On Sunday, May 23, at the AIC Israel rally in Tenafly, Jason Shames, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, announced the emergency mission planned for the following week in the wake of the terrorist missile crisis in Israel. The government of Israel reached out to the Jewish Federation of North America, and a delegation of its leaders departed for Israel a few days later as a tenuous ceasefire took effect. Among them were Shames himself; Lee Lasher, president of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey; and Mark Wilf, chair of the JFNA board of trustees. Key leaders and board chairs from cities including Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Miami and New York also joined the delegation.
Shames and Lasher are both residents of Bergen County. Lee Lasher jumped at the opportunity to go on the mission. “It was so important to me to go because even though I live in the United States, my heart is always in Israel,” he said. “I dropped everything to be here now with JFNA and Jason Shames to deeply and proudly express our Northern New Jersey community’s unwavering support for Israel and see first-hand what transpired and how we can be of help in this time of need.”
The delegation received special permission from the Israeli government, which has not yet reopened the country for tourism. Participants were required to follow strict COVID protocols, including proof of vaccination and COVID negative tests, and underwent serological tests upon arrival.
The itinerary for the trip included meetings with high-level government officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Participants visited an Iron Dome site near Ashkelon and called on a resident whose home was hit by a missile. They visited an Ethiopian immigrant absorption center, met with representatives of the IDF, and toured a mixed Jewish-Arab neighborhood where they spoke with both Jewish and Arab peace activists.
“Following those difficult two weeks,” Wilf said, “I am proud to be leading a group of 22 leaders from the Federation system on this special solidarity mission in order to assess the situation on the ground and show our unwavering support for Israel and its people. We look forward to more visits to Israel this summer and beyond.”
In an interview with The Jewish Link, Jason Shames discussed what he felt were the most impactful experiences of the mission. “We visited trauma centers and met with a family in Ashkelon who described what happened when their home was hit by a missile. The woman had 30 seconds to get into their shelter. Her son and their dog didn’t make it. While in the shelter, she knew she was safe but could hear the explosion and felt the (shuddering) impact—all the while not knowing where her son was. Fortunately he hid in a utility closet and was unharmed. But she trembled as she spoke, reliving those anxious and horrifying moments.” Half of the home was destroyed, and the trauma lingers, said Shames.
“We felt more than ever as a family of one.”
Shames emphasized that in order to help Israel and concurrently fight the growing battle against rising antisemitism, “People need to be open to going beyond what we’ve done in the past…and we will.”
Mark Wilf summed up his impressions by saying, “Visiting Israel just a few days after the ceasefire was announced was an unforgettable experience that highlighted for our group how the Israeli people are able to meet every attack and every threat with resolve, strength, resilience and hope. We need to look to the Israelis for inspiration as we cope with the surge of anti-Semitic violence that has erupted in our own country, and that we shall not allow to cow or intimidate us. We can all show our support by visiting Israel at the earliest possible opportunity and demonstrating that we are truly one, united Jewish people.”
Shames added to the conversation that he appreciates the outspoken but clear understanding of Ritchie Torres about the hypocrisy and double standards toward Israel.
According to Shames, “We are outnumbered on social media. And it is social media that prompts mainstream media. We need to create a clear understanding of who and what we really are.”
By Ellie Wolf