Breakthrough Solidarity Mission: First Observations from the South

This column was written by Dan Brown, founder of ejewishphilanthropy.com, and is crossposted to that esteemed Web site.

I live in a bubble - the Anglo world of Jerusalem. And while it is impossible for any Israeli to not be conscious of the war that was waged during the past month, let alone the daily barrage of rockets that have fallen on our cities for the past eight years, it is different here. Even last week when the air-raid sirens sounded in what turned out be to a technical error, most people went about their daily tasks and only briefly wondered what this was all about. Some of us have friends or family in the south with whom we've been in regular contact, but we haven't lived under the same constant threats all these years. Our world-view is different.

Monday morning as I headed south to Ashkelon (on the first day of a two-day solidarity trip organized by the UJC's Breakthrough program) I wasn't sure what to expect. The sun was shining brightly on this mid-winter morning, and the general feeling among the group, and our accompanying Israeli staff, was cautious optimism. The cease fire was in place and with Obama's Innaguration the next day we felt that just maybe there might be some staying power this time around.

As we approached Ashkelon, as with Independence Day, the highway was ablaze with brand new Israeli flags waving from every light pole - a celebration not of victory, but of life. The town was quiet, but those who live and work there were definitely out and about and proceeding with their daily tasks - and certainly, to outward appearances, calm - a scene we would see repeated the next day in both Sderot and Netivot. Supply trucks and mud-encased armoured vehicles and tanks were visible, slowly heading away from the Gaza border. We ran into scores of IDF personnel, all relaxed, and in many cases judging by their backpacks, returning to their home bases or just home.

The goal of our visit was to spend two days getting up close and personal with residents of all ages and to see first hand the work, on the ground, of the North American Federation systems, with their partners from JAFI and The Joint.

In posts later today and tomorrow I will speak about many of the programs we visited, but the one thing that was abundantly clear is the incredible and valuable work these organizations are doing. I've been around the JAFI and Federation worlds to varying degrees for a long time - attending GA's and JAFI board meetings and as a "member" of the JAFI Assembly. I was familiar with several of the programs, and had participated previously in an Assembly field trip to Sderot. But this was different. Seeing the actual results in the field is not the same as viewing a video in Jerusalem or listening to a speaker in Nashville.

I can't emphasize this enough, because even though I have some first hand knowledge of "the system", a lot of what I experienced was new. And to all those out there in our constituent groups, the level of awareness is much lower. Just like with Hasbara, we - collectively - all need to do a better job of promoting this valuable work.

-Dan Brown