June 13, 2024
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June 13, 2024
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In the Company of Heroes: Three Days in Wartime Israel

Editor’s note: Andy Goldsmith is the executive vice president of AMIT Children. This is a diary of his recent trip to Israel.

Sunday Evening

The El Al pilot’s welcome speech on the tarmac at JFK was far from standard. Beyond the simple flight information