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Jan 23, 2024

I Am Here: Federation Brings 23 Miamians to Israel on a Solidarity Mission

“Being in Israel right now is like attending a national shiva,” said Federation General Campaign Chair Lily Serviansky in reference to attending the Greater Miami Jewish Federation’s most recent, and fourth, Solidarity Mission since October 7. “For a few days, we were able to join them in their pain and sorrow. You hear that everything changed on October 7,” she continued. “It’s easy to say, but I can tell you, it’s true. It’s a different world.”

Kibbutz Kfar Aza

Hostages Square outside the Tel Aviv Museum of Art

During a demanding three-day mission, the 23 participants met numerous survivors — of the Tribe of Nova music festival, the barbaric attack on Kibbutz Kfar Aza and Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers wounded in battle — to hear firsthand accounts of the tragedy, the trauma and thankfully, Federation’s thorough response. In some cases, the mission offered the chance to go from one to the next — from the burnt and bullet-ridden safe rooms of a decimated kibbutz in the Gaza Envelope to the temporary home of its residents and from the memorial erected at the site of the music festival to Moshav Rishpon’s Healing Spaces, a relief center created specifically to help Nova survivors — witnessing the real-time resilience of the Israeli people.

“As Jews, we have the obligation to bear witness, to say, ‘We are here,’” said Yosef Shwedel, Campaign Chair for Federation’s International Division. “Especially as a Jew living outside of Israel, it is critical to reaffirm that. And then we have to go home and share their stories. We cannot be quiet.”

Lauren and Brad Sokol with Nik Futernick

Hugs of comfort and solace were commonplace as participants visited with survivors of the October 7 massacre.

Following a harrowing visit to Kibbutz Kfar Aza, during which the group had to shelter in a safe room as missiles flew from Gaza, participants met survivors of the attack now living in a hotel in Kibbutz Shefayim. The group is among the more than 200,000 internally displaced Israelis receiving assistance from Federation’s longstanding partners on the ground, like The Jewish Agency for Israel. One of them, Keren, a young mother, recounted hiding in her safe room for nearly 24 hours with her one-year-old. Both of her parents were murdered by Hamas and all she has now is thanks to the generosity of others. “She told us there used to be a five-year waiting list to move into the kibbutz,” said Serviansky. “Despite its proximity to the Gaza border, Israelis yearned for that special kind of camaraderie and that peaceful and idyllic way of life.”

Yosef Shwedel, International Division Campaign Chair, observes the ruins at Kibbutz Kfar Aza.

Jonathan More and David Weisfeld

Participants sheltered in a safe room as missiles from Gaza flew overhead.

Another impactful visit took place at Healing Spaces in Moshav Rishpon, a tranquil, nature-based relief center offering a wide range of therapies, including mosaic-making, sound baths, massage, group music and singing sessions. A recipient of an Israel Emergency Fund grant, made possible by the more than $29 million raised by Federation’s generous donors, the volunteer-run effort was created specifically for survivors of the Tribe of Nova music festival. Unlike those who had been evacuated from their kibbutzim, the young concert-goers who lived through the harrowing experience did not have a built-in community.

A memorial has been erected to honor the lives lost at the Tribe of Nova music festival.

The group recites the Mourner’s Kaddish at the site of the festival.

Healing Spaces, in Moshav Rishpon, is immersed in nature, allowing survivors of the Tribe of Nova music festival to find peace and serenity as they heal.

The group hears from Chananel, the nephew of Lenore and Stanley Weinstein, who shared his experience surviving the massacre at the music festival for the first time.

Despite the debilitating grief shackling the small country, a tremendous unity has emerged. From soldiers and the doctors helping them recover, the first responders working through the unimaginable horrors they have seen and the volunteers showing up from around the world, it is the power of civil society leading the effort to rebuild the country that is proving to be its salvation. Even influential investors are using their business acumen to implement national relief efforts, sorely lacking in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. One such group, Brothers and Sisters for Israel, operated entirely by more than 15,000 volunteers, is led by Gigi Levy-Weiss, a prominent venture capitalist who has shifted his focus from funding big tech startups to developing the largest aid organization in Israel.

Visiting the Civil Emergency Headquarters, the group met with Levy-Weiss and came to understand the colossal and impactful initiative and the sheer optimism that leads their efforts on a daily basis. “Before October 7, Israeli society was incredibly divided,” said Shwedel. “There was a lot of turmoil. But now, everyone has put aside their differences to come together for the greater good.”

Arden Karson distributes gift cards to tatzpitaniyot, the predominantly female border surveillance forces, to share with their unit.

Israelis who have evacuated from Kibbutz Kfar Aza to Kibbutz Shefayim are able to “shop” stores stocked with clothes, shoes, hygiene products and many other items they left behind.

Regardless of who they met or where they went, the gratitude of the entire country was palpable, “not only for the goods and financial support, but also for our presence,” said Serviansky. “Our visits really make a difference.” This was especially noticeable at the Gilat Refresh Station, where the group helped prepare lunch for soldiers on leave. Another completely volunteer-led project, the station provides soldiers with more than just a hot meal. Here, they can shower, get a haircut, restock needed gear, do laundry, charge their electronic devices and more. Participants distributed winter clothing they brought with them from the US, and the soldiers were so appreciative to receive new thermal tees, wool hats, gloves and scarves. “Every single person wanted a hug,” added Serviansky. “They are just so happy to see us.” Shwedel agreed, and added, “Despite the overwhelming support, there is still so much sadness and anger, but there, with the soldiers, I smiled for a bit and was able to feel hopeful.”

Federation General Campaign Chair Lily Serviansky connects with a major in the IDF reserves at the Gilat Refresh Station.

Mission participants enjoyed their stop in Gilat meeting off-duty soldiers.

Federation Past President Norman Lipoff and Jerry Sokol meet with soldiers in Gilat.

The Refresh Station is a popular space for soldiers and volunteers to come together for respite and support.

The mission occurred during the 100-day mark of the October 7 and ensuing war. The group visited Hostages Square at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art where they met with the families of those who remain captive in Gaza along with leaders of the Hostage and Missing Families Forum. For Shwedel, and all of the Israelis he met with, “It’s yet another day of the horrific nightmare we have all been living since October 7.” Serviansky echoed this, and added, “Every Israeli we spoke to is focused on one thing: bringing the hostages home.”

Even in the face of such tragedy and loss, one thing remains certain: The strength and unity of Israel is unrivaled. "I am hopeful that once we are through this crisis, we'll remember this feeling of togetherness and the power of civil society to make a real difference," said Shwedel.

Hostages Square has become a rallying point for the families of the hostages.

The group heard from the families of hostages at the Hostage and Missing Families Forum.

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