Monday, November 13, 2006

What I Did for My Summer Vacation By Jonathan Feldstein

The summer is over, school has started and vacations seem like a distant memory. Schools everywhere will have children recount what they did for their summer vacation. And in offices and other work settings, adults will compare notes about their respective vacation, literally or figuratively, around the water cooler.

For me, summer has always just been a hotter time of year. When the kids are off school, we do take a week or two of vacation, but summer has long ago ceased to be a season that is any more relaxing or less busy with work than any other. Yet it nevertheless has the attribute of being the vacation season.

This year I spent my summer in a way never before, and a way I never thought I would. I spent the summer in Israel, amidst a war with Arab terrorists, and not only did not flee, I took the opportunity to visit the war zone more than once. In fact, I was so inspired by the bravery and heroism that I witnessed, I looked for opportunities to visit northern Israel anywhere I could.

While many watched events of Israel’s latest war with Lebanon from the comfort of their living rooms on all the networks, my experience was quite different on the ground. Even the day I visited Haifa amid a barrage of Katyusha attacks, with three international news crews, the experience was different than that which they covered.

Haifa

Haifa has a special place in my heart as my father was born and grew up there. Haifa is a microcosm of Israel in that people of all backgrounds blend and interact, if not harmoniously, then surely peacefully. In a briefing with the mayor, he stated what I long have felt – that Haifa is a model for the whole Middle East, living, breathing and breeding peaceful coexistence between Arabs and Jews every day. Haifa is Israel’s third largest city. I have spent much time there and still have relatives there, my grandfather for whom I am named is buried there.

But what I saw in Haifa was not the daily hustle and bustle of life as usual, I saw a city all but deserted. There are no words to describe the void, the lack of presence of people on the streets that day. Even on an average Shabbat, Haifa is busier than the day I visited.

Most of the day in Haifa was spent at the Magen David Adom (MDA) EMS Station. I followed the staff, interacted with them, and learned about the delicate balance of keeping Haifa’s residents safe and well protected, and also keeping the MDA staff safe as well. Literally as I arrived to the MDA Station, the first of several air raid sirens went off as I was getting out of the car. I had vowed not to panic and initially, for a few seconds, took my time organizing things in the car. Then out of nowhere, a dozen or more people went running toward the MDA Station, seeking safety in the public bomb shelter there. It was as if they were sprinting toward the end of a long race. The siren wailed. My demeanor changed and I ran after them to safety, no longer so calm or sure that nothing would happen. Inside the MDA station, the scene was similar. Dozens of MDA staff working in their offices, blood bank or elsewhere upstairs in the building would also descend to the shelter.

Four more times the siren wailed that morning. Each time the same scene was repeated. Local residents running for shelter and the entire MDA staff descended calmly yet briskly into the underground shelter. After waiting for the all clear, everyone returned to what they were doing before. I found it challenging to go about my business as usual because it just seemed that we’d be interrupted by more sirens and have to go down to the shelter again.

When Katyushas Happen

During the day, CNN, FOX and the AP all had full news crews on hand observing how MDA worked preparing for and responding to an emergency. Then it happened, the fifth siren and within minutes a confirmation of a Katyusha landing in a southern residential neighborhood. Within a minute, what seemed like endless ambulances pulled out of the station and were off to the scene. Roads were already blocked by police and the ambulances flew through town with literally no traffic.

The news crews jockeyed for position and to interview eyewitnesses. Some were on the air live. The scene was a nine story apartment building. It was clear that the rocket landed near the lower floors as a former tree and other shrubs were scattered about, and the lower portion of the building took the most direct hit. Yet pock marks from shrapnel went all the way up, and windows were blown out to the very top floor. About 75 yards away, across the street, car windows were blown out. So much for finding a good parking spot.

And in the courtyard of another building across the street, teens picked up and displayed the metal ball bearings that were packed into this rocket, per standard Hezbollah specification, as many as 40,000 per rocket, designed to cause the most amount of carnage and damage possible. Some 100 yards away, people stood in a courtyard where only minutes earlier they could have been killed by these rocket propelled ball bearings.

As all this was going on, MDA paramedics and volunteers treated and evacuated the injured while residents and neighbors looked on, thankful that they were not hurt, but knowing that there would be no rest from worry as long as the Katyushas continued to be fired on northern Israel.

Through the course of the rest of the day there were three or four more sirens. Each time the same scene would be repeated. Most of the Katyushas hit elsewhere, but another did strike a northern suburb creating damage worse than the first.

