phones to army units at the front that would allow soldiers who cannot bring their cell phones to the front to be able to call their parents to let them know they are okay, to doing laundry for troops on the frontline.  Army unit commanders began to understand their capacity to do anything, and have even turned to them to relocate a unit’s personnel and gear from Gaza to the Lebanon border, when the army couldn’t find the needed vehicles, they arranged a fleet of people in their personal cars and mini vans to drive them, across the country at their own expense.

Each of the young people spoke of the need to serve, each spoke of being one nation and that the divisions which consumed them these past nine months could never return, and each said their activity was creating a sea change of engagement, respect and understanding, and spoke of their own commitment to continue even after the war ends.  An unbelievable source of hope through action.

Then we met with some volunteers from a predominantly haredi organization that has been doing a painful but truly holy work for decades, an organization called Zaka.  These young, mostly ultra-orthodox men go to the scenes of accidents, murders and terrorist incidents to collect the bodies and body parts, following the Jewish belief that humans are made in the image of God, and that therefore the bodies (including all its parts) are sacred and should be buried with respect.  They are accustomed to collecting body parts from terrorist bombings (including those of the terrorist, who they say was made in the image of God as well, even if the terrorist turned away to evil).  These young men told us that, even in their worst experiences, they have never seen anything like what they saw on October 7th, and the days that followed.  Each spoke about the images that haunted them, people killed and their bodies then mutiiated, and of women who had been raped and tortured before being killed.  These three young men each began crying as they described the nightmares they lived with.  One young man described that he goes to the Western Wall to pray to God to take back what he has seen.  We asked him why he did this volunteering job.  He replied, “if someone can do a job that no one else can, then you must do it.”  Leichtag is helping a chamal arrange counseling for these unique first responders.  As we learned, before October 7th, the periodic missile attacks and terrorist incidents had resulted in 13.8% of the Israeli population being diagnosed with PTSD.  Today, the whole country is suffering, but this time it is not post-trauma, it is actually trauma.

Following them, we were visited by Alon Shuster, a Member of the Knesset, who served as Mayor of Sha’ar HaNegev for ten years before Ofir.  He told us about the courageous emergency response team of Kibbutz Mefalsim, which successfully fought off the terrorists for 3.5 hours before help came, including rescuing the Thai farm workers who worked with them in the fields and whom Hamas had initially captured with the intention of taking them to Gaza.  The Kibbutz suffered no fatalities, but remains traumatized.

Then we went to Shaare Zedek, Jerusalem’s largest hospital to understand the unique challenges of running a hospital in the middle of a war.  From running critical wards and resources in underground bombproof facilities, to handling 200 wounded in the first few days of the war, to being one of the five hospitals that receives injured soldiers by helicopter from the front, while still treating the population of the country’s largest city.  They opened an emergency room just for people experiencing mental health crises from the war.  They are using this lull in the war to surge capacity for the next stage in the war.  All while maintaining service levels with hundreds of personnel called up to reserve duty, and maintaining full care for all Jerusalem’s diverse populations from a multi-ethnic staff of secular Jewish, ultra-orthodox and Arab doctors and nurses, during a period of war-induced tensions.  In the ICU, they currently have two injured IDF soldiers, as well as an injured terrorist, all receiving the same level of care.

The day ended with a visit to the house of the President of Israel.  We were joined by three other Federation missions from Florida and the DC area.  The President addressed us, frankly, thoughtfully and with determination.  Israel’s president is a figurehead who is the symbol of the nation’s unity and values, but has virtually no governmental authority.  He spoke of the profound loss of confidence in their security felt by Israelis after the unspeakable atrocities perpetrated by Hamas.  He spoke of the indifference and outright hostility from so much of the world.  He cited the two great exceptions, the United States and Jewish communities throughout the world, who were standing by Israel’s fight to recover its hostages and to destroy Hamas’ capacity to endanger Israelis again.  And he thanked President Biden and the bi-partisan consensus in the US Congress.

Finally, we ended the evening with the Jerusalem-based executive of the Jewish Federations of North America, who helps to deploy the funds raised by our Federation and the hundred plus other Federations in the US and Canada.  She talked about the focus of investing in trauma aid, shelter, and health and rehabilitative care for those injured.  She told us that the challenge is not to build back what was, but to build new and stronger in the devastated communities of the Gaza envelope.  Finally, we heard from two women rabbis, one from Sha’ar HaNegev and one from Jerusalem (from the congregation I have a membership in here) who spoke of the work ministering to the families of those murdered, and to those displaced.  The rabbi of Sha’ar HaNegev described having to officiate at funerals with multiple caskets for the first time in her career, but each also spoke of the volunteerism and the emerging resiliency of the public.

It was another day of painful stories, but today we also heard stories of hope, unity and an emerging vision of a new domestic reality after the war ends.



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