April 8, 2024
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April 8, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Blogging My Emergency Solidarity Mission

Post 1

As I sit on the El Al plane about to take off on the national JFNA/COP (Jewish Federations of North America/Council of Presidents) leadership emergency solidarity mission to Israel (plus added days where I will volunteer with Rav Rimon, Koby Mandell Foundation and more), many thoughts and emotions swirl around. I think we have all felt this mix of emotions since the evil terrorist attacks on our brothers and sisters in Israel, our homeland and really on all of us. Sadness, grief, confusion, unease, anger, outrage, pain, and definitely inspiration and pride at being part of Am Yisrael and the incredible grassroots efforts to help.

The phrase “Mi Ka’amcha Yisrael” is heard over and over. We are one people, one family and going forward Jewish unity must be a core value. We all must work hard to contribute to this Jewish unity. We can disagree but we can’t divide and dismiss. And, make no mistake, all Jews, all Americans, all decent human beings and all of Western Civilization are under attack from the evil, inhumane monster death cult of Hamas and radical Islamic forces that have unleashed barbaric cruelty, death, destruction and evil forces on this world. This is good vs. evil, light vs. darkness and we can’t sugarcoat it. Yet we must have hope in the eternal nature of the Jewish people. With Hashem’s help we will be victorious.

Thanks to the Englewood community I have 12 bags of important supplies with me (shout out to Englewood rabbis, Daniel Malka, Heshy Feldman, Deanna Balk and all of you and to the kind EL AL counter person for allowing all the bags). Many soldiers and others will benefit from these supplies.

I will try to write each day with updates. I am representing all of us on this mission. We are all in this together and we absolutely can make a difference.

Day 2: Blog Post 1

How does Amazon do it? I found out today that when you bring 12 duffle bags/suitcases on a plane and you arrive it is not so simple and it takes a team to get it all moved and delivered but we got it done! And due to some delays at the airport with the bags, customs, etc., I had the fortune to see Air Force One land. A very important action and statement by President Biden/USA. We will need that support in the weeks and months ahead. The bad news about seeing Air Force One land is that all the roads out of the airport were closed for almost two hours and most everyone just stood out of their cars hanging out (and I must say the Israelis were more patient than me!).

I did get to make new friends. A woman around my age who grew up in Israel, moved to Houston and a year ago moved back to Israel because she missed “being home,” and a younger Ethiopian guy. They wanted to know where I live in Israel and I said I don’t live in Israel and was just visiting and they responded, “Why come now? Are you crazy?” I explained that I was representing my New Jersey community and wanted to show solidarity, support and give hugs. I said, “How could I not come now after what has happened; we are family!” They were visibly moved and so was I. The other classic Israel moment was some Chabad guys walking over to various stopped cars on the highway road and asking drivers if they wanted to put on tefillin. “Mi Ka’amcha Yisrael.”

As the day went on it got more challenging …

I arrived to Jerusalem in the afternoon and brought some of the supplies we all collected to my close friend who has three sons now fighting. He repeated to me battle stories that his sons told him, including the brutal scenes they each saw and tactics of the enemy including booby-trapping dead bodies of Israelis. Each son has been in major combat battles since the Sunday after the terror attacks. Hard to imagine the feeling of an Israeli parent, the self-sacrifice, but they are all crystal clear on their mission now and this battle against evil.

This evening the COP/JFNA/other national Jewish organizations here with me on this mission met with three families of the hostages. See below pic. Searingly painful to hear their stories and try to offer support and help. One family has five members held hostage including the 80-year-old grandmother and 12- and 14-year-old grandchildren. It was her birthday last week so they made a party for her in absentia trying to send positive thoughts. Another family who thought they had four members held hostage found out yesterday from the army who recovered the body that one was actually killed. They said this was better than being kidnapped.