Alone in the Community

As the day ended, I left the MDA station and went to seek a minyan (religious quorum) in which to participate. This day marked the end of the first thirty days of mourning following my mother’s death and, as was customary, I went to recite the Kaddish prayer among a group of fellow Jews. I knew where to find synagogues so I just drove around to see where and when such a minyan would be assembled. As I drove, I was mindful of two things: 1. damage from other Katyushas that had hit in days prior was still evident. Haifa was definitely under siege. 2. It was still daylight, but the streets were deserted. What would I do if I heard another siren? Run out and abandon my car? But run to where? How would I take cover from the shrapnel even if I were 100 yards from a direct hit?

Eventually, I found a synagogue and waited until the posted time. As I waited, I found a few stores open nearby so I went to buy things, not so much because I needed them, but because they were open. I wanted to support them as, even if the streets were deserted, they were there to provide for the residents’ needs.

I waited and waited at the synagogue. Nobody showed up. A minyan requires ten people. I was the only one there. Nobody even walked by on the street. Part of the public mourning after the death of a close relative involves prayer and saying Kaddish with the community. Though I stood alone on a street in front of one of Haifa’s largest synagogues, I did not feel alone, I felt part of the community. As I drove home, I felt a mixture of relief in leaving Haifa knowing that I was out of harm’s way, but also a sense of regret. Those who stayed would have a sleepless night either running for cover each time a siren was heard, or lying around waiting anxiously for that to happen.

Kiryat Shmona

A neighbor of mine saw a news story of people in Kiryat Shmona complaining that they were forced to live in bomb shelters around the clock, but that supplies were very limited and there were virtually no comforts available. Of course, living in a shelter the notion of a comfort is relative. They were not looking for Jacuzzis and computers, merely TVs so they would know what was going on outside, fans to circulate the stagnant air, and supplies for babies and children – formula, diapers, toys, etc. In less than 24 hours, neighbors donated over 10,000 shekels in cash, and an equal amount in actual supplies. Stores, where over 60 fans and other supplies were purchased slashed even the sale prices and took inventory from other branches in order to be part of helping to deliver relief to the remaining residents there.

The next day, I was part of a caravan of four mini vans, filled to the ceiling, that was on its way to the north to deliver these needed materials. We were not looking for fame or glory, just to do our part helping out fellow Israelis who were living under siege.

As we drove north, the afternoon sun was setting to our left. We stopped along the way to meet up with another person who had filled his car up with more baby supplies. The further north we got, the less traffic there was. Open roads, beautiful sunset, and undertaking a great mission. Yet the closer we got to our destination, the more serious the tone turned.

Turn Up the Radio

Throughout the war, all major Israeli radio stations broadcast intermittent, sometimes frequent, emergency announcements as to when and where air raid sirens were heard. The announcement would come on quietly and peacefully, not like the test of the emergency broadcast system I grew up with in the US. Announcers would calmly interrupt their guests on the radio, or they would turn the music down, and broadcast where sirens were heard and that residents were instructed to go to their shelters or an interior room in the building, away from windows. After the announcement, they would return to the regular program, seamlessly, as if having just taken a long breath. This happened dozens of times a day as hundreds of Katyusha rockets were fired daily.

Our interest was to know if we were driving in an area where there was an incoming Katyusha. During the course of our drive, we reviewed the procedures of what to do when driving and facing a Katyusha attack.

Defensive Driving

Paying close attention to the emergency announcements on the radio, as if these were the program and the rest was just a commercial, we drove the last hour in relative silence. Home Front Command instructed Israelis driving while under attack to leave their cars and seek cover on the side of the road. As I drove, every turn brought with it a new set of scenarios to the “What if” question, what if a siren were heard as we were driving. Every 100-200 yards I was scouting out of my peripheral vision for places that we could take cover, what if. I played out in my mind how to stop the car suddenly and take cover so that if it happened, I would not be unprepared.

This new form of defensive driving pervaded the last hour to Kiryat Shmona, and the first hour leaving, many hours later, under a star covered night. Fortunately, we did not have to take cover ourselves, but I gained an appreciation both for what the residents in the north had to contend with many times a day, and for basic survival tactics so that people could live their lives, protect themselves as needed, and continue living as normal a life afterward once the immediate threat was behind them.

Anyone Home?

In Kiryat Shmona itself, the scene resembled an abandoned movie set. Papers and plastic bottles blew through the streets as one might imagine tumbleweed in the western United States from movies set 150 and 200 years ago. There was no telling if anyone was home anywhere because all the houses looked the same: dark, quiet and deserted. Only thanks to those who were curious to see who could be driving through their neighborhood – an almost non-occurrence – and popped their heads outside to see who these crazy people were, were we able to find our way to the hesder yeshiva which would become our home base.

As soon as people started hearing that we arrived, nearby residents walked over to see what we had that they could use. Others offered to take us to the shelters that needed the supplies the most. The scene reminded me of the Wizard of Oz when Dorothy’s house lands on the wicked Witch of the East, crushing her, and arriving in Munchkinland which seems deserted, yet she is then descended upon by the curious Munchkins who want to know if she is a good witch or a bad witch. The difference, of course, was stark. These were not Munchkins, but fellow Israelis. Their houses were under attack, not from flying houses or from bad witches, but from the endless firing of rockets at their community, day and night, by Hezbollah terrorists.

