Our solidarity visit to Israel: We saw need and pain, but also so much hope and resilience | Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle

Our solidarity visit to Israel: We saw need and pain, but also so much hope and resilience

I have taken two solidarity trips to Israel in the last few years. The first, in June of 2021, to stand with Israel after the breakout of Operation Guardian of the Walls, which began after Hamas launched rockets into Central Israel, breaking a ceasefire. The Israel Defense Forces launched the operation, and 11 days later, Egypt and Qatar brokered a ceasefire. The ceasefire was held until October 7, 2023.  

Israel was different in 2021; Covid rules still applied, there was no tourism, and the airport had just re-opened. It was eerie to visit the old city and Kotel without the hustle and movement of so many tourists. I thought about how different this Israel was from any other time I had visited. It was when we visited Netiv Ha’asara, a community just 100 meters from Gaza, that I learned about the measures Israelis were taking to protect themselves. I learned that while there is a ceasefire from rockets that reach the center of Israel, the southern communities bordering Gaza continue to be besieged by constant missiles and have been since Hamas took over in 2006. 

Since that 2021 trip and before my latest trip, I’ve returned to Israel on a different mission, this time with JFNA, post-war and post-pandemic, and saw the Israel I remembered. It was full of life, full of sounds, and bustling with tourists. I could not have imagined how different Israel is today. 

I have wanted to return to Israel since October 7. I wanted to bear witness and stand with my brothers and sisters. I got close; I was at the airport headed to a mission with JFNA this January when a technical issue with my EL AL Airlines flight meant I could not go. 

It was bashert. I was waiting to go with Jewish Milwaukee. This March, I led a solidarity mission to Israel with my partner and Federation President and CEO Miryam Rosenzweig, with 12 other community members. When designing this mission, we knew we needed to bear witness and share what happened in October and the consequences since then. Yet we had a greater intention. Let’s go to Israel not only to see but to do. We wanted to volunteer, see where the dollars we raised as a community are helping, connect with our partnership region, and learn about the war’s impact on them.  

We arrived in Israel on a Sunday. In the middle of our opening dinner, Major Shimon Levy, Milwaukee Jewish Federation’s former COO, stopped by directly from his base. As Shimon talked with us, I was reminded of all the families watching their sons, daughters, husbands, partners, mothers, and sisters fight. This war is personal to everyone. 

The following morning, we headed south to Kibbutz Kfar Azza. As we got off the bus to the empty kibbutz, I was struck by the beauty of the day and the conflicting signs of horror in front of us. We were met by Chen Kotler Abrams, a daughter of one of the founding families and a lifetime resident of Kfar Azza. Chen was in Portugal on the morning of October 7; a trip that saved her life and allowed her to help her community from afar. She was talking to her father when the first rockets fell, pleaded for assistance for her father and siblings, who all lived in different locations in the kibbutz, and later guided the IDF to help those who could be reached. Chen’s voice shook as she shared each moment. When we got to the youth village, where the young adults of the kibbutz were murdered and kidnapped, Chen could go on no more. She told us that she wanted to give these tours and wanted us to bear witness, but the sounds of artillery right over the fence were too much. She was thinking of the 62 kibbutz members and friends who lost their lives and the eight hostages who are yet to be returned home.  

No matter how many news reports and clips each of us had seen since the October 7 massacre, nothing prepared me for the carnage that we witnessed in person. 

Our next visit was to the Nova Festival grounds, where 364 young adults were murdered, wounded, or taken hostage by Hamas. For a second time that morning, I bore witness as a Jewish Milwaukeean and a mother. My son, Isaac, 28, and daughter, Charlotte 25, were the youngest members of our community mission. We walked through the memorial, where posters of the murdered and hostages were displayed. I read their ages. Noa Argamani’s age was crossed out. She was no longer 25; she had turned 26 in captivity. I thought of her, my kids, Noa’s parents, her friends. The impact on the community around these 364 people has been so far-reaching.  

There was so much pain all around us. We heard from the families of hostages, learned about the toll of the war on kids, and later visited Mt. Herzl and visited a section of the cemetery that didn’t exist before October 7. Our security guard, Yitzchak, was a member of the Golani unit and had first left Gaza two weeks prior. It was sobering to see another young man point out his friends and other Golani members buried since October 7. 

We were privileged to have the opportunity throughout our trip to learn about how Israel is coming together to help and heal, how our start-up nation is finding solutions and how we partner with them, and how problems we didn’t even know existed were being addressed in partnership with the Milwaukee Jewish community.  

Immediately following October 7, the Milwaukee Jewish Federation launched its Israel Emergency Fund campaign to meet Israel’s needs. We have raised more than $5.25 million from nearly 1,300 donors.  

Every dollar goes directly to Israel. Your generosity is making a difference. I saw it firsthand. 

