Fighting in Israel, Gaza affects Pittsburgh, Jewish community

Fighting in Israel, Gaza affects Pittsburgh, Jewish community

As rockets continue toAs rockets continue to terrorize Israel, and the Jewish state responds with air strikes, the fighting in the region has touched the Pittsburgh community in many ways.

Families with sons and daughters in the Israeli Defense Forces watch the news nervously for word of a ground assault.

Community leaders are raising money and collecting necessities for Israelis within range of the rockets.

Some Pittsburghers are visiting the country to express solidarity with Israel.

And while Jew and Arab face off in the Middle East, here in Pittsburgh they are meeting in far different ways.

One Pittsburgher currently in the IDF is 19-year-old Stephen Reibach of Mt. Lebanon; he enlisted last summer and recently finished his ulpan and “pre-basic training,” according to his mother, Stacey Reibach.

Currently staying with a host family outside of Karmiel, Stephen is awaiting orders of where he will be stationed next.

Because he has not yet finished his combat training, his mother does not think he will be doing “anything too dangerous,” she told the Chronicle. Still, she is worried for the safety of her son.

“I am obviously nervous,” Reibach said. “But as a mom, I have peace in his confidence, and we are all in agreement that Israel is doing the right thing by defending herself. That doesn’t take the nervousness away, but I was nervous when he was in Oakland [at the University of Pittsburgh] last year.”

Conversely, “he [Stephen] is not nervous at all,” Reibach continued. “He’s calm, he’s confident. When I asked him if he was scared, he said, ‘This is what I came to do.’ ”

While Reibach doesn’t expect her son to be in this round of fighting, Michael Fisher, former community shaliach to Pittsburgh, has every reason to believe his son will.

Natan Fisher, who is in the IDF Tank Corps, is already deployed near the Gazan border and is ready to enter Gaza if ordered.  

“On Friday he was mobilized,” Michael Fisher told the Chronicle while visiting Pittsburgh. He said Natan was “sent down right now to the Gaza border, and they are now poised and waiting to see if they get a green light for going in with ground forces.

“It’s very difficult when you have a kid,” added Fisher, who was in the first Lebanon War. “I’m feeling very apprehensive right now.”

Tzur Goldblum of Pittsburgh, also a former community shaliach here, was in Israel visiting his son in the IDF when the fighting ramped up.

He actually witnessed Iron Dome, the Israeli missile defense system, shoot down incoming Hamas rockets and posted this observation on Facebook:

“Air raid sirens, the radio in the car is screaming ‘red color, red color,’ and before you know it, from the field next to the road, four or five Iron Dome rockets launch to the sky intercepting rockets from Gaza. Just unreal. The price of having a free, safe Jewish state is so expensive and demanding to some, and so taken for granted by so many others.”

Jennifer Olbum’s son, Eli Allswede, 20, moved to Israel about 18 months ago, and joined the IDF last February. He is a tank driver stationed in the West Bank, although his mother does not know for sure where he currently is.

“I haven’t spoken to him since the fighting started,” the Squirrel Hill resident said. “He was supposed to come home last Sunday; he hasn’t been home in a year. But he called to say ‘cancel the trip,’ and that was all. There is no communication on purpose. They tell them not to communicate if possible because their texts and calls can get intercepted.”

Not knowing her son’s whereabouts isn’t easy for Olbum. Although, “what I am going through is no different than what any Israeli mother is going through. Nobody knows where their kids are. But I’m very proud of him, very supportive. And worried.”

While parents worry about their kids in uniform, at least one Pittsburgh rabbi traveled to Israel this week on a solidarity mission.

Rabbi Daniel Yolkut of Congregation Poale Zedeck traveled on a three-day emergency mission organized by the Rabbinical Council of America and took along toys and art supplies for children, which his congregation collected.   

Meanwhile, Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh leaders are responding to the violence.

• An emergency meeting of the Federation’s executive committee was held Friday morning, Nov. 17, to discuss its response to the rocket attacks.

• The Federation has committed to raising $100,000 as its share of a $5 million commitment made by the Jewish Federations of North America to assist Israel during the crisis.

• A fundraising mailbox has been opened, which has already received many donations, totaling more than $3,000. Donations continue to arrive. People can access the mailbox at

Back in Pittsburgh, Jews, Muslims and supporters met in other ways.

About 40 protesters gathered in Downtown Pittsburgh, Friday, Nov. 17, to voice their displeasure with Israel’s handling of the conflict.

Students for Justice in Palestine, a student group from the University of Pittsburgh that promotes the causes of liberation and self-determination for the Palestinian people, organized the demonstration, which was held Friday in front of the William S. Moorhead Federal Building on Liberty Avenue.

“We see this as an intentional escalation on the part of Israel for more conflict in Gaza,” SJP President Ryan Branagan said. “I’m not convinced at the random nature of this, or that there was a threat to Israeli security, although now there certainly is. This is a great way for Likud and Shas to shore up their votes in an election over Ehud Barak.”

The protest began at 5 p.m. — after the beginning of Shabbat.

There was no organized Jewish response to the demonstration, but Gregg Roman, the Federation’s community relations director, still turned out to survey the scene, and wasn’t concerned about the lack of a Jewish presence to counter the rally.

“We will have our own agenda — not to respond to this protest, but to respond to the situation,” Roman said. “I believe that the wider narrative for the city is that we have the support of many different organizations and many different faiths. It’s not what goes on on a corner in front of the Federal Building, but what we do on an hour-to-hour basis in terms of responding.”

Brian Eglash, the Federation’s senior vice president and chief development officer, also turned out. Like Roman, he was more concerned with the needs and safety of the people affected by the violence than any counter-demonstration from the local Jewish community.

“The needs on the ground are tremendous,” Eglash said. “We have psychologists, social workers, emergency medical personnel — all this money is going to them. We’re getting dozens of contributions.”

Across town, Jews and Muslims were meeting in a more constructive — and hopeful — forum.

Students of the Hillel Jewish University Center and Muslim Student Association met at the HJUC in Oakland for a dinner and conversation in a program called the Weekend of Twinning. The Foundation for Ethnic Understanding sponsored the program .

(Lee Chottiner, Toby Tabachnick and Matthew Wein contributed to this story.)