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Dec 4, 2023

Unprecedented Agony: Federation Leaders Visit Israel for Solidarity Mission

In perhaps one of the most difficult site visits of the mission, the group witnessed the complete devastation of Kibbutz Be’eri.

“We are mourning,” said Israeli President Isaac Herzog. “My nation is in deep agony; the people of Israel are in deep, unprecedented agony.” During last week’s Solidarity Mission to Israel, 18 community leaders from the Greater Miami Jewish Federation witnessed firsthand the national trauma and pain that our Israeli brothers and sisters are facing since Hamas’ barbaric terrorist attack nearly two months ago. For three days, they crisscrossed the country taking in scenes of unimaginable terror, heroism and courage: the remains of 1,200 burnt vehicles down the side of the road and the bullet-riddled homes of Kibbutz Be’eri; survival stories from kibbutzim, attendees of the Tribe of Nova music festival and parents of hostages still held captive in Gaza; and the Empty Shabbat Table installation at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art Plaza, now known as Hostage Square.

Resilience Remains

Showing solidarity for Israel, its civilians and the IDF was the priority of the Mission.

Despite the inconceivable grief and trauma coursing through the veins of the nation, Federation Board Chair Ariel Bentata noticed the “fortitude of the Israeli people, who have experienced the most tragic events and remain hopeful for the future,” beginning with their very first stop at Sheba Medical Center/Tel Ha-Shomer, Israel’s largest hospital.

Visiting Sheba Medical Center/Tel Ha-Shomer to meet with survivors of October 7

There, they visited the underground pediatric ICU and rehabilitation hospital, where they met Gali and Ben, a young couple who miraculously survived the attack at the Tribe of Nova music festival. “Despite the tremendous mental and physical shock, including amputations they have both endured, they welcomed us into their room,” said Mojdeh Khaghan Danial, Federation’s Major Gifts Chair.

Ben and Gali survived the Tribe of Nova musical festival but both of them lost a leg to a hand grenade. TIMES OF ISRAEL/CHANNEL 12

Similar resilience was on display as the group witnessed the utter destruction of Kibbutz Be’eri. Because the mission occurred during the humanitarian pause, the group — outfitted in bullet proof vests and helmets — was among the first civilians to tour the site. “The horror and destruction we saw there evoked Holocaust site visits, except we experienced them almost in real time,” recalled Danial. “Houses were bullet-riddled, blown through the roof with mortar fire. Many experienced heartbreaking deaths there.”

After surviving the attack on his kibbutz, Lotan stayed behind to care for the animals and agriculture.

And yet, even as Lotan, a brave kibbutznik who survived the terror attack, walked the group through what remained of his home, indicating where his in-laws were murdered and where terrorists tried to breach his safe room as he hid with his family, he spoke about rebuilding. “Everyone is resolute in their determination to defeat Hamas once and for all so residents of the Gaza Envelope no longer continue to live under rocket attacks,” said Bentata.

Mission participants lit memorial candles at Kibbutz Be’eri.

Federation Past Board Chair Barbara Black Goldfarb and Women's Philanthropy Past President Sheree Savar with Federation Major Gifts Chair Mojdeh Khaghan Danial.

Israelis in Action

Traveling through the country, making stops in the Gaza Envelope and Tel Aviv among other places, participants witnessed Israelis in action. “The level of engagement within Israeli society is outstanding,” said Bentata. “Everyone is volunteering in some capacity, from picking produce in farms and hosting displaced Israelis, to setting up temporary schools and giving classes, driving people to their military service and volunteering in hospitals.” In Tel Aviv, the group met with Mayor Tal Ohana of Yerucham, Miami-Yerucham Partnership Director Roi Vaknin, Yerucham Partnership Chair Ofir Tsimmering and Living Bridge Coordinator Eliana Ben Sheleg. They shared how the citizens of Yerucham have been a ray of light, rallying around 150 displaced families, personally hosting them or finding available housing and arranging food, furniture and other essentials. Mission participants pitched in, too, by bringing fresh school supplies to be distributed to the children who are now continuing their studies in a new city — a bit of routine and normalcy amidst their disrupted lives.

Mission participants brought school supplies to be distributed to children who relocated to our partner city of Yerucham from the Gaza Envelope.

