I bore witness: Mission trip to Israel was incredibly revealing | Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle

I bore witness: Mission trip to Israel was incredibly revealing

I signed up for the Milwaukee Jewish Federation’s Solidarity Mission to Israel because I wanted to bear witness to the atrocities of Oct 7. As a second-generation speaker for The Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center, I teach students to bear witness to Nazi atrocities. I needed to go. I wanted to bear witness myself!  
The first day of our mission brought me face-to-face with the terror and horror. I was walking on the very soil that a few short months ago was covered in blood. I could almost still smell the death. And I could almost hear the screams of the innocents. 
At Kibbutz Kfar Aza, as I looked into Gaza five short kilometers away, it was not difficult to see how an invasion could have unfolded. The people in the kibbutzim closest to Gaza were the ones invested in a two-state solution and trying to live harmoniously. The violation cut deeply. A resident in the kibbutz, who lost friends and family and  is still waiting for her hostage friends to be released, talked to us for over an hour. We respectfully entered the charred homes and bore witness to the bullet and grenade holes throughout the rooms, the disarray, the signs of violence, with clothes strewn around, furniture tossed, and shelves emptied. We saw the markings on the buildings by the Israel Defense Forces, ZAKA Search and Rescue, and other agencies. I was there. It happened! I saw it with my own eyes!  
At the Nova Music Festival site, there was an area with names, pictures and candles. On Oct. 7, this area hosted peace-loving music lovers as they danced to the sounds of entertainers. Bomb shelters where people were slaughtered have already been painted white to try to clean the site, but it did not hide the scene in my mind. 
And at Kibbutz Yad Mordechai, just down the road from the music festival site, we heard from residents of this kibbutz and the very brave head of security who held off the terrorists. This kibbutz was never physically violated but the 900 residents who lived there on Oct. 7 are now only 350 strong. The school is empty, the sounds of children are missing, and the remaining residents are not sure about its future. I ate lunch across the table from the head of security. He wore a loose sweatshirt-like shirt, pants like the one I wore, and a pair of leather shoes. I was there and saw him. I talked to him, and I hugged him. That is what a hero looks like!  
It was hard to wrap my head around what I was experiencing, but I did see it, as did the other 14 members of our group. We are all still processing, and we may always be. We were there. 
And just like Israeli society, in the days after experiencing the sites, we turned to trauma relief, support and how they live today.  

Our first stop was the JDC, the Joint Distribution Committee. They were priority setting and taking existing programs and applying them to today’s problems. They were nimble enough to do this, putting money and answers where they are needed quickly. This is how Israel pivots and adapts. 

United Hatzalah, a community-based volunteer emergency medical service organization, works to provide medical treatment with an average response time of three minutes or less. Posters in their lobby tell the story that two of their people are currently hostages. 

We volunteered at  Leket Israel, the leading food rescue organization in Israel, which  rescues healthy, surplus agricultural produce and is now helping the farmers who have lost two planting cycles. Their workers and fields need help, and we made packets of food for those in need with Colel Chabad – Pantry Packers. We went to NATAL, Israel’s trauma and resiliency center where they have had to teach the therapists how to deal with the tsunami of requests, all while knowing the therapists have their own Oct. 7 trauma.   

At the Tzafon Medical Center in the Milwaukee area’s partnership region, Sovev Kinneret, about 12 miles from the Syrian border, they have created an app for doctors in the field who must practice medicine differently than they practice civilian healthcare. They have created a doctor-to-doctor app to help provide the best medicine they can in trauma situations. They also created a patient-to-physician WhatsApp group, for when personal touches weren’t available. 

There are new and groundbreaking therapies being developed at Loewenstein Hospital, Israel’s leading hospital in the field of rehabilitation medicine.  We heard about innovative therapies that are being copied in hospitals worldwide, and we heard from a hero from the war. 

We were witness to a ‘pop-up’ school for the evacuees of the Sovev Kinneret area. Those evacuated due to the war (Jewish refugees) are not expected to return to their homes before December 2024, and we are talking about 20,000 people. We saw a ‘campus’ of 36 mobile classrooms, shelters, a playground, canteen, high school and grade school that didn’t exist in September 2023. It was built in a parking lot. This area teaches 800 students. We had the privilege of listening to four young teenagers as they shared how their lives have changed since the beginning of the war. 

Every place that I mentioned are among the places funded in part by either the Milwaukee Jewish Federation Annual Campaign or the Israel Emergency Campaign.  We were all witness to the very good use of our dollars. 

And we went to Hostages Square, where we were in a small group with 22-year-old hostage Omer Neutra’s grandparents. His grandmother told us his story, as she knew it. She has not heard from him nor heard anything about him since he was taken hostage. The uncertainty is breathtaking. And as a grandmother myself, I wept. We need to keep saying his name, and the name of the other hostages, so society doesn’t forget their names. 

What really stood out to me was how the entire Israeli society is touched. In this small nation, everyone is affected. The person who is giving help has their own trauma, too. Soldiers come and go to their units and families. Our tour guide’s 25-year-old daughter who traveled with us one day, had been in Gaza and was a tank commander. The man in shorts running on the promenade along the beach was a war hero. The person providing security for us on the mission, two weeks earlier, had been in Gaza. When we went to Mount Herzl and paid our respects to those buried there, this Golani Brigade soldier was seeing the names of his friends. The trauma that this man must have been feeling as he made a living for his family, protecting us as we went place to place, is something to wrap a head around. I always said ‘thank you’ to him at least once each day and often after each stop. 

We were thanked over and over by Israelis for making this trip and supporting them. Just by us being there and bearing witness gave them a measure of support. Life goes on in Israel. 

I thought that I was going to Israel to bear witness to the atrocities, and I did. But today’s story is really about bearing witness to the resilience of Israeli society and its people. There is a new sense of unity in Israel and solidarity among Jews across the world.  
The Mission of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation is to care for the needs of the Jewish people and to build a vibrant Jewish future in Milwaukee, Israel and around the world. Never have these words held more meaning for me.  Kol Yisrael arevim zen bazeh – all of Israel are responsible for each other. And through the MJF annual campaign and Israel emergency campaign we are most definitely taking care of the needs of the Jewish people! 
I have chosen to see the world through Jewish eyes. One of my favorite teachings is found in Parashat Nitzavim. It is the famous commandment to choose life. We read in (Deut. 30:19): “I call heaven and earth to witness you today: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse — therefore choose life!” The people of Israel choose life!  

Just like the students that I teach, by reading my story, you are now bearing witness to the truth. And just like the students, you now carry these words into the future. 

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Writer Nancy Kennedy Barnett attended the Milwaukee Jewish Federation’s Solidarity Trip to Israel in March. Barnett is a long-time Jewish community volunteer.