When five local Jewish leaders went on a pandemic-era Milwaukee Jewish Federation Solidarity Misson trip to Israel in June 2021, the experience was heartfelt and met with warmth at a time of great pressure for Israel. The trip occurred following the May 2021 ceasefire in the war between Israel and the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas.
“We wanted to show the Israeli people that Milwaukee’s Jewish community sees them and cares deeply about them,” said Joan Lubar, then chair-elect of the Federation board. “Our visit was critical, coming at a time when Israelis were feeling isolated from the rest of the world.”
Lubar was joined by then outgoing board chair Moshe Katz, President and CEO Miryam Rosenzweig, and board members Kurt Janavitz and Raisa Koltun, who also serves on the national Young Leadership Cabinet.
A different Israel
The Milwaukee mission was one of the first 20 trips to Israel following the war. “It was important for our top leaders to stop everything and travel to Israel to show our support,” said Rosenzweig. “Everywhere we went, we were met with ‘thank yous’ from Israelis. It was clear that our visit was very meaningful to them.”
Rosenzweig reflected on the pandemic-era trip and the differences from past travels to Israel. “The Kotel, with the Western Wall, is always bustling and crowded with people. They just weren’t there,” she said. “I had only seen the pandemic with Milwaukee eyes. The startling absence of people made me appreciate the impact of the pandemic on Israel and the Israeli people.”
The brief trip brought deep learning, too, regarding the recent Gaza conflict and Israel-Palestinian relations.
“People say the situation between Israel and Gaza is complex,” Koltun noted. “We actually broke that down. We went really deep, as deep as you can go in three days, into the conflict and the struggles.”
The Milwaukeeans visited Baruch Padeh Medical Center at Poriya, located in Milwaukee’s partnership region Sovev Kineret (around the Sea of Galilee). Both the health care professionals and the patients represent a diverse population of the secular and the religious including Jews, Muslims, Christians, and Druze. The staff focus on patients as human beings, working to ignore the war and politics in the area that surrounds them.
“One of my biggest takeaways is: How do we make this more human?” Koltun said. “We’re humans. They’re humans. On some level we all want the same thing.”
At one point, participants took a tour by helicopter to see the areas around the Green Line and the security wall that separates Israel from the Palestinian territories, allowing the participants to see how small the area is.
“We wanted to understand what was happening in Israel from all perspectives so we could come back and share what we learned,” Lubar said.
Pile of rockets
A former Israel Defense Forces colonel took the group to a police station in Sderot, where used-up rocket shards were piled high outside the station.
“I’d never seen that,” Lubar said. “That was one massive pile, and to imagine that all those and more had been fired into Sderot.”
The rockets had been used against Israel, and the former colonel pointed out rocket remnants in the shape of poles that had been meant to be used to hold up traffic signs in Gaza, but were repurposed as weapons, she said.
“Off to the side was a much smaller pile of the iron dome rockets that intercept the rockets from Gaza,” Lubar recalled. “This helped me understand the scale of the rocket attacks.”
Less than one kilometer from Gaza, Sderot is one of the most heavily rocketed cities in Israel. Residents have only a 15 second warning when rockets are launched.
They went to Ashkelon and saw a home decimated by rockets. A young couple had recently remodeled the place but were not home for an attack, said then Board Chair Moshe Katz.
Heavily damaged, the home was frozen in time with signs of the family’s everyday life prior to the attack. “There was a washer and dryer with clothes just left there,” Katz said. “But what really stuck out for me was a copy of the Zohar, leaning up against something.” The Zohar is a book of Jewish mystical thought known as Kabala.
Katz said, “When we saw the homeowner, he was just so thankful that we came all the way from the US to comfort him.” The homeowner remained optimistic and was determined to rebuild and remain living in Ashkelon, according to Katz.
The mission group visited the Gvanim b’Cafe, a coffee shop in Ashkelon that employs people with cognitive and physical disabilities. The coffee shop is part of a network of projects that assist people with various challenges.
The Milwaukee visitors learned of one episode where a project coordinator from JDC, a global Jewish human services nonprofit, was alerted that rockets could be coming in seconds. But a nearby shelter was not wheelchair accessible and one of the resident was in a wheelchair.
“The JDC coordinator stood outside the shelter as they were getting bombed. She stood with her resident like this is a normal part of life,” Rosenzweig said.
The Gvanim b’Cafe and JDC are supported by the Milwaukee Jewish Federation Annual Campaign.
Kurt Janavitz was moved by their visit to the Kotel. “It was very impactful for me,” said Janavitz, of Elm Grove. “It was my first time. The intensity of the experience – it wasn’t like going on a normal first timers’ trip.”
He remembers his grandfather, of blessed memory, as active in his community and very generous, and a co-founder of the Providence Hebrew Day School in Rhode Island. Something about that family history hit Janavitz at the Western Wall. “It surprised me that I had this experience where I just melted down,” Janavitz said.
Janavitz said he’ll bring home what he learned from the trip, including the unvarnished lessons from Noam Rumack, the tour guide who greatly impressed him.
“To be able to have that balanced perspective while still advocating for the Israeli position is really useful,” Janavitz said. “I felt like that was a message that will resonate more broadly, and I will be able to get more people to engage constructively with me on the subject of Israel.”
Janavitz said he’s bringing Rumack’s guidance home to his circle, which includes many non-Jews.
“It was amazing experience,” Janavitz said. “I would go again in a heartbeat.”