Donation centers have been set up across the country to provide internally displaced Israelis with everything they need to start over.

The 72-hour fly-in enabled our leaders to meet with a number of high-ranking officials, including most notably President Isaac Herzog, who addressed the group at his private residence in a conversation moderated by Federation President and CEO Jacob Solomon. The group also spent time with Doron Almog, Chairman of the Executive of Federation’s longtime overseas partner The Jewish Agency for Israel; Talia Levanon, Director of the Israel Trauma Coalition, another Federation partner; and IDF Spokesperson (Res.) Peter Lerner.

Israeli President Isaac Herzog in conversation with Federation President and CEO Jacob Solomon at his private residence

Vice Chair of the Board Elise Scheck Bonwitt, Board Chair Ariel Bentata, along with Board members Daniel Fujita, Sheree Savaar and Edward Beiner, with Major General (Res.) Doron Almog, Chairman of the Executive of The Jewish Agency for Israel

Mayor of Sderot Alon Davidi plans to double the size of his city, now a ghost town, in five years, demonstrating resilience.

Of course, the group also had the opportunity to meet with everyday heroes of the war and hostage families, like Rachel Goldberg and Jon Polin, parents of 23-year-old American-Israeli Hersh Goldberg-Polin, who was wounded and abducted by Hamas from the Tribe of Nova music festival on October 7. Even through her immense pain and grief, Goldberg has created an organized campaign for the liberation of all the hostages, meeting with US and UN officials and participating in multiple international media interviews. “It was unbelievable to see how in this most dire time for any parent she can discuss with objectivity, love and reasonableness the complexity of the rescue operations and negotiations,” said Bentata. “She is a true hero.”

Rachel Goldberg, mother of Hersh Goldberg-Polin, who remains in captivity by Hamas in Gaza, has become a vocal leader for the hostage families.

Jacob Solomon, Associate Secretary of the Board Robert Gilbert, Miguel Poyastro, Federation Board member Edward Beiner and Israel Engagement Chair Dana Yemin-Schrager pose with Israelis (second from left and far right) in Hostage Square.

In conjunction with their meeting with Goldberg and Polin, the group made an important stop at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art Plaza, recently renamed Hostage Square, with its poignant exhibit Empty Shabbat Table, a table set with a place for each of the remaining hostages in Gaza.

The Empty Shabbat Table installation has been replicated around the world as a stark reminder of the more than 240 hostages taken by Hamas on October 7 with an empty place setting.

A ticker in Hostage Square keeps track of the days since the hostages were abducted.

Facing the Future

Gali and Ben, Lotan, the Goldberg-Polin family and the displaced children in Yerucham are only a handful of the hundreds of thousands of Israelis facing unspeakable trauma and mental health crises since October 7. “There is tremendous uncertainty ahead — so much fear, grief, reckoning and recovery to come on a long road,” said Danial. “Everyone and everything is uprooted.”

Mission goers recite Kaddish and Yizkor at Kibbutz Be'eri.

Bentata agreed, and underscored the tipping point the country is facing. “In a society that unfortunately has become accustomed to war and terrorism, we were not expecting this issue to be so acute. But everyone we met with is talking about it. They are scared and insecure. Many people with previous issues of PTSD are reliving their horrors. Social workers and psychologists are coping with their own issues and now having to service a much larger patient pool. There is a grave need for more mental health professionals.”

Menachem Kalmanzon holds a newborn baby delivered by a woman he rescued in Kibbutz Be'eri. Together with his brother Elhanan, he saved more than 100 people, returning again and again to houses under fire by Hamas until Elhanan was murdered.

Despite the many questions that loom large for Israel’s future as it recovers from the catastrophic tragedy of October 7, one thing is certain. Israel needs us, and we need Israel. The Greater Miami Jewish Federation Israel Emergency Fund has raised more than $26.9 million as part of a national collective effort through the Jewish Federations of North America, which has raised more than $711 million. “We must continue to stand with Israel, with our sisters and brothers, contribute whatever funds we can to ensure their welfare and security, and help to heal some of their overwhelming deep wounds,” asserted Danial. “Our being there means everything to them as it does to us.”

To learn more about our response to the Israel-Hamas war, please click here.

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