TODAY'S GRAPEVINE is somewhat different from the usual, in that its total focus is on three intensive emotional days and nights during which yours truly was embedded with a Hadassah Solidarity Mission - sharing the reactions of people from across America to dramatic events which those of us who live in Israel have come to accept with equanimity.
Though traveling under the banner of Hadassah, the 70-member group was not homogeneous. It included people of various ages, levels of affluence, religious affiliations within Judaism, degrees of Zionist fervor and community involvement. What participants had in common, aside from their Hadassah membership, was the need to be in Israel at this time, as a tangible way of identifying with the country - and of expressing their belief in a common destiny for all Jews, regardless of geography.
WAITING TO greet the mission at Airport City (near Ben Gurion International Airport) was the head of the Vered Hasharon branch of Hadassah,Sheila Brody, formerly of New Jersey and Massachusetts, who made aliya 10 years ago, and who has a son and daughter serving in the IDF. Brody, who was hosting people from the North in her home, said that in a way she was happy to be in the eye of the storm, because it made her feel that she could do something to help.
JEWISH AGENCY chairman Ze'ev Bielski who also showed up at Airport City , recalled that his initial job with the Agency was as an aliya emissary in South Africa. Since then, he said, wherever he goes in the world, he tries to encourage Jews to visit Israel, at least, and it saddens him that the majority has not yet availed itself of that opportunity. But comes a war, he observed in amazement, and solidarity missions arrive in droves. "They're coming when all the Katyushas are falling," he said. No sooner had the war started, he recounted, than he received a phone call from Marlene Post, a former national president of Hadassah, who told him she was bringing a large delegation to Israel. Mimicking the reactions of those who hadn't come, Bielski said: "All of you have relatives and friends who said: 'Where are you going? Israel? Aren't you watching television? Where are you going to sleep? In Haifa? You must be mad!'"
THERE WAS good-natured laughter, but indeed some of the people on the mission did not tell their relatives back home that they were sleeping in Haifa, because they didn't want to worry them. Others had endless cell phone conversations, describing both their experiences and their emotions. Less than a handful were on their first-ever Hadassah mission. One or two were actually on their first visit to Israel. But some, like feisty former Hadassah National Board member Ruth B. Hurwitz of Baltimore, were on a never-ending commute. Hurwitz was on her 53rd visit and still counting. Post, who is in Israel every few weeks, has made even more trips to the country.
TRAVELLING IN two buses, the mission was briefed by reservists Dov Zigelman and Ron Eidelheidt, who were attached to the IDF spokesman's office, and guides Shlomo Eyal and Danny Applebaum, who each have impressive military backgrounds. Applebaum also has deep roots in Israel. His grandfather was one of the founders of Zichron Yaacov, and one of the pioneers of Israel's wine industry, receiving his training in Baron Rothschild's Moroccan vineyards. Eidelheidt, a sabra with flawless, eloquent English delivered in an American accent. (Though the son of a Dutch mother and Austrian father who spoke German at home, he may have picked up the American twang in 1988, during the three months that he taught at West Point, or when he returned to the US on two subsequent occasions "to ride motorbikes.")
What was extremely important as far as the mission was concerned was that he explained the difference between rockets and missiles, namely that the former fall wherever they may, and the latter are targeted.
JUST AS it entered Haifa, the mission was greeted by an air-raid siren and joined passers-by who scuttled off the street into a nearby tenement building - some going into the small, roughshod bomb shelter, others crowding the stairwell, and still others pushing into the sparsely furnished two-room apartment of Shmuel Aflalo, who left his door open for precisely such emergencies.
Aflalo, clad only in a pair of shorts, was almost oblivious to the invasion of his privacy. He was standing in front of his television set, frantically clicking the remote control in an attempt to be updated from every possible perspective. Asked if people burst in on him often, he gave a laconic shrug and said: "Sure, it's the closest apartment to the highway."
The following day in another part of Haifa, there was a similar incident - this time in a tiny bomb shelter in which Hadassah members were huddled shoulder-to-shoulder with residents in a stifling, almost airless environment. The palpable anxiety, lifted somewhat as Annette Meskin, Hadassah's Chair of Missions, began to sing Hatikva, and everyone - Israelis and Americans alike - joined in.
IN A mission spontaneously put together, with numerous changes along the way - and no one, including the organizers, entirely certain of what would happen next - it was impossible to coordinate with the speakers. Thus, in addition to what they learned on the buses about Israel's battles on military, political and media fronts, mission members heard variations of the same theme from: Bielski, military commentator Ron Ben Yishai, former Mossad chief Ephraim Halevy, Tourism Minister Isaac Herzog - whose numerous speaking engagements to local and foreign media, solidarity groups and visiting politicians from abroad left him almost sleepless for an entire month - and Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu, whose eloquence and measured oratory are virtually unparalleled.
As a result, mission members, if not entirely experts on the situation, could go home and speak knowledgeably to local media outlets, their own Hadassah chapters and various community organizations about the situation in Israel. Some actually spoke in telephone interviews from Israel to their local radio stations, conveying the immediacy of their environments and their emotions to listeners across America.
