The Youth Council Center in Ashkelon is bustling on Tuesday morning, as it has been for the past week since the rockets began falling on the southern city.

Bottles of water, packages of sandwich bread and construction paper sit on tables as volunteer staff members whiz by answering phones and adding names of local volunteer-run shelters – at this moment 53 – to an ever-growing list on a white board.

The humble community center has been transformed into a neighborhood drop-off for donated supplies going out to shelters, while its own downstairs shelter has been in full swing since 9 a.m. In the shelter, teen volunteers and some 20 kids grab hold of a rainbow-colored parachute, while a small group of mothers sits nearby, some cradling young children in their arms.

One volunteer plays backgammon with a small child sitting on a colorful mat on the floor. The bright mural on the wall, the volunteers’ enthusiasm and the children’s laughter distract from the fact that at any minute a Color Red rocket alert siren could sound outside.

Upstairs, stacks of emergency kits from the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) and the Joint Distribution Committee, filled with art supplies and games for the 40-60 children spending their days in Ashkelon shelters, wait to be distributed.

“They really can’t go out anywhere,” Sigal Ariely, the director of the Ashkelon- Baltimore partnership at UJC-IL, tells a delegation of JFNA staff and lay leaders visiting the South on a two-day solidarity mission.

“You need to keep them busy.”

Members of the delegation are taken downstairs to meet the youngsters whom their federation funds are supporting in this crisis.

They hold the children’s hands in a game of “pass the squeeze.”

When it became clear last Thursday there was a crisis in the South, JFNA made an emergency commitment of $5 million for relief efforts, including for projects such as the emergency kits, and sent representatives to show solidarity with Israel.

They returned home Tuesday night to share with their donors and community members what they witnessed and how they can help diminish the psychological trauma.

“We understand that when you have to take children out of the South for a day of respite, that bill’s gotta get paid,” says Michael Siegal, chairman of JFNA’s board of trustees. “So what we did is without waiting for a campaign and without waiting for various communities to check in, we said we will allocate $5m. immediately for immediate cash needs for various projects.”

Raz, a soldier who has volunteered at the Ashkelon center since ninth grade, told the JFNA delegates that they felt their support and appreciated the emergency kits of games and art supplies.

“These kids staying in the shelters don’t feel what’s going on outside. That is what we’re meant to do, to give them a normal life,” Raz says.

But the group’s visit was not all about assessing the needs and raising money back home.

“This particular mission has a significance that goes beyond our fund-raising responsibilities,” says Daniel Odrezin, the assistant executive director of the Birmingham Federation in Alabama. “Our primary purpose of being here is to demonstrate the American Jewish community’s support of Israel at this time.”

Over the two days the group, representing the 155 federations and more than 300 smaller networks of JFNA, visited projects in the Ashdod, Ashkelon, Sderot and Beersheba areas, funded through the Jewish Agency, the Israel Trauma Commission and the Joint Distribution Committee, thanks to dollars allocated from JFNA. They visited children on a playground in Sderot, a family in Kiryat Gat whose home was badly damaged on the first day of rocket fire, one of the mourning families in Kiryat Malachi, where three people died from rocket fire last week, a Jewish Agency absorption center helping recent Ethiopian immigrants through the conflict, and a community of homebound seniors.

They also interacted with southern children in grades 1-12 enjoying a day of respite at the Land of Israel Museum in Tel Aviv, thanks to a Jewish Agency program funded by JFNA. The program’s grant lasted for three days, and Tuesday was its last before JFNA could renew its funding. In total, some 16,000 kids left the South for a day of fun on the program.

As the children stand outside the museum eating their lunches, sporting their Jewish Agency T-shirts, an ambulance speeds by. Several kids jump, momentarily mistaking it for a siren.

Jerry Silverman, the CEO and president of JFNA, says playing a small floor hockey game from one of the emergency kits with children in an Ashkelon shelter was an especially meaningful moment for him.

“I have to admit, I scored the first goal, but he scored every other goal,” says Silverman.

Soon other kids joined in. “Just to see their smiles, to see their minds, just having fun as children should be. It’s sad they have to be indoors in shelters, but bringing a smile to their face was truly a privilege.”

On Monday the group got a taste of living life under the constant threat of rockets.

On several occasions the siren blared, and they ran for cover, including once while on the playground in Sderot with a group of children.

“As I stood with tens of young children in a shelter in Sderot yesterday, with a Red Alert siren blaring outside, I knew that this was the only place for me to be,” says Jay Sanderson, the CEO and president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

“We are saying that the entire Jewish people warmly embraces you at this time. And we are also here to truly understand what is happening on the ground, to examine the situation and assess needs.”

Steve Silverfarb, the CEO of the Minneapolis Jewish Federation, said he has deep admiration for the composure and strength of the women and children that he visited.

“The least we can do is be as brave as the Israelis have been for the two-and-a-half days that we’re here,” he says.

As the group leaves the Ashkelon shelter and drives away, Ariely points out how empty the streets are, and the many stores that are closed.

“People prefer to stay where they have to be,” she says. “Everything that’s not crucial to the daily economy is closed. If people don’t go to work they stay home, watch TV. This is not a normal life... It only seems like it’s very peaceful, but it’s really not.”

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