We visited several programs that are dealing with the overwhelming mental health needs throughout the country. One of the Federation’s core partners in global work is the Joint Distribution Committee, an organization that helps those most vulnerable in Jewish communities around the world. We were introduced to Hibuki (Hebrew for “huggy”). Hibuki was created to help those children living in the south cope with anxiety following the decades of bombardment from Gaza. Today, it’s needed more than ever. Hibuki is a therapeutic stuffed, plush dog with extra-long arms and a sad face. It is given to children to help them cope with trauma. We met a mom who talked about her child’s transformation after working with Hibuki. After caring for Hibuki, she grew more resilient and able to deal with her anxiety. Since the war started, she has pulled out her Hibuki once more. She ensures he feels safe and comes with her to the shelter when sirens sound. This was just one program, one strategy, but we could see the innovative techniques used to help children through this traumatic time. 

We visited Kibbutz Yad Mordechai, a kibbutz that was attacked on October 7, but the kibbutz members fought for hours to ensure no terrorists entered the gate. Today, the kibbutz that is famous for its honey production is struggling. Most families are still evacuated, and given its proximity to Gaza, the kibbutz leadership is worried if they will return. The Milwaukee Jewish community is partnering with Yad Mordechai as part of the Jewish Agency for Israel’s new Communities2Gether program to help Southern Israel rebuild. Our assistance will be a five-year partnership focusing on strengthening kibbutz residents, providing resources for the children, and new developments that will help the kibbutz return to its pre-war strength.  

We had the opportunity to understand the impact of this war on families when we volunteered at Pantry Packers and Leket, both programs supported through our Israel Emergency Fund. Each night we connected with past shinshin, shlichim, and Milwaukeeans who made aliyah to Israel. We met newly arrived olim from Ethiopia and Bedouin community leaders who echoed the same sentiment: We are all in this together. We are Israeli regardless of our religion, race or background. 

On our last day, we visited Milwaukee Jewish Federation’s Partnership2Gether region in the north, Sovev Kinneret. Due to threats from Hezbollah, hundreds of thousands of residents near Lebanon have been evacuated from their homes and are living in hotels. At first glance, it may appear straightforward. After all, they live in hotels, food is provided, and they are safe. As we visited one hotel, we learned about the challenges. We learned that hotels could not ensure all family rooms were near each other. Some teenagers may be placed in different parts of the hotel than their parents. The detachment has led to an increase in drug use, risky behavior, and teens leaving the hotel at night. Our community dollars fund programs like Youth Futures and Elem in Sovev Kinneret to help at-risk youth who need intervention immediately. 

We kept seeing our communal dollars solving problems that weren’t in the headlines. We visited a new school, “The Northern School for Evacuees.” In October, no school had existed there; in fact, the area was an empty lot. When thousands of children (evacuees) arrived in Tiberias, the municipality, in partnership with the Milwaukee Jewish Federation, built and supplied a school for 800 students. Brightly painted prefab units were turned into classrooms. Teachers from evacuated communities and retired teachers came to ensure they were staffed. Our dollars supplied $50,000 of equipment such as notebooks, markers, and book bags for kids. The students told us that this school opened six weeks after the evacuation, and they felt routine for the first time. It almost seemed that way until we noticed the newly built bomb shelters between every two classrooms. This school embodied the whole experience of being in Israel. I learned about challenges we don’t hear about in Milwaukee and watched the spirit of Israel and the global Jewish community come together to solve them. That’s what we do.  

We saw so much of the need and pain in Israel; we saw hope and resilience as well. It was when speaking to the families of hostages and walking through Hostage Square in Tel Aviv that the plight of the over 100 hostages still in Gaza became our mission when we came home. Two babies are still in Gaza; mothers, siblings, fathers, and grandfathers all ripped from their homes by Hamas. Four Americans are still held hostage, and Muslim Israelis are still held hostage; we saw the message all over Israel — Bring Them Home Now! As a Milwaukee Jewish community, we must keep their plight in the public domain. 

I was proud when I returned home to see that our Federation and community worked to ensure that the Milwaukee County ceasefire resolution’s original language, which did not mention the hostages and Hamas or its responsibility, was substituted for language that acknowledged the hostages and terrorists. 

We must not forget! Am Yisrael Chai!   

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Joan Lubar, board chair of Milwaukee Jewish Federation, left, and Miryam Rosenzweig, president and CEO of Milwaukee Jewish Federation, at an Ethiopian Absorption Center, meeting with a woman from Ethiopia who made aliyah to Israel.


Joan Lubar, center, with her adult children, Isaac and Charlotte Siegel, at Sovev Kinneret.

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Writer Joan Lubar is the Board Chair of Milwaukee Jewish Federation.