NEW YORK (JTA) — As the Code Red siren sounded, warning of an incoming missile attack, I wondered: Why had I seated myself at a conference table when we had been instructed that during an evacuation, those on the room’s outer perimeter were to leave first because anyone closest to windows and walls were most vulnerable to injury or worse.
Those few extra seconds of waiting before we could get to a safe space seemed to last a long time.
Our group — some 30 North American participants from across the UJC/Federation system taking part in last week’s Leadership Solidarity Mission, along with local residents of Ashkelon and southern Israel — dutifully headed to a nearby stairwell in the municipal building we were visiting. Given that we only had 45 seconds until the missile hit, the stairwell was the closest protected area.
What struck me most was the businesslike calm on the faces of the Israelis acting as if this were the most normal thing in the world. Sadly, for nearly 1 million Israelis in the line of missile fire, this is normalcy.
This is a kind of life we can hardly imagine. What makes it more bearable for some is the incredible work our UJC/Federation system supports to address the growing humanitarian and social crisis in southern Israel, which has been hit by some 10,000 missiles over eight years — the overwhelming number of the attacks coming since Israel left the Gaza Strip in 2005.
The work we do through our overseas partners — the Jewish Agency for Israel and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee — along with the Ethiopian National Project and the Israel Trauma Coalition makes a real difference in people’s lives. Just after Israel’s Operation Cast Lead began, our UJC/Federation system launched the Israel Solidarity Drive, committing $10 million to meet these critical needs.
Already we have begun distributing funds, and they are saving people’s lives. Our UJC Leadership Solidarity Mission went to see the needs firsthand and to offer moral support to some local residents.
Our work includes taking up to 23,000 young people out of the missile zones for daylong respite trips to parks, zoos and other places where they can simply have fun without fear of being hit by a missile. We’re providing basic care packages and children’s games for bomb shelters. We’re offering creative therapy programs to immigrants in absorption centers. We’re providing extra case managers to help care for 25,000 elderly and disabled residents. We’re providing trauma relief to
children through projects like the "Havens of Calm," where students are encouraged to discuss their fears. We’re coordinating volunteer networks and helping municipal emergency workers with planning for faster response efforts and providing them critical emotional support. We’re also supporting small businesses suffering in a weakened local economy.
A few hours after the Code Red sounded during our Ashkelon visit, we stopped by a lovely home whose top floor had been crushed by an incoming Grad missile — one of the longer-range weapons Iran has supplied Hamas. Already people were reclaiming objects and starting repairs.
In other words, it was just another day in the line of fire in southern Israel.
As we drove northward and left the radius known as the missile zone, I felt myself exhale and relax. I wondered what it must be like to live in southern Israel, never getting that chance to take a deep breath and relax a bit.
Back in New York, just hours after returning, I walked my grandson to his preschool in our synagogue a few blocks from home. I thought about the Israelis living under fire, following similar daily routes, who at any second might be forced to run for cover. As one Israeli told us during the mission, "Whether one makes a left turn or a right
turn might just be a life and death question."
Through community commitments, the UJC/Federation system has raised more than $6 million to help us address the crisis in southern Israel. But even if the missiles stop, the pain and suffering will not end and the less obvious, more long-term human toll will need our attention for some time to come.
Meanwhile, let’s pray for a speedy end to this terrible situation, so all the people of southern Israel can at least live their lives without being forced to run for cover.
(Howard Rieger is president and chief executive officer of the United Jewish Communities.)