‘Put us to work’
A young Palestinian girl calls down from an upstairs window of a house in Gaza, crying for the Israeli soldiers below to help her: The house is on fire.
When the young soldiers enter the house to rescue her, Hamas detonates a bomb in the house next door, murdering seven members of the Israel Defense Forces as well as the little girl.
Hamas militants are seen planting bombs in Gaza, all the while holding 5- and 6-year-olds. It’s a win-win: If the IDF doesn’t shoot in order to spare the children, the murderers get to plant their bombs. If the IDF does shoot, Hamas gets some great photos for the press.
The IDF soldiers stationed in Gaza have a standing order to kill all cows and donkeys on sight. Cows and donkeys? It seems Hamas has developed a penchant for strapping explosives onto animals.
These are the stories that are rarely reported in Western media accounts of Operation Protective Edge. But they are the stories recounted by IDF soldiers to three Pittsburghers who were in Israel last week to provide supplies as well as physical and moral support to those fighting terrorism, and the victims of that terrorism.
Rabbi Daniel Wasserman, Daniel Berkowitz and Daniel Kraut were motivated to travel to the Jewish state to help in any way they could by a Torah verse read on Shabbat a couple weeks ago, said Berkowitz. The verse was Numbers 32:6, in which Moses says: “Shall your brothers come to war while you sit here?”
Within a matter of days, the three men had secured a loan from an anonymous donor to fund their trip, with the understanding they will repay the loan within 18 months. The benefactor will then donate the repaid funds to charity, according to Berkowitz.
“I was inspired by Mayor [Michael] Bloomberg’s trip,” Berkowitz said, referring to a headline-grabbing jaunt made by the former New York City mayor early on in the current conflict. “That trip made such an impact on people in Israel, because they feel so alone.”
Wasserman, Berkowitz and Kraut, who called their trip the Pittsburgh Israel Relief Mission, were ready to do anything to help, Berkowitz said, from cleaning toilets to bolstering the economy by purchasing food and supplies for soldiers and victims from local vendors, whose livelihoods have been strangled by the conflict with Hamas.
“The primary and only purpose of the trip was to say, ‘Here are three sets of hands, put us to work,’” said Wasserman, spiritual leader of Shaare Torah Congregation. “‘Anything you need, let us help.’”
The group arrived in Israel on Wednesday, July 30 and headed to Israel’s northern border, where reservists had been called up to replace the active soldiers who were redeployed to Gaza.
“There are 70,000 reservists who were pulled from their jobs,” Berkowitz said. “They weren’t asking for checks. The requests I was seeing on Facebook were for things like underwear and deodorant.”
The group packed trucks and delivered supplies to the troops in the north, said Berkowitz. Things like ChapStick and bug spray are not part of their military issue, he said, but “make life more acceptable.”
The Pittsburgh community donated more than $15,000 for the group to buy supplies for soldiers and victims.
“We were just blown away,” said Wasserman. “The more we posted on Facebook [about the mission], the more people donated.”
On Thursday, the group headed to Sderot, a town in Israel’s south that has been under near-constant rocket fire from Gaza since 2001. While there, the men met with charities charged with providing safe spaces for children and reinforcing schools to become de facto bomb shelters so students will be able to stay in place when the warning sirens sound.
A siren sounded while Wasserman, Berkowitz and Kraut were visiting a kindergarten room.
“There were six incoming rockets,” Berkowitz said. “They either fell in open areas, or were intercepted by the Iron Dome [anti-missile system]. But the walls of the schools were shaking.”
The nerves of the teachers and the children there are frayed, he said.
“Some of the kids won’t go to the bathroom, because they are afraid they won’t be able to get to the shelter in time if there’s a siren,” Berkowitz continued, adding that one of the teachers there was so “shell-shocked” that even the sound of a dropped pencil would get her agitated.
“This is the life they live,” he said.
The group delivered letters and drawings prepared by children in Pittsburgh to soldiers recuperating in hospitals.
“We wanted to let them know that in America, we are there for them,” Wasserman said.
While in the south, Wasserman, Berkowitz and Kraut met with Micha Stiebel, originally from Pittsburgh, who is now a sergeant in the IDF. He had just finished 10 days of fighting in Gaza.
“We called Micha and asked if there was anything we could bring him,” Wasserman recounted. “He said, ‘lunch.’”
The men called a pizza shop, ordered 35 pies and delivered the food to Micha and his unit.
“When we picked up the pizzas, there were 10 other soldiers in the shop, so we paid for their lunches too,” Wasserman said.
The most remarkable thing about the trip for Kraut was seeing firsthand the youth and heroism of the IDF soldiers.
“The most important take away I have is how young the Israeli soldiers are,” Kraut said. “Almost all of the soldiers we saw, whether in the field or in the hospitals or, sadly, at the funerals are between the ages of 18 to 20. They are teenagers who are experiencing the worst of humanity in Hamas.
“I cannot imagine at 18 years old having to make the life decisions they have to make as soldiers fighting against terrorists who use children as shields and for suicide bombs to kill Israeli soldiers,” Kraut continued. “All of the stories we heard involved incredible acts of heroism. These are teenage heroes. Even the commanders of the units were 20 years old.
“Despite what these soldiers have gone through they continue to show an incredible love of life and want to go right back to fighting for the safety of all Jews and the State of Israel.”
Israel, it seems, has become one large family in the face of the murderous threats of Hamas.
“The beautiful part about the Jewish State of Israel is that it is one big family,” Kraut said. “As we traveled to military bases, the cities like Sderot, facing constant rocket fire from Hamas, and hospitals, we met hundreds of Israelis bringing food, clothing, and toiletries to the soldiers, their families and the residences of cities like Sderot.
“The hospitals were overflowing with visitors to the chayalim (soldiers), who did not know them, but wanted to show their ahavat yisrael (love of their fellow Jew),” he continued.
The minority of Jews who do not support Israel in its struggle to protect itself from terrorism would benefit from a visit to the Jewish state, according to Wasserman.
“My heart goes out to those Jews who are so blind to the reality,” he said. “And I challenge them to come with me on a trip to Israel.”
The reality becomes clear when one witnesses firsthand the conditions Israelis have been forced to endure, he said. “We saw the missiles. We heard them. Two hours into a cease-fire, we heard the missiles. If you have to go to war, it’s a blessing that the mission is clear, the enemy is clear and the cause is clear.”
The support of Diaspora Jews is critical for the Israeli population, Wasserman added.
“Just knowing people are there for them is very important,” he said. “We have to keep it up.”
The mission returned to Pittsburgh on Aug. 3.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.