HAIFA MAYOR Yona Yahav created a more upbeat atmosphere when he spoke of the preparedness of his municipality to deal with any kind of catastrophe. When he became mayor, he said, he was obsessed with the idea that there would be an earthquake in Haifa during his term of office. He voiced these fears to the Joint Distribution Committee, which sent him a team of professionals. For a full year, these professionals trained the heads of municipal departments to deal with catastrophes. The upshot was that "when we found ourselves in a state of war, we were absolutely prepared, and put all essential services under one central command."
In addition, Haifa decided not to give Hizbullah the satisfaction of seeing the destruction wrought by its rockets. Yahav gave the example of the traffic circle at the entrance to Rambam Hospital that suffered a direct hit. "Within two hours, we rebuilt it; trees were replanted and flowers were blooming. The principle was to convey to the enemy that noone would stop us."
AT NEURIM, a youth village operated jointly by Hadassah and the Jewish Agency, other solidarity groups from the United Jewish Communities and the World Zionist Organization - with participants from 18 countries - had come together to hear Halevy and Herzog, as well as to meet hundreds of new immigrant Ethiopian children who had been evacuated from the danger zone. Hinting that Israel has deterrent capabilities that have not yet been put to use, Halevy, who is now head of the Department of Strategic Studies at the Hebrew University, told his audience : "I don't believe we could be erased from the face of the earth. It's not possible for Iran to destroy us."
Dinner at Neurim would have been an amazing educational experience for anyone in the catering industry. With more than a thousand mouths to feed that night, the kitchen staff had set up numerous strategically placed buffets, ensuring that no one stood in line for more than three minutes. It was an astounding exercise in efficiency.
UNDOUBTEDLY THE two most moving experiences for Hadassah mission participants were their visit to Rambam, preceded by their meeting with Miki Goldwasser, the mother of abducted soldier Ehud Goldwasser, who came to Haifa from her home in Nahariya to talk not only about "Udi," but also about Eldad Regev and Gilad Shalit, the other two kidnapped soldiers. Holding up photographs of all three, she said: "Whenever I talk about Udi, I also talk about Eldad and Gilad. They are my sons, too."
Goldwasser was in South Africa - where her husband was working - when news of the kidnapping reached her husband. Before breaking the news to his wife, he brought a rabbi and a doctor to the house. She had no inkling that anything was wrong, because when she had gone onto the Internet earlier in the day, it was with the belief that Udi, the firstborn of her three sons, had completed his reserve duty. Reports on the Web indicated that seven soldiers had been killed and two had been kidnapped, and she had wept, even though the names of the soldiers had not yet been released. "I cried because I am a mother in Israel. In my wildest dreams, I didn't think I was weeping for my own son."
The outpouring of love and empathy for Goldwasser was so strong that one could almost touch it. Every mother in the room could imagine herself in the same position - and it was painful. When she finished speaking, they rushed forward to embrace her - almost as if they were her biological sisters. Ehud Goldwasser and his wife, Karnit, are both animal lovers. On Karnit's birthday, they saw a stray dog on the road, took it home and cleaned it up. Because it had previously been an unwanted "nobody," they called it Mishehu (somebody). "Now Mishehu is waiting with the rest of us for Udi to come home," said Miki Goldwasser.
THE WHOLE concept of shared pain was introduced by Tirza Klemperer, who had been Junior Hadassah emissary in the 1950s. Klemperer has become a verbal memorial for First Lt. Yiftah Schrier, 21, one of the early casualties of the war. She never knew him, nor did she know his family, but because they live only a block or two away from her in Haifa, she felt it incumbent to visit them during the shiva. She sat there for several hours listening to remarkable stories about him told by other visitors who had come from as far away as Jerusalem. She has since become a frequent visitor at the Schrier home, and has taken it upon herself to perpetuate his memory.
AT RAMBAM hospital, where extraordinary life-saving feats have been performed on soldiers and civilians, Hadassah National Treasurer Marci Natan, acting on the initiative of Prof. Shlomo Mor-Yosef, the director-general of the Hadassah Medical Organization, presented Rambam director Prof. Rafael Beyar with a check for $250,000, to be used for a specific project. It is very rare for one medical organization to give funds to another, but since Hadassah received so many patients during the first and second intifadas, its medical staff are fully aware of the challenges faced by Rambam. The truth is that Natan was leaving checks and pledges just about everywhere that the mission stopped. Not all these monetary gifts had been planned in advance and were decided in a couple of quick telephone conversations to the US, as were increases in pre-planned donations. Hearing of the needs was one thing. Seeing them was another.
ALTHOUGH PUBLIC Relations is not his usual field, Canadian-Israeli senior nephrologist Prof. Karl Skorecki, who is also the head of molecular medicine at the Technion's medical school - and who came up with a DNA connection between Kohanim, the ancient priests of Israel, and latter-day Cohens - greeted the mission on its arrival in Rambam, telling its members that he has a life-long connection with Hadassah. His late mother was a Chapter president in Toronto. "Hadassah put Israel on the map in terms of medicine," he said, noting that several prominent Rambam physicians received their initial training at Hadassah. Speaking of the devotion and dedication of his Rambam colleagues, Skorecki said: "I thought I knew what teamwork meant until I went through this experience."