We unloaded the vans at the yeshiva whose volunteers would help distribute the supplies, and directly to some of the shelters themselves. Sadly, whether people needed things or not, everyone wanted something. It was a hoarding mentality. Since they never knew what they’d have the next day, or what might be taken from them, people were hoarding whatever they could. Perhaps this is a normal human reaction, but it was sad nonetheless.

For that reason, we decided to give the rest of the supplies to the head of the local Magen David Adom EMS Station. Until that point, MDA had been centrally involved in providing humanitarian services and sending volunteers to shelters and distributing supplies. Because they were locals, they knew exactly where everyone was, the condition of the shelter and what the needs were. When we arrived to unload 50 fans, the MDA staff was speechless. We knew that MDA would have the credibility and integrity to make sure that the supplies got to those in need, and that was a great comfort to us.

We found that the Kiryat Shmona fire station had no TV, so we took a brand new 21 inch TV in the box to the fire station so that between fighting the many fires caused by Katyushas throughout the north, they could relax in comfort, or at least know what was going on.

We ended the night at a local high school that had been the scene two days earlier of a Katyusha attack. The damage was scary as only a short time earlier, people were playing ball on the very courtyard where the Katyusha landed. The halls of the school were lined with teens in sleeping bags. No these were not students of the school, but rather volunteers who came from the center of the country to help provide services to those left behind. When they heard that we now had four empty cars going back to the center of the country, our cargo that we came to the north with was replaced by teens going home to rest for the weekend.

Shabbat – the Day of Rest

Good friends from the US arrived to Israel during the war to celebrate their oldest son’s bar mitzvah. As part of the celebration, we went with them to Zichron Yaakov, a small city a little south of Haifa, to spend Shabbat as a day of rest, and celebrate together. Until that week, Zichron had not experienced any Katyushas, but that week, and in particular the Friday we arrived, sirens wailed sending residents to their bomb shelters for the first time.

This trip was different because unlike going to Haifa and to Kiryat Shmona, we went to Zichron as a family, with several kids in tow, most of whom were well aware of the war, and were well aware that we were not far from the action. On another day, we’d have first sought out the pool, dining room, or game room. After arriving at the hotel, the first stop was to see that each floor had its own bomb shelter, note where they were, and to instruct the kids to avoid standing beneath the glass covered atrium.

Just as we began to welcome Shabbat, the air raid siren wailed again. This time, with families and people of all ages, we calmly walked into the communal shelter, trying not to make a big deal of it, especially for the kids’ sake so they would not panic. One woman, whose son was serving in the IDF in Lebanon, was weeping the whole time. The whole situation was too much to bear and she broke down.

That night, we split the kids up and my wife and I slept in different rooms each with some of them. This way, should a siren go off again, we’d be there to wake them, calm them, and get them to the shelter as quickly and safely as possible.

The rest of Shabbat was uneventful, for us. Katyushas landed only 2 miles away during the day, and another apparently flew overhead and landed in Hadera some 5-10 miles to the south of where we were.

Volunteers

During the course of the war, I kept hearing about people going to the north to volunteer. Most of the volunteers were young people, college age and younger. Many of the organizers of local relief efforts were these very young people. Young Israelis went to the north in droves, lived there, slept there and worked day and night to bring supplies and support to the residents. Some painted the shelters bright colors so as to be less depressing. Others played with kids. Some distributed supplies directly to the shelters, including meals three times a day from places that would prepare and serve the food. Yet others volunteered with organizations like MDA and others to provide medical and other types of relief services.

I was amazed by the dedication and resilience of these young people. In many ways, they were doing what I’d have wanted to do did I not have obligations to my family and my work. There were many heroes in this war, little has been told about the youth. It’s extraordinary and something that we all have just cause to be proud, for this is the future of our country.

One Million Displaced

As much as there is pride in those who volunteered in the north, millions of Israelis also participated without leaving their homes. E-mail chats and actual newspaper columns were devoted to absorbing the million Israelis from the north who fled during the war. We offered to host dozens of friends and relatives who never took us up on it because they all decided to stay at home, in the north. This was inspiring, but we wanted to help.

Others opened their homes to complete strangers, making new life long friends. Whole communities participated collectively in absorbing hundreds of families, people who evacuated their homes together and were resettled together elsewhere as communities. Activities were planned to keep them busy and engaged in meaningful and enjoyable activities for the duration. Huge communal Shabbat meals were served. Laundry was done by volunteers. Throughout Israel, discounts were offered to residents of the north. Other attractions waived entrance fees entirely. Businesses paid for and relocated employees and their families from the north, and as tourists stopped coming to Israel from overseas, hotels filled with refugees from the north.

