'We see a broader support for this war than we've seen in decades'

Visiting world Jewish leaders talk about resiliency and how it feels to run for your life.

Israel's rocket-battered southern towns are hosting a steady stream of Jewish leaders from abroad this week. From the heads of communal federations in the US to international organizations and umbrella bodies of French and British Jewry, the arriving leaders said they had come to offer support to the struggling civilians in the South and the troops in the Gaza Strip. As they passed through Sderot, Ashkelon and Beersheba, the visiting Jews found themselves fleeing for cover as air raids sounded and listening to tearful southerners thanking them for the psychologists, shelters and day trips northwards that Diaspora communities have funded. It was a lesson, the visitors said, in the traumatizing effect that eight years of missiles had on daily life. "It's one thing to read about the red alert sirens and another to feel it and ask yourself what the disabled and the elderly and the immobile are doing when it sounds," said John Ruskay, executive vice president of the New York federation on a visit to a bomb shelter in the Jewish Agency absorption center in Ashkelon. For Moishe Smith, a Toronto restaurateur and president of B'nai B'rith International, "this was an awakening. We sit in our living rooms in North America and we read about the rocket attacks, but until you go to the South and start running for shelter because you hear a siren in mid-conversation, you have no concept what these people have lived through." A meeting between B'nai B'rith heads and the mayor of Beersheba on Monday was interrupted by the sirens, and the group had to rush downstairs to the shelter. "I've been through three or four red alert sirens today and I can't believe our people have been living like this for eight years. No democracy anywhere in the world would have shown the restraint the Israelis have," said Smith. "We really watched how hard people struggle to maintain normalcy in an abnormal setting," said Michael Kotzin, vice president of the Chicago Jewish federation, after a whirlwind two-day tour. "What kind of life is this for children to go through?" "We stayed overnight in an Ashkelon hotel, and we had to run down to a shelter in the middle of the night because a siren sounded," said Philippe Karsenty, deputy mayor of Neuilly, who was visiting with a delegation from CRIF, the umbrella body of French Jewry. "You have just a few seconds to wake up running. How would I do that if I had children with me? It's unbearable, inconceivable and unacceptable." As world media broadcast graphic images of dead bystanders out of Gaza, did the Jewish leaders feel they were able to defend Israel's stance abroad? "The reason for the fighting has been explained very well this time by Israel itself and in the American media," said Douglas Cohen, a lay leader in the Chicago federation, coming from a community that saw the vandalizing of four synagogues last week with graffiti calling for "death to Israel." "The Jewish community supports Israel in this operation." "Barack Obama has said he would not stand by if his daughters were targeted by rockets," said Jordan Toplintzky, an accountant active in the Los Angeles chapter of the American Jewish Committee. "The media in America are replaying that regularly and people are echoing that sentiment widely." Every Jewish leader who spoke with The Jerusalem Post during their travels through the region spoke not only of the first-hand experience of fear, but of the determination they saw in Israelis to fight until the rockets are stopped. At a condolence visit to the family of fallen infantry commander Maj. Roi Rosner, the B'nai B'rith delegation heard from the widow's sister that "we understand what it is to sacrifice for our country." In a shelter in Beersheba the same delegation met children "sitting in a room with no windows, who were nevertheless singing songs and staying active," said B'nai B'rith International president Smith. On a visit to an Ashkelon home hit by a rocket just two hours earlier, United Jewish Communities president Howard Rieger said he could already see "that reconstruction was under way. It was very impressive." "It gives me a good feeling to visit, to tell you the truth," said CRIF president Richard Prasquier. "You feel the unity of Israelis behind the government, the agreement that what is being done is necessary and must continue. Israelis are saying there's a feeling from right to left that the Israeli army is doing what it is supposed to be doing, that this might be Israel's most righteous war." "We are seeing the resiliency of Israelis and sensing a broader support for this war than I can recall in decades," agreed Ruskay.