And the family of Hersh Goldberg-Polin, originally from Chicago. I know Hersh Goldberg-Polin’s father Jon Polin and met with him a few years ago for a business related meeting. Now their son is wounded badly (lost an arm in grenade attack at the music festival) and held hostage. Hersh had Shabbat/Simchat Torah dinner with his family and that was the last time they saw him. They appealed to the Jewish community in USA to demand his release with elected officials, Red Cross, U.N. and not allow any aid to Gaza unless the hostages are released. Latest estimates are that 199 people are held hostage and likely more. We saw some videos of the hostages and kept hearing about “survivors stories.” Think about that—this is 2023 and not 1938-44 and we again are hearing survivor stories about Jews. Can that really be? Can we accept that?

The long day ended with an IDF briefing by a high-ranking general and report from the editor of the Jerusalem Post who visited Be’eri and other destroyed communities and saw first-hand the shocking barbaric brutality (he broke down when speaking about the children murdered and what he saw). I can’t go into too many details on the military briefing but somewhat sobering, somewhat uplifting, especially on the current morale and work the IDF has done the last few days, including eliminating Hamas leaders; shocking on the intelligence and other failures; and hopeful that the IDF can do its job to destroy Hamas.

But the general did say it will take time and the U.S. Jewish community (and world Jewry) need to be a loud morale voice to government and elected officials to allow Israel the time and space to get the job done. He was very appreciative of President Biden’s visit and said this sends a very strong message to Iran. He said this is not about land, political conflict, but rather pure evil and make no mistake Iran and Hamas want to just kill Jews. They have stated this clearly and shown the world that is their entire plan and they will do just that. He was certain the IDF will defeat them and with God’s help and all the prayers, chesed, advocacy, donations and more we are all doing it will come to pass speedily.

 

Day 2: Blog Post 2

Day 2 of the COP/JFNA emergency solidarity mission was long, somber, meaningful and impactful. We started the day with meetings with President Isaac Herzog followed by meetings with the Foreign Minister Eli Cohen and his chief of staff. Lunch with N.Y. Gov. Kathy Hochul, who came to Israel to show her solidarity and support. After lunch we went to the Prime Minister’s office for a short meeting with PM Netanyahu followed by a lengthy meeting with Ron Dermer (Israeli Minister of Strategic Affairs). As you can imagine, the meetings were serious and to the point. Some key points—Israel will act to fully destroy Hamas, the paradigms of the past like containment, negotiation, if they just get enough financial support all will be fine, are over. This is a war of self-defense and this will likely be a long war. More graphic details of the atrocities were provided and there are just no words. Among other atrocities people were bound and burned alive. Bibi stated, “these are the new Nazis and worse than ISIS.” It was made clear to us that the details of the massacre, pics, videos (including many that have not been released to the public) were provided to President Biden and his team.

All of these Israeli leaders expressed tremendous gratitude to President Biden and the USA for their support in this most critical time. We also spoke about the hostages and efforts to save them. These Israeli leaders were very grateful to the USA Jewish community for the outpouring of support on all levels and to our group for coming to Israel. They need to feel our love and support now more than ever. They asked us to speak with a loud voice and remind the world that this is not a clash of civilizations but rather a war of humanity and to also remind the world that the people of Gaza have the same enemy as Israel—Hamas. If Israel does not stop Hamas/Islamic Jihad/Iran the West is next. And that the days of killing Jews just because we are Jews must be over. I was particularly impressed with Ron Dermer, who spoke with great passion, fortitude and resolve and stated we must restore the “dream of Israel.” All of these leaders recognized the many mistakes that led to this attack and where we are now. One said, “there is no right or left, religious or secular in Israel right now. Only a united people ready to face the greatest challenge in 75 years since the founding of the modern State of Israel.”

After these high-level meetings we went to a Jewish Agency school to pack boxes of food for elderly residents with minimal resources in Ashkelon. We did so with some young kids from around the world who were on various MASA/gap year programs and chose to stay after the terrorist attacks of Oct. 7 and volunteer in various ways. I was paired with Max from Boston who is going to Rutgers next year (see pic). We made a good team despite him being a Red Sox fan.

