‘Heart-wrenching’ visit: In show of solidarity, JFNA joins frontlines of Israel’s most vulnerable

‘Heart-wrenching’ visit: In show of solidarity, JFNA joins frontlines of Israel’s most vulnerable

On July 3, a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip struck the Amigour public housing facility in the neighboring Israeli town of Sderot, tearing through the walls of the building’s modest apartments and leaving its already at-risk residents — a mixture of new immigrants and the elderly — in utter despair.

Twenty-five representatives from the Jewish Federations of North America, including Cindy Shapira from Pittsburgh, visited victims of that attack on a mission of solidarity from July 13 to July 15.

Shapira and a few others on the trip spent time with a young woman and her two sons, ages 3 and 5, in their small, now ravaged, apartment.

“The whole wall of her main room was damaged,” said Shapira, secretary of the JFNA and vice chair of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. “And her two boys are so traumatized that they won’t go out of the apartment. They haven’t been out for weeks.

“Her husband works off-site at a kibbutz, and she just stays in with the children all day,” continued Shapira. “She just cried on each one of our shoulders. It was just heart-wrenching.”

Shapira left Pittsburgh on short notice, she said, in order to fly to the Jewish state to offer support to Israelis who have been enduring the constant barrage of rocket fire — which Israel’s latest offensive against Hamas targets is meant to contain — of the past several months.

It was her third Federation trip to Israel in the last seven weeks.

“The purpose of this trip was to show our solidarity with the people of Israel during this crisis,” Shapira said.

The group spent about two days in the southern communities near Gaza. Trust in the Iron Dome missile defense system, along with security training, alleviated any fear the participants may have had visiting the constantly targeted region, she said.

The group began its visit at the Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon, where Shapira saw that patients in the emergency room, operating rooms and neonatal intensive care had to be moved from the main hospital to temporary sheltered areas in order to be protected from rocket fire. She also noted that a great number of wounded Gazans were being treated by Israeli medical staff at no charge.

Once the mission headed down to Sderot, the group “really got a sense of what the people who live in these areas are going through,” Shapira said.

While there, at least 20 sirens sounded, necessitating the group to seek shelter from falling shrapnel. While the Iron Dome is effective in hitting the Gazan rockets, there is a danger of being hit by the resultant shrapnel.

“The kids there had to be in an indoor protective playground with no windows, day after day,” she noted, “and we got a sense of the psychological tension of the parents.”

Studies have shown that at least 75 percent of the community’s population suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. One study concluded that 100 percent of the population suffers from that disorder.

Jan Levinson, co-chair of Pittsburgh’s Partnership 2Gether, joined with another JFNA solidarity mission in Sderot last week and spent some time in several bomb shelters and safe rooms.

“They were stuffy, hot and basically uncomfortable,” Levinson wrote in an email. “I only spent two days in and out of the bus and bomb shelters, but it is so sad that so many people have to spend so many hours of their everyday lives to avoid the rockets.

“We also visited with the at-risk populations — the poor, elderly and infirm,” Levinson said. “These people were dealing with the tremendous psychological stress of the conflict. Many were afraid to leave their homes. Food had to be brought to them. Those who lived in older homes had to deal with the added stress of not having a safe room in their home.”

Funds raised by JFNA help to take care of the needs of these families, according to Shapira. JFNA funds provide protective playgrounds for children, and a delivery service for the elderly and infirm, who cannot leave their homes, ensuring that they have food and medicine, among other things.

While in Israel, Shapira and others met with participants of Onward Israel, an internship and resume-building program for university students. She was impressed, she said, with their commitment to Israel.

“These kids were amazing,” she said, adding that while a few went home when the conflict escalated, the vast majority chose to stay.

“This is another example of standing up for Israel,” Shapira said, “but these were young people, who stayed and were going through it with the Israelis. We were so proud of them. It speaks well for this generation.”

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at tobyt@thejewishchronicle.net.