“It’s Tel Aviv, it’s not going to happen.”
So Deborah Corber, CEO of Montreal’s Federation CJA, thought when she checked into her hotel July 13 and asked where the nearest shelter was. She had just arrived for a 60-hour solidarity mission with the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA).
Minutes later, sirens went off.
It wasn’t a typical visit, but on the seventh day of Operation Protective Edge, these weren’t typical times.
Before the 25 delegates could set out for the country’s besieged southern regions the next morning, they had to practise escaping their armoured van and hitting the sidewalk face-down.
“I’ve come to Israel many, many times,” said Corber, most recently in May with CJA’s “Mega Mission” with nearly 600 Montrealers. But on this trip, with “access to things you don’t see otherwise, it makes it much more real.”
On July 14, the first day of their tour, delegates were ushered from safe room to safe room, from a “protected playground” in Sderot to the Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon.
They toured facilities that care for and evacuate dangerously ill patients. “In the middle of a procedure, it’s not just the person having the procedure who’s at risk, it’s the medical caregivers – that doctor, that nurse… they’re not leaving their patients,” Corber said.
Moved by Israelis’ resilience, she said that beneath the surface, they’re suffering. “It’s not a kind of coping anybody should have to do.”
Up to 74 per cent of Israelis in the affected areas are suffering from trauma, she said.
The group met one woman whose building was hit by a rocket. “She can’t go back to work. Her children don’t want to leave the apartment.”
Yet this time around, southerners aren’t fleeing as in previous Gaza crises. “People are saying, ‘I don’t want to leave my house and my shelter… I don’t want to leave my extended family, my grandchildren, my neighbours, my co-workers.’”
This creates a demand for local infrastructure, such as portable shelters, children’s facilities, better air conditioning and ventilation for summertime.
Among the mission’s goals were to identify ways North American Jews can help, both financially and through partnerships. There’s a mindset in North America that Israel doesn’t need financial aid anymore, Corber said, adding that 30 years ago, perhaps 50 per cent of CJA’s budget went to Israel, while today it’s about 13 per cent.
With nearly 20 per cent of Montreal Jews living under the poverty line, that’s legitimate, she said. Nevertheless, Israel must remain part of the big picture. “There’s something about the continued existence of this state that allows us to live comfortably elsewhere. I think it’s appropriate that we share somehow in the burden.”
As the sole Canadian JFNA delegate, Corber received a hero’s welcome. Canada may be a minor power, but to Israelis it’s “meaningful… that they have one friend they can really count on in the western world.”
In addition to JFNA’s delegation, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the World Jewish Congress (WJC) both brought gatherings of senior staff and officials to Israel.
Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz meets an ambulance crew that later treated Israel's first war casuallty.
Corber wasn’t the only prominent Montrealer in Israel.
Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz of Congregation Tifereth Beth David Jerusalem and Rabbi Reuben Poupko of Beth Israel Beth Aaron Congregation decided to undertake their own solidarity mission from June 15 to June 18.
In addition to their personal mission, they joined the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs’ delegation representing Canada at the WJC solidarity mission, which began June 16.
The rabbis trip included visits to southern communities such as Be’er Sheva, as well as Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
They also visited Kibbutz Saad, about two miles from Gaza.
“A young lady from my synagogue happens to be there. I wanted to make sure I visited her,” Rabbi Steinmetz told The CJN’s Jodie Shupac by phone.
“On the drive there, we had to get out of the car twice and hit the ground because of sirens… we saw the Iron Dome intercepts right overhead… I left about five minutes before the mortar shell hit [that killed Israeli citizen Dror Chanin July 15 near Gaza]. I met the ambulance crew that responded to that attack.”
Rabbi Poupko praised Israelis’ response to the crisis.
“The young people staffing the Iron Dome installations, the soldiers, their commanders – their professionalism and humility… is really quite inspiring… We’ve been the recipients of extraordinary gratitude just for having visited for a few days.”