Refugee Camp on the Beach

One of the most spectacular sites I witnessed was the tent city set up on the beaches south of Ashdod by Russian Israeli philanthropist Arkedi Geydamak. Dubbed Geydamak City, when I visited, already 6000 refugees from the north had moved in, and they were preparing for another 1000. Geydamak paid for it all. Massive tents sleeping 200-300, activities for kids, endless supply of beverages, three meals a day, everything. Busses shuttled residents to different outings. He even built himself a home on the beach and also moved in for the duration of the war.

Nobody had much privacy, and families of all backgrounds were intermingled with one another, but people were grateful and it worked. Geydamak perceived a need, rented the space on one of Israel’s most beautiful beaches, and paid for it all. Basically, a city was built on the sands of the beach, missing only a zip code. A police station was set up, as was a Magen David Adom station to provide medical needs 24/7.

One could not visit Geydamak City without the conflicting emotions of sadness that so many people had to flee their homes and were living like this, yet with the pride in knowing that Israelis do take care of their own. As bad as it was, these people were indeed very lucky. Many people pay top dollar for a vacation at the beach, mush less on the beach. These people’s circumstances were far from perfect, and the City was not Five Star, but they were well cared for. And think about it, how many refugee camps have the sea less than 100 yards from their tent door and women strolling leisurely in bikinis as if it were, in fact, a vacation.

Another Era

Visiting Geydamak City also conjured images of Israelis living in massive tent cities in another era. During early hears of statehood, as Israel’s population doubles with refugees fleeing the ashes of Europe and the fear of pogroms in the Arab countries where Jews lived for centuries, tent cities like these were set up as well. The amenities were nowhere as nice or thought out, but Israel had millions of new immigrants to absorb fast, and tents were the quickest, easiest and least costly way to do so.

Let us hope that in the future, Israel will never have to use tents to house refugees from within its borders again.

Once More to the North

As the summer drew to a close, life returned to normal. We did take a vacation to the north, rafting on the Jordan River, swimming in the Sea of Galilee, and going to restaurants and outdoor activities that were closed until just a few days earlier. The hotel itself only contacted us on Thursday before our scheduled arrival on Sunday to say that they were open.

Tourism had yet to return to what it was, but people had started coming back. The highlight of the trip was driving as far north as we could. We stopped for lunch in Kiryat Shmona where our family alone filled the small restaurant. We paid the owner for an extra 25 Cokes so that when soldiers came by, he’d give them one for free. And then we continued further north. Driving in a valley which only a week earlier echoed of mortar fire, air raid sirens, emergency vehicles and the “boom” of Katyushas landing, we went to an area once called the Good Fence, literally on the border with Lebanon. We drove as far as we could until we were stopped by two soldiers manning a makeshift post, basically preventing people like us from going any farther.

What the soldiers must have thought as they approached this family heading north, only yards from the border, we could only guess. As one young red haired soldier approached, I pulled out from under the car seat a large bottle of Coke. I explained that we had come north to provide some refreshments to those on, and crossing, the border, and that we had six cases of Cokes to give them. They were without words. As I pulled to the side to unload the car, Cokes and boxes of cookies, the one soldier could not stop thanking us. The kids helped hand out the refreshments, and though we only encountered two soldiers that day, they understood what it meant to be Israeli more than ever before.

Back to School

As the summer ended and the school year approached, I was struck by radio and other news programs now geared to discussing the beginning of the school year as if the war never took place. Typically in Israel, there is always the fear of teachers going on strike and the school year starting late. School budgets are another hot topic, as is security which is part of the fabric of schools here on a day to day basis.

And then there’s always the compulsory interview with a child entering first grade. The interview I heard was with a little boy named Itai, who was starting school two days later. Typical questions were asked about riding the bus, can he write his name, who he’d sit with, etc.

But then the conversation took a turn that only would happen here. Itai’s father was one of the soldiers killed in the war. The radio announcer asked Itai where his father was.

“In Heaven.”

And you know that he’s watching over you in heaven, don’t you?

“Yes.”

Itai, remember it’s very hard for your mother too, so you be good and help her.

“I know, I will.”

Itai, good luck in school and be strong.

“Thank you. Mom, I’m thirsty, can I have some water?”

May Itai grow up in peace and never know war anymore, and may all of Israel continue to shine as a light unto the nations, to work together in a myriad of ways that are unique to Israel as a thriving western democracy, the center of Judaism and monotheism, and where we work together to overcome our challenges and continue to build the homeland of the Jewish People according to the vision of the Prophets.

By Jonathan Feldstein

An Israeli Living Among Heroes

No1abba at gmail.com

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