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Going the distance for Israel

 
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Participants in the weeklong JNF community service trip. photo courtesy of JNF

Jeremy Fingerman listened carefully as Dr. Eilat Shinar described the challenges of her job as director of blood services for Israel’s Magen David Adom, the Red Star of David.

The previous day, the Englewood resident had visited new donor-built MDA stations in Sderot and Ashkelon. He had also experienced a “Red Alert,” as Kassam rockets landed from Gaza.

Now, he was touring the organization’s central blood center — due for a much-needed facelift with the help of donor dollars — where resources were sorely strained by the war in the South.

Fingerman was one of several North Jersey community leaders participating in missions to Israel during Operation Cast Lead. Sometimes lasting no longer than a day or two, these trips were sponsored by a variety of synagogues and organizations seeking to raise awareness of pressing needs and distribute funds to programs aiding combat soldiers and civilians.

In his role as chairman of the projects and allocations committee for the American Friends of Magen David Adom, Fingerman brought along a check for $500,000 from the organization’s Code Red Alert emergency fund-raiser. When he was CEO of Manischewitz Foods, Fingerman had contributed a portion of the company’s profits each year, and eventually was asked to join AFMDA’s board.

“For me, part of the reason to come was to see the capabilities of MDA and better understand what the money we’re raising is going for,” said Fingerman. “I’ll take that message back to our committee and to our various regions to spur the effort to raise additional emergency funds.”

Along with Danny Allen, CEO of AFMDA, and Daniel Dobin of its southeast regional board, Fingerman received high-level briefings and visited key stations in the North and the South, including the regional dispatch and control center in besieged Ashdod. He came away with a greater appreciation for the recipient of the funds, which serves as Israel’s primary emergency response organization for everything from traffic accidents to terror attacks.

“We met volunteers who had left their jobs for a day or two to go down to Sderot to help out,” he related. “In all the conversations we had and [with] all the people we met, I was struck by the unbelievable unity of the people of Israel.”

He is well aware that fund-raising in an economic depression is difficult. “This is a very troubling time for the philanthropic world. There has to be some prioritization and Israel has to be right up there,” he said.

“In North Jersey, and nationally, people are so mobilized to help Israel right now. We feel we’re under siege from the entire world. Now is the time to stand up and say, ‘This is our family, this is our country, and we need to do whatever we can to support the state of Israel and the people of Israel.’ By being here, we’re also giving moral support to MDA. They see we are here not just with financial support but with our physical presence.”

The mission was led by former Teaneck resident Jonathan Feldstein, director of AFMDA’s Israel office. Feldstein said many wartime visitors responded generously to AFMDA’s call for blood donors, among them David Harris of the American Jewish Committee and Yeshiva University President Richard Joel.

Rabbi Zev Reichman of Englewood’s East Hill Synagogue joined 20 rabbis from across the United States for a two-day solidarity mission sponsored by the Jewish National Fund and several other organizations.

Standing just 400 meters from a fence that separates Israel from the Gaza Strip, Reichman saw bombs falling and heard the booms of artillery shells. As soldiers streamed past on rotations out of Gaza, he distributed the contents of three large duffel bags — care packages prepared by children in his synagogue and at the Moriah School. In addition to thermal underwear, gloves, socks, toiletries, and candy, each package contained a handwritten letter.

“You should have seen the faces of these soldiers, knowing other Jews supported them,” said Reichman. “They loved the letters and they wanted more and more of them.”

The group of mostly Modern Orthodox rabbis visited Ashkelon and Beersheva in Israel’s Negev region, met with wounded solders in hospitals, spoke to Israeli politicians, and visited former Gaza residents rebuilding their lives in new communities in the Negev desert after the 2005 withdrawal.

They also checked out two major JNF projects in progress — a new desert residential community and a $5 million secure recreation center for the people of Sderot and surrounding communities. They studied Torah with colleagues and students in the shelters of Sderot’s Yeshivat Hesder, where they slept in the yeshiva’s missile-proof dorm.

In Ashdod, the men learned with students of a yeshiva that had been removed from the Sinai in the 1980s and then from Gaza in 2005 — and again sits in a troubled zone.

“As rabbis, we serve as representatives of our communities,” said Reichman. “Our congregants are filled with tremendous love of Israel and are very concerned with what’s happening and want to convey their support. Just as God is with his nation in its difficulties, rabbis are with Jews in difficult times. We are linked as one unit.”

Six North Jersey residents were among 120 U.S. college students and young professionals who came to Israel for a weeklong community service trip with the Jewish National Fund. Each participant was required to raise a minimum of $950 for the secure indoor recreation and medical center JNF is building in Sderot, a town that has been the target of daily rocket fire for eight years.

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North Jersey visitors face the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Photo courtesy of the Temple Institute

The group, including a contingent of junior counselors from the Conservative movement’s Ramah summer camps, lent their help to beautification projects in southern development towns including Yerucham and Dimona. They did not visit Sderot.

“Because Sderot can be a dangerous place, we did not plan for them to go there,” said Rebecca Kahn, the Teaneck native who coordinated the trip. “And once the war broke out, it wasn’t even an option. The safety and security of our participants is our priority.”

Kahn said two participants canceled due to the situation. For the others, what had been intended as a service mission became a solidarity mission as well.

“What has been going on in Sderot may have seemed a little abstract before, but seeing the day-to-day effect of the war made it more meaningful,” she said. “Those who hosted the service projects expressed gratitude that we were here despite the situation.”

Darren Gorman, a New York University freshman from Cresskill, said he was surprised to find he liked the hard work. “Although it was very difficult manually, it was amazing to do this with 40 other Ramahniks,” he said.

Gorman especially enjoyed making mud to insulate houses being built on a desert farm, and planting a garden along with horticulture teachers at a Jerusalem school where they also applied a fresh coat of paint to the walls.

Brandeis University freshman Ilana Sidorsky of River Edge said she was most touched by a visit to Sde Boker to see David Ben-Gurion’s gravesite.

“The Israeli guide told us an incredible back-story about Ben-Gurion’s vision for the Negev desert,” she said. “All of our work during the trip was really a continuation of what he had started. I didn’t have the same appreciation of the Negev before as a place people would want to move to. It really opened my eyes to the future there.”

In a video produced by the JNF (http://www.jnf.org/media/email/123108/index.html), Daphne Amir of Cresskill is seen painting the exterior of a building. “It’s really important, I think, for American Jews to have a connection to Israel and feel that it’s part of their responsibility to rebuild the land of Israel, especially during a time like this when the land is in crisis and we need to support not just the people who live here but all the Jews whose homeland this is,” she says.

Helena Tendler, a Teaneck resident and University of Rochester sophomore, said she’s been to Israel several times. “When I go, I need to be personally active, so this was a perfect opportunity for me to meet a lot of American Jews who feel the same way I do,” she said.

The two other North Jersey participants were Shira Alevy and Rose Wimpfheimer of Englewood.

At a soup kitchen-kindergarten in Yerucham, Tendler worked with the children to paint a mural while others peeled potatoes. “The following day, we heard the place needed our help again,” she said. “Six of us went back and helped them make salads and tomato sauce. It was great to see them looking at the mural. You could see how much they appreciated it.”

As for the war raging close by, Tendler said, “It made it that much more important to be there and show we’re not scared. It also made me realize it’s extremely important to finish the playground in Sderot to be a safe haven, and I felt good that our contribution will make that happen.”

On Jan. 20, 30 North Jersey residents who were in Israel during winter vacation ascended the Temple Mount to pray on behalf of IDF soldiers wounded in Operation Cast Lead. The trip was organized by Rabbi Yosef Adler, leader of Teaneck’s Cong. Rinat Yisrael and Rosh HaYeshiva of Torah Academy of Bergen County.

The Temple Mount is the area above today’s Western Wall where the two Holy Temples — the first and second Beit HaMikdash — functioned as the center of Jewish ritual life in ancient Israel. Today the area is occupied by Muslim structures including the gold-leafed Dome of the Rock that dominates the Jerusalem skyline.

The New Jersey visitors were escorted by Yehudah Glick, director of the Temple Institute. Like other groups he escorted during the war, they received detailed instructions concerning the proper procedures for ascending and showing reverence to the sacred site.

Glick noted that on the same day, the attention of the world was focused on Washington, where President Obama marked his inauguration.

“But here in the heart of Jerusalem, upon the Temple Mount itself, the very spot chosen by God for His house, real change is taking place, as Jews, for the first time in modern history, are arriving in large numbers and praying openly,” he said.

The Temple Mount (Har haBayit in Hebrew) was captured by the IDF in the Six-Day War but was turned over by Gen. Moshe Dayan to the Islamic Waqf, which keeps a tight rein on visiting Jews. Non-Muslims must be accompanied by Israeli policemen and Muslim guards, and normally are not permitted to pray.

“I go up to Har haBayit on a daily basis and both the police and the Waqf know me quite well and they usually trust me,” explained Glick. “I generally negotiate our rights until we reach a compromise. This time, they let us up with a book about the Mikdash [Temple], a map of Har haBayit, and the list of [soldiers’] names. We read each of the names, telling a little bit about a few of them and reciting prayers for them. We also said Kaddish and Barchu.”

Torah Academy Principal Arthur Poleyeff of Englewood was among the participants. He said it was not his first time at the holy site, but perhaps the most poignant.

“It was a very moving experience, standing right opposite the mizbayach [the spot where the altar of the Temple stood] and saying a prayer for the wounded soldiers,” said Poleyeff. “You can’t not feel that the prayer goes straight up to shamayim [heaven] when you’re standing so close to where the Beit HaMikdash once stood.”

He and Adler were planning to speak about the experience when school was back in session this week.

 

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