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Federation leaders visit South, pledge aid

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KARNEI SHOMRON, West Bank (JTA) — Less than an hour-and-a-half after a long-range Grad missile struck a home in Ashkelon, the rebuilding began.

As members of the United Jewish Communities national mission stood and watched Monday, neighbors came and began carefully removing undamaged window frames, knocking out the broken glass in preparation for new glass.

The scene had a great impact on the visiting North Americans making a whirlwind 24-hour visit to show support for Israel in its operation against Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

"There was remarkable calm," marveled John Ruskay, the executive vice president and CEO of the UJA-Federation of New York, even though an act of war had occurred such a short time ago.

In the face of more rockets inevitably targeting the community that day and in days to come, the rebuilding showed the "incredible resilience of Israelis," he told JTA.

That day, the mission announced a $10 million pledge for emergency assistance to towns and cities under attack in southern Israel.

The rocket hit as the 28 visitors — affiliated with the UJC, the umbrella group of Jewish communities and charitable federations in North America — were sitting around a conference table in Ashkelon for a briefing in a public building. Some participants stood around the perimeter of the room because the table was not large enough to seat everyone.

Before the meeting started, however, the group agreed on a plan if a Code Red siren sounded indicating that rocket fire was coming: Those around the perimeter would exit for the building’s bomb shelter followed by those seated at the table.

"So here I am sitting at the table" as the alarm goes off, knowing that an explosive rocket can hit at any second, "while everyone else is walking out," said Howard Rieger, the president and CEO of UJC. "It is not a pleasant experience."

"Reading about a Code Red alert is one thing, experiencing a Code Red alert is something quite different," Ruskay added.

"Your heart beats faster. You want to make a mental calculation about safety," said Joe Kanfer, the chair of the UJC board of trustees, trying to explain the tension during the time between the siren and the rocket’s impact. "It makes you understand what the Israeli people are living under."

More than 20 rockets from Gaza would hit southern Israel Monday, down from a high at the beginning of the conflict of up to 70 missiles per day. The building that the UJC delegation watched being rebuilt was one of two homes that had been hit by rocket fire that day. The other was in Sderot, a town that has been the focal point of Palestinian rocket fire for eight years.

The UJC leaders weren’t the only American Jewish leaders ducking into bomb shelters and meeting the residents of southern Israel as Operation Cast Lead entered its 17th day. Members of an American Jewish Committee and B’nai B’rith International delegations also had to take cover during their missions.

Nor was UJC the only group announcing an aid package for the area. The AJC mission on Monday said it was providing $50,000 in humanitarian assistance from its Heilbrunn Humanitarian Fund for southern communities.

Kanfer said his experience made him recall an elderly couple the group met in Ashkelon whose apartment was built before reinforced rooms were required in Israeli residences. The couple cannot run to the building’s bomb shelter in the 30 to 40 seconds required, so at each siren they wait in their apartment hoping the rocket will not fall on them. The ceiling of their apartment is lined with cracks and broken plaster from shaking caused by rockets that have fallen nearby.

"There is nothing that brings it home more than their faces," Kanfer said. "Each time you meet people here you have a better understanding."

UJC funds are now helping the elderly couple in Ashkelon by providing them with an on-call social worker who they can connect with during and after a rocket attack.

The $10 million UJC pledged for emergency aid will be distributed to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the Jewish Agency for Israel, the Israel Trauma Coalition, the Ethiopian National Project and the Israel Advocacy Initiative. The funds will go toward short-term projects, including respite activities for children and youth, emergency consulting for municipalities, trauma therapy for children and adults, help for Ethiopian Israelis living in the area and help for small businesses.

Half of the AJC money will go toward providing three motorized carts required to transport the elderly and the disabled to emergency shelters and aiding the Sha’ar Hanegev region on Gaza’s northeastern border. The other half will go for equipment for Barzilai Hospital in Ashkelon, the major trauma center for injuries sustained during the Gaza conflict.

The 20-member AJC mission visited Barzilai and the Sha’ar Hanegev Regional Council, meeting victims, soldiers and emergency personnel.

"Throughout this conflict, as always, Israel has demonstrated its exceptional resilience, compassion and love of life, even as it confronts an enemy that glorifies death," said AJC Executive Director David Harris. "We are proud to show our support, and hope our contributions will assist the effort to save and protect lives."

B’nai B’rith International leaders, including President Moishe Smith, visited the hardest-hit southern communities, meeting with local and national leaders to acquire a better understanding of the threat that Israel is living under.

"It is imperative that Jews in the Diaspora show their support for the people of Israel at this difficult time," Smith said. "We fully support Israel’s effort to stop Hamas rocket attacks on Israel so Israelis do not have to live day after day under the threat of terrorism."

The Jewish National Fund has also announced a solidarity mission for Jan. 25-29 that will include visits to several southern communities in which the organization has major projects.

Jerry Levin, the board chairman of UJA-Federation of New York, told JTA that even a 24-hour solidarity visit to Israel was valuable.

"I thought it was important to come and understand what was going on," he said, "so we can bring the message back."

Rieger recalled visiting a bomb shelter full of Ethiopian children playing a game created for them. The children each lay on the floor of the shelter and covered themselves with a piece of fabric, then drew pictures of their wishes on small squares of paper and placed them in a box.

Watching those children, Rieger said, was "more meaningful than statistics and news releases."

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