From there we went to Hadassah Hospital. We lit memorial candles for the victims (see pic), received a briefing from Dalia Itzik (chair of the hospital’s board) and senior Hadassah Hospital leadership and broke up into small groups to meet soldiers who were wounded and recovering. The soldier I met, “Commander O,” was on the ground fighting with his elite unit only a few hours after getting word of the attacks. His unit was undermanned and under armed against the enemy yet killed many terrorists and rescued some female IDF soldiers.

At one point they were ambushed and most of the soldiers were wounded. Commander O was shot in the shoulder and leg but continued to fight and shot and killed a terrorist perched above his unit on a house roof firing at them. They were rescued by a helicopter rescue team. Hadassah Hospital had three helicopters per hour for 24 hours arriving with wounded IDF soldiers. I thanked Commander O for his heroism, service and said he is not only fighting for Israel but for me, you and all Jews around the world. Commander O was very thankful for our visit. After this we went to see how the hospital has now set up OR rooms in the underground levels in case of missile attacks. They took conference rooms and offices and turned them into emergency operating rooms within seven days (see pic). Why would any country have to do this? How can the free world accept that? As Mayor Adams said, “It is not alright.”

The long day continued and we went to a moshav called Ma’aleh Hamisha (near Har Hadar outside Jerusalem), which is now hosting families from a village called Netiv HaAsara located in the Gaza envelope communities as they are called. It is a beautiful moshav that I have been to. They are famous for the peace wall they created and maybe you have seen it. When I was there 7-8 years ago I visited an elderly English woman who lived there and talked about how she would invite her Gaza neighbors for coffee and they would get together and talk about peace. How different the world is now. Netiv HaAsara has approximately 1,200 residents and “only” 22 were murdered. They told us some places like Be’eri and Kfar Aza and others had 30% of their residents murdered or taken hostage. We heard from the regional council about the devastation, brutality, dead and missing friends and family (see pic). And Maj. Gen. Doron Almog, chair of the Jewish Agency, spoke to us. Six members of his family were thought to be taken hostage and just yesterday they identified two bodies of his family members, so now four are believed to be held as hostages in Gaza. These communities will need our support and it may be a lengthy period before they can return.

Yes, it was a very emotionally draining day but I saw great strength and resilience as well and especially resolve that Israel now has a holy and difficult mission ahead and with God’s help the IDF will defeat the evil Hamas.

I see some of the so-called rallies in the USA, Europe and elsewhere against Israel and supporting Hamas. Comments by the “Squad” and others. I have a job for each of you. Call this out, expose hatred, antisemitism and evil. Make people choose sides—good or evil, light or darkness. Write letters, contact politicians, speak to your non-Jewish colleagues and co-workers. Tell them what happened. We need to call out any newspaper, media outlet, reporter or any organization that is willing to accept the brutal and inhumane massacre, murder, rape, kidnapping and brutality against Jews. There is no excuse, no rationalization. Terror is terror. This happened in sovereign Israel. A pogrom is a pogrom. And “never again” must mean never again.

Blog Post 4

The official COP/JFNA emergency solidarity mission ended on Thursday night. Now I am on the “Lee Lasher mission.” I arrived at my apartment in Netanya/Ir Yamim on Friday to spend Shabbat here. The beauty and serenity of this neighborhood and the sea is a paradox to the pain the country is experiencing. I was looking forward to Shabbat after an intense few days and excited to be having meals at good friends Roni and Yehuda Blinder and Jonathan and Alisa Gellis. I needed the friendship and sense of normalcy. I got to shul in a somber mood. That quickly changed after a beautiful davening, dancing and Rabbi Mendel Wuensch announcing at the end of davening, “a very special welcome to the Katz family who made aliyah from Cleveland yesterday.” That’s right, they made aliyah during the war. Mi Ka’amcha Yisrael …

I spent today with the Mandell’s (Seth, Sherri, Eliana) of the Koby Mandell Foundation. As you can imagine KMF is inundated with trauma therapy needs in the country. They have added over 10 new therapists and are working on various ways (including hotline, programs, visiting bereaved families and more) to help the victims of the terror attacks. We spent time discussing various strategies and plans (both short-term and long-term). I also talked to volunteer security personnel in Tekoa. All of the communities in the Gush and surrounding areas including Beitar Ilit, Tzur Hadassah and more have now set up limited entrances, barricades to their communities and added armed security. It is CSS on steroids. They have heightened concerns about attacks from local Palestinians.

