Opinion: This visit to Israel was different | Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle

Opinion: This visit to Israel was different 

Both of us have been to Israel many, many times. Both of us left for the Jewish Homeland thinking that we knew a lot about the current situation and the repercussions of the Hamas War on the people in our partnership region of Sovev Kineret.   

Our four days in the region, from Jan. 15-18, made us realize just how little we understood of the war’s impact on the societal, personal and moral challenges confronting everyone every day with no determinable end. We achieved the purpose of the trip: gathering much-needed information about the complexities of the situation to gain a better understanding of the organizations supporting evacuees and the needs of the community. We learned as well about the multitude of ways that the war is impacting the region and how people are supporting one another in amazing ways.    

Sovev Kineret has a population of about 79,000, and since Oct. 8, they have absorbed about 18,000 evacuees from northern Israel, about a 23 percent increase in the overall population. Evacuees came from cities and rural areas with differing religious traditions, cultures, ideologies and political orientations. They have been relocated to hotels and kibbutzim in Sovev Kineret, which is made up of four municipalities: the city of Tiberias, the village of Kfar Tavor, the Jordan Valley (a combination of 22 communities – mostly kibbutzim) and the Lower Galilee (a combination of 19 communities, most of them moshavim). Although attempts were made to keep evacuee communities together, it has not always been successful. 

Some adults are working remotely, but many are unable to work. Children experience culture shock in their new schools and often refuse to go, especially high school students who depend on their peer groups to sustain them emotionally.  Additionally, many families are evacuated without husbands or sons who are serving in the IDF. People are grieving the loss of loved ones and friends. Nothing in their lives is the same and they have no idea when they will be able to return home. It’s predicted people will be displaced at least through the end of December.  

What is clear to us now is that beyond the obvious ravages of war, every thread of society, no matter where one lives in Israel, has been affected by the war. The needs are ever-evolving and appear endless. As the war continues, the mending of the wounds and the rebuilding of life’s infrastructures are simultaneously happening with the support of countless organizations, many of them funded by donations to Milwaukee Jewish Federation’s annual campaign, reaching people through the Jewish Agency for Israel, Jewish Federations of North America, and Milwaukee’s Israel Emergency Campaign.  

Here are few examples:  

  • Youth Futures (Supported by JAFI): Assisting Israeli children at risk since 2006. Their mentors work with children for three to five years, supporting their learning, emotional needs and families. Since Oct. 7, evacuated mentors have continued to work with their children who are scattered throughout the country. They talk to them by phone every day, providing support and continuity, even as many of the mentors themselves face the trauma of being forced out of their homes.  
  • Elem (Supported by a grant from Milwaukee’s Israel Emergency Fund): Founded in 1982 to support youth in distress in Israel. After Oct. 7, they created a program called “Breathing Space,” where teens can gather on sidewalks outside the hotels at night for games, food, music and emotional support from social workers. They are responding to issues of drugs, alcohol, suicide and sexual assault.  
  • Matnasim (Supported by a grant from Milwaukee’s Israel Emergency Fund): Matnasim are the JCCs of Israel. They are running most of the after-school programs for evacuated children. The children are in school only until 1 p.m. in many places, so these activities are an important way to protect children from idleness and despondency by providing opportunities for fun, laughter and social-emotional growth.  
  • Hotels: The hotels are doing everything they can for the evacuees. Many have created daycare programs and schools inside the hotels, even changing their menus to fit the evacuees’ preferences who don’t want to eat heavy meals every day. In one hotel, a committee of leaders from each community meets weekly with management to communicate their needs. From laundry facilities to social activities, the hotel management strives to say yes to every request.    

In addition to the amazing support from organizations, we were inspired by acts of chesed by individuals:  

  • At Hotel Maagan in the Jordan Valley, we saw a sign posted by a local resident listing his phone number and offering to help with anything at any time.  
  • At Nof Kinneret Hotel in Tiberias, we saw a sewing machine in the lobby. A retired evacuee was mending clothes for anyone who needed it.  
  • In  Lower Galilee, we met Anat, a high school biology teacher. Seeing many teens on the streets of Tiberias, she left her job to start a school for teens from Maela Moshe. They started in a hotel with 20 students. Within a week, she had 70 students and moved the new school to her own Moshav. Students are learning in every available space, including the benches outside. Anat cried when sharing her frustration and sadness of being unable to provide an adequate environment for learning.     

After the trip, we sent emails to thank everyone for sharing their experiences with us. Their responses showed how impactful our visit was on people in Sovev Kineret. Maya from the Jordan Valley Council wrote, “In these tough days that we’re going through here in Israel, and at the same time our eyes are open, and our ears are attentive to the rising antisemitism around the world, we believe that the strongest strength we have is that we have each other and our Jewish partners overseas. Therefore, your visit here, in the valley, was a very important moral support and connects all the light we have as a people around the world into one big and strong light. We were happy to host you and would love to meet again. Am Yisrael Chai.”  

You can support the desperately needed help to the people of Israel by donating to both JAFI and JFNA at MilwaukeeJewish.org/give

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Tziporah Altman-Shafer is vice president of Jewish communal life and learning and Pnina Goldfarb is chair of Israel and overseas committee, both roles with Milwaukee Jewish Federation.

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Israel’s Sovev Kinneret region

“Sovev Kinneret” in Hebrew means surrounding the Sea of Galilee, a region in the north of Israel that includes the city of Tiberius and other communities. The region has a longstanding partnership with Milwaukee that includes visits, cultural exchanges and more.