Rambam has had lots of experience in treating wounded soldiers, he said, "but never before when the hospital itself was under attack."
FORMER HAIFA mayor Amram Mitzna, stopped by while the mission was there, and told Marlene Post that he had left many messages for her. "When you didn't answer, I chased you to Rambam," he quipped.
The mission also met with wounded soldiers, whom they queried about their injuries and from whom they asked for blow-by-blow descriptions of their battles. Ariel Gino, 22, of the Egoz special forces, had been shot in the chin, but neglected to mention that he had sustained the injury while rescuing wounded soldiers. That detail was supplied by his mother, Janet. "Ariel is the fourth generation of fighters in our family," said his father, Amos. "We're not going to let anyone tread on us."
Gil Hiram, 22, who was shot in the thigh by a sniper, and who lost a lot of blood before arriving at Rambam, could have avoided the war. He was in the US, studying at the University of Maryland. But he decided to come home and join his unit. A very personable young man who was intensely questioned by various mission members, Hiram admitted that he doesn't have a girlfriend. "We can fix that," was the immediate chorus of response.
NECESSITY OFTEN proved to be the mother of invention in this conflict. Rambam took its wards underground, when the Haifa Municipality turned the car park of the Moshava shopping mall in a low-income part of the city into a recreation center where Jewish and Arab children played games together, made music together and shared each other's fears at the sound of every siren. Mira Steiner, whose regular job with the municipality is coordinator of youth projects, told mission members that the recreation center, staffed entirely by volunteers from both communities, catered to approximately 200 children a day, and operated from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. Each child was given a hot meal. For some, it was the only meal they received all day.
Mission members immediately opened their wallets and began extracting bank notes. Steiner explained that she wasn't allowed to take the money, and that if they wanted to give, they had to do so through the municipal welfare bureau.
AT HADASSAH'S Meir Shfeya youth village and boarding school for economically disadvantaged and immigrant youth near Zichron Yaacov, the mission encountered families from the North, who had been brought to this pastoral oasis with a swimming pool for safety and a little peace of mind. "We owe you a million thanks," said Rachel Moustaki of Nahariya, who was there with her husband and two of their three children. A daughter serving in the army in Meron came to spend Shabbat with them.
ARRIVING AT the tent city at Nitzanim that was set up by philanthropist Arkady Gaydamak, mission members were told by tent city manager Ilan Faktor - a high school history teacher by day and an events organizer at night - that they'd already celebrated two bar mitzvas, a birth and a circumcision. The place was run like a small town, he said, with a police station, firstaid clinics, a synagogue, laundry and hygiene services, an air-conditioned cinema, a phone bank, fully equipped playgrounds, a kindergarten, three meals a day, concerts, etc.
Despite the number of people and lack of privacy, the place was clean and crime free. Bumping into Pnina and Itzhak Azoulay from Acre, who were there with four of their five children and worrying about the son who was serving in Lebanon, Miki Schulman, one of the organizers of the mission, remarked on Pnina Azoulay's eyecatching French manicure. "That was no problem," said Itzhak Azoulay. "There's a free beauty parlor here."
ALTHOUGH THE attention of the nation was on the North, Hadassah decided not to ignore the South, and paid a visit to Sderot, where Marci Natan presented a check to Mayor Eli Moyal, who claimed that the hostilities in the North might have been avoided had the government taken note when he urged the destruction of Beit Hanoun from where Kassam rockets that land in Sderot are fired. When he had first proposed the eradication of Beit Hanoun, he said, the media had labeled him a lunatic and an extremist. But it was precisely because of Israel's failure to heed his request, he added, that Hassan Nasrallah had been surprised by the nature of Israel's retaliation to the abduction of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev. Had Israel been as tough earlier, opined Moyal, it might have deterred Nasrallah.
EN ROUTE to Ben Gurion Airport to embark on the flight back to the US, the mission stopped in Tel Aviv to listen to Netanyahu, who had returned the previous day from London. Netanyahu, who had warned of the Iranian threat 20 years ago, said that when he had written about it then, people didn't want to see it. "They're beginning to see it in America - not so much in Europe," he said.
BEFORE LEAVING, mission members engaged in an emotional outpouring and some increased their regular donations by sums ranging from $500 to $5000. Charles Pullman of Dallas, one of the few men traveling with mission, said that he had not know before that Hadassah was more than a hospital-supporting organization. "You're fearless, you're tireless - and if you could, you'd go to Beirut. My mother was a member of Hadassah, but till now, I didn't know what it was. I'd like to become a member," he said. Because it was his birthday, he said, he wanted to donate $1500. Instantly responsive to any new development, Hadassah immediately ordered him a birthday cake with a sparkler that arrived at his table just after he finished what he had to say. Everyone sang Happy Birthday to him - in Hebrew.