The people in the room shudder and begin to push for the door as the siren sounds. The crowd – a motley collection of American Jewish federation leaders and new immigrants from across the globe – surges outside and toward the bomb shelter of the Ye’alim absorption center in Beersheba.
Children clutch their mothers as they are pushed, carried and run into the shelter, with an elderly Yemenite woman in a hijab and a middle-aged man limping on a crutch following hurriedly behind.
Through it all, Jerry Silverman stands at the door of the shelter, gesturing the new immigrants into safety, until he, too, is shoved bodily into the shelter, one of the last to enter.
Silverman, dressed casually in a New England Patriots tee shirt and a pair of shorts, looks like the prototypical American Jew on vacation in Israel, except that in his case, he is here representing the Jewish Federations of North America, of which he is the CEO.
“Can we go outside,” he quipped, as loud booms sounded outside the shelter, quickly turning around and heading to the entrance to scan the skies for the telltale smoke puffs of aerial explosions caused by the IDF’s Iron Dome interceptor missiles hitting their targets.
“I’m frustrated that this is creating disruption,” he told The Jerusalem Post at the entrance to the shelter on Sunday afternoon.
However, he added that he also felt “exhilarated” to see the discipline of Israelis in the face of continuing rocket fire and how “people are responding in the appropriate way.”
“Even though these terrorists are trying to cause disruption, they are not winning,” he said.
The resilience of the Israeli home front, especially in Sderot and the other communities bordering the Gaza Strip, is incredible, Debora Jaffe Berkowitz, the co-chairwoman of the JFNA’s national young leadership program, said.
However, she qualified, “clearly the trauma is overwhelming.”
“It just makes me feel like I want to do everything I can to help out and... we are going to go home and do everything we can,” she added.
The stoicism of the Negev Jews and their “ability to handle this in the face of adversity is miraculous, and every Jew in America has to hear and understand,” Bill Silverstein, the incoming chairman of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, said.
There is a lot of misinformation and “many trying to take advantage of emotional tensions that exist” due to the conflict, he added, when asked about incidents of apparently anti- Semitic violence against Jews and pro-Israel demonstrators in Boston and Los Angeles.
“In light of the severity of what is going on in Israel, I’m glad there have not been more flare-ups and violence in America,” he said, adding that “these incidents are fairly isolated.”
The leaders of the federations, which recently announced a national fund-raising drive, are on the ground “trying to learn about the needs being created by this most recent barrage of attacks,” he continued.
The American Jewish community is concerned with providing for the emerging needs of the Israeli home front and is trying to “figure out ways to fund the most critical needs, starting with the disruption of the lives of children and families whose parents are absent due to IDF reserve call-ups.”
Speaking with the Post after addressing the federation leaders on Sunday, Sderot Mayor Alon Davidi said that his community appreciated their presence and that he believed that the American Jewish community could help support his town’s ongoing “mission” of sticking out the conflict and working to “develop our town.”
“When you see people that come [from] thousands of miles from Israel just to support you and to ask what your needs are and how [they] can help, this is very important and gives us strength,” he said. “We are connected and we are a big family.”
Davidi also called on Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to “finish the job and destroy all the system of Hamas that makes this problem.”
Calling for a ground operation in the strip, the mayor said that harsh action needed to be taken against members of terrorist groups who “want to kill our children.”
“We need to kill them and destroy them,” he said of Hamas, adding, “we need to stay in Gaza until [the attacks] stop.”
Representatives of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, a group representing over 50 Jewish groups, arrived in Israel on Monday afternoon and within hours were in the South, visiting communities under fire.
Col. Richard Kemp, the former commander of British military forces in Afghanistan, addressed the conference delegates in Tel Aviv immediately upon their arrival.
According to Kemp, the British and European media were initially “reasonably supportive” of Israel, but as the Gaza operation has continued they have “completely turned around and [are] siding very heavily against Israel and in favor of what Hamas is doing.”
The nations of Europe would react in much the same way as Israel is now, were they in the same situation, he told the American Jews, recalling the Allied response to German missile attacks during the Second World War.
Both the American and British forces in Afghanistan copied the tactics for minimizing civilian casualties utilized by the IDF during its 2009 Cast Lead operation, he claimed.
“They don’t acknowledge that, but that is the reality,” Kemp asserted. “The IDF takes far greater steps than any army in this part of the world or even the British or Americans to protect civilians.”
“It is important that non- Israelis say the truth, because Israelis are always lying,” he said, with a typical British dry wit.
Mission member Rabbi Vernon Kurtz, the president of the American Zionist Movement, has been in Israel since before the outbreak of hostilities and said that “one can feel daily tension in the possibility of hearing a siren and moving quickly to shelter. It changes people’s lives, modifies their behavior.”
The conference came to Israel because “Israelis need to know that they are not alone and that people care about them individually and collectively.”
“The American Jewish leadership needs to be present to be able to see, hear and feel the reactions – not only of political and military leaders and newspaper and television columnists but of everyday Israelis – to the current terror that has embraced this region,” he said.
“Everybody who comes becomes an individual ambassador for the truth – not only through their organizations but in their offices, neighborhoods and personal relationships with others – as they tell the story as it really is. That is an extremely important part of being here for each of us at this time.”
Conference executive vice chairman Malcolm Hoenlein had a similar message for the members of the conference, telling them that it is also important for them to brief their constituents on the economic damage being caused to Israel by the conflict.
Before leaving for the South, the group was briefly delayed by an air raid siren, after which they accompanied Brig.-Gen. Relik Shafir (res.), former commander of the Tel Nof air force base, to see a nearby Iron Dome battery.