It's Always a Crossroads for Israel

This posting was written by Richard Friedman, Executive Director of the Birmingham Jewish Federation, who is blogging from southern Israel during a solidarity mission for UJC National Young Leadership Cabinet members and alumni and members of NYL's Ben-Gurion Society (read more about BGS).

ASHKELON, ISRAEL -- Tuesday was a morning of questions. Some old, some new. Questions dealing with Arab grievances from 1948, what the future holds for people evicted from Gaza three years ago, who's going to lead Israel after the Feb. 10th elections, and what is he or she going to do about Iran. These and other questions hung in the in the crisp morning air as Israelis who spoke to us grappled with these questions and more.

It would be so easy to say Israel's at a crossroads. Israel's always at a crossroads, it seems. But now these crossroads lead to places like Ashkelon and Sderot, and other cities and towns in the south and the north that up until a few years ago Israelis thought were safe.

"What is, is," our guide told us, though not in those exact words. His observation came on the heels of our United Jewish Communities mission again being reminded of what to do in case of a rocket attack -- this was a particularly relevant reminder as we left Tel Aviv and headed south to Ashkelon.

What fascinates me most about Israel, especially after being here during some pretty tough times over the years, is Israel's ability not to just hang in there, but to affirm life. And affirming life, against the backdrop of rocket attacks, was what our visit to Ashkelon Tuesday was all about.

We, UJC/Federations,  affirm life by "being there" for Israel. Ashkelon and the other cities in the south are still under attack as this is being written, despite the "cease-fire." A brutal reminder of that cold, hard fact was given to us moments after entering Ashkelon.

Our bus stopped for a minute on the street next to Ashkelon's central bus station. Our guide began speaking over the bus microphone. On our right was an open field where, he told us, a Grad rocket had landed three hours earlier. The ground was still charred. Had it hit the bus station, which was on our left, there likely would've been casualties.

FEDERATIONS PROVIDE IMMEDIATE AID

One way UJC/Federations affirm life is through the Fund for the Victims of Terror. Run by the Jewish Agency, with funds raised by UJC/Federations, it provides immediate financial assistance to people whose homes or businesses have been hit.

We visited a home that was hit by a rocket a few weeks ago. "Welcome to Israel," the owner said with a sad and ironic shrug. His house is now empty, still in disarray. Neither he nor his wife were home when the rocket hit, but his three children were. The children survived physically though the shock and horror linger. "I must be strong for my family," he told us. "But it's like Hollywood. I am acting." Why does he stay in Ashkelon? "I am a Jew. It's my place."

Dreaming and believing, for those who can, are two ways to combat the rocket attacks. That was made clear to us as we visited a program funded by UJC/Federations to help Israeli teens whose families have come from Ethiopia. We were there for a briefing and for some fun activities to help us get to know these young people better.

Dancing, singing and painting were among the things planned as we meet with them at their activities center. I wound up in the painting group along with several other trip participants and six of the teens. An adult supervisor gave us our assignment. It was to decorate one of the walls in the center. We all huddled around him for our instructions, eyeing one another. "Together, think about what you want to paint," he told us.

There was then a split second of silence, but it gave me enough time to study most of the young faces as they pondered the assignment. The first to answer was Avi, a lanky 18-year-old, with a warm smile. "Peace," said Avi, "I want us to paint peace."

- Richard Friedman

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