We then went to Nokdim to make a shiva visit to Chana and Zev Zafrani. Their daughter Noy was murdered at the music festival. See below pic. Noy was 21, beautiful, loved music, singing, acting and had a big heart. Her mother said all she wanted was to help others. Chana (the mother) is an English teacher in a local school. Ironically, when I said I was from Englewood and sending hugs and love from our community she said she was an au pair in Englewood 30 years ago and knew our community. Seth Mandell and I sat with Zev (the father) as well. He asked Seth if you can ever get over something like this and how can he heal; Seth gave him sage, personal advice. Why should two Jewish fathers have this kind of conversation?

After this emotional and difficult visit we drove to Tzur Hadassah to meet Elad Gershonowitz and Oren Melamed. Two businessmen (construction engineer and real estate professional) who are now part of an organization called One Heart, Tzur Hadassah branch. They have stopped their regular jobs and mobilized with other professionals to work solely with the IDF and government to get urgently needed supplies for soldiers. They are ensuring they only supply what is actually needed by the soldiers. They state:

“Considering our IDF force, which do not have no doubt about it, even not for a second, and with our gathering soul at difficult times (kol Israel arevim ze la’ze!!!), we will win.

As for where we stand, we would much appreciate donations for purchasing the supplies for the soldiers. For donations and forces together we joined an existing nonprofit organization, Lev Echad (One Heart). Attached is the link which the *first* *page* (please donate there) is of our “branch” in Tzur Hadassah of Lev Echad. As we’re working on an every day budget, we would appropriate the donations ASAP. Thank you and all your friends in advance. Am Israel (and all the rest of the loving side of the world) Chai!!!” www.jgive.com/new/en/ils/donation-targets/110438

Blog Post 5

I had the privilege to spend today doing chesed and chizuk with Rav Yosef Rimon and some other wonderful Jews, including a family from Great Neck and group of Syrian Jews from Brooklyn (including one person I knew many years ago and a cousin of Saul Levy who used to live in Englewood and made aliyah). Many of you know Rav Rimon, who is a man of incredible warmth, kindness, intellect, energy and holiness. We started the day at a school in Jerusalem that is hosting children displaced from the south. Rav Rimon, some others and I taught them, spoke to them and danced with them. We tried to encourage them during difficult times. We emphasized the eternal nature of the Jewish people and the current achdut of Am Yisrael.

After this we went to the hotel at Moshav Ma’aleh Hamisha, which is housing families from the south (mostly from Netiv HaAsara). The entire hotel is now a home for many families and so many are trying to help them. The hotel has a room which is a free store that has all sorts of clothing and other supplies that people and companies supply and the families take as needed. We heard from survivors from Netiv HaAsara who told stories how they survived (some hiding for 24 hours or more) and about their friends who were murdered (see pic of the 20 people murdered from Netiv HaAsara, including a few couples). It is very difficult for me to say this but I truly felt like I was hearing Holocaust survivor stories but this was 2023 and in Israel. I can’t get my head around this. Need I say more …

From here we went to Beit Meir, a small picturesque community in the hills outside Jerusalem where families from Sderot are now living. We sat with them and again Rav Rimon spoke to them, taught them and we spoke as well. We sang songs including “Od Avenu Chai.” I told the children of Sderot that I have been to Sderot many times. It is a beautiful city and when they return (not if but when) it will be even more beautiful and I will be happy to visit them.

After this we visited an IDF base outside Beitar Ilit. This base houses Kfir brigade reservist soldiers who are protecting the towns in Yehuda and Shomron while the active army is down south and north. This visit was emotional and so meaningful. Rav Rimon spoke to them, encouraged them, spoke about the challenges we face and the fight of good vs. evil and emphasized the eternity of the Jewish people (see pic). At this location (and all the prior ones) he gave brachot to each person there.

I had a very emotional moment when he spoke to the IDF soldiers and said he would say the Mishaberach for IDF to them. I have heard that prayer probably thousands of times but this was the first time when I heard someone say it and say, “Mishabarech Avoteinu Avraham, Yitzchak v’Yaacov who yivarech autchem (all of you)” and not “Chalayei Tzva Haganah.” He was literally blessing each of these soldiers and each of them was in harm’s way defending Am Yisrael. I gave some of the letters that the children of Englewood prepared for chayalim (see pic of me and IDF soldier Cohen from Chicago). The Brooklyn guys did the same. I spoke and told them I have a bag of letters from the children of Englewood but in the bag was not just letters but an overflowing amount of love and support for each of them. We know they are fighting for the State of Israel and each of every one of us. And that good will prevail over evil. One of the soldiers spoke and said they have received food (too much), clothing and letters. They throw out much of the food, they can only wear so many pairs of socks and underwear, but it is the letters that motivates them and encourages them. To the children of Englewood—well done!

Here is a must-watch video that someone sent me. It is difficult to watch but critical to do so. We need to scream to the world what has happened and to allow Israel to defeat our enemy, which is an enemy to the free world and civilization. When you hear talk about the humanitarian crisis in Gaza remind those people that this is actually a crisis of humanity: vimeo.com/876498483

Blog #6

For my final day of my solidarity mission I headed down south with Gabi Nachmani of Tenufa Bakehila (an organization dedicated normally to repairing homes of the very poor, and now fixing dilapidated bomb shelters and helping the IDF) to a large IDF base called Urim, which is 15 kilometers from the Gaza border to help with a special gourmet barbecue sponsored by three Englewood families. We fed hundreds of smiling IDF soldiers and spoke about our love, our gratitude and our support for each one of them. One commander said it was the best food he had in two weeks. I also gave out more letters from the children of Englewood, and the soldiers couldn’t thank me enough. Many chayalim said these letters are what motivates them.

This base had many soldiers and I was mostly hanging with the Golani Brigade combat soldiers. They were the first to respond to the barbaric terror attacks, and lost many friends. They are laser focused now on what needs to be done, with God’s help. I spent a lot of time talking with Zach, a lone soldier from London (see pic, he is slightly taller than me), who literally has no family at all in Israel. He came to Israel for the first time when he was 16 and said this is the place he wants to be and this is the future of the Jewish People. He is now 22 and serving our people. God bless these lone soldiers, and as you know our community of Englewood has had many of them.

Was I scared to be down by Gaza? Yes, a little. But it was more important for me to be there and express our solidarity. I decided not to drive myself and got the name of a taxi driver from Netanya whose name is Golan. When I told him where I was going he asked why. And when I told him why he not only wanted to drive me there but wanted to help with the barbecue. It was me and Golan (and others) flipping burgers, making hot dogs and pargiot, slicing rolls, setting up salads.

I have really seen how the entire country is supporting the IDF and each other. The divisiveness of the prior months has been replaced by the polar opposite feeling of unity, sense of purpose, and based on this I know we can succeed. The thought repeated over and over again here is “together, we will win.” Never, ever forget that.

I am now at the airport awaiting my flight back to New Jersey. I write with mixed emotions. Part of me wants to stay. Israel is facing an existential crisis. Frankly, we all are. I hope many of you will consider going to Israel if you can to volunteer, show your support. I hope we can do some Englewood (and other) community missions. Israel needs us now, and we need Israel.

May God give us and our people strength, may God bless us with peace.

Brgds,

Lee


Lee Lasher is the immediate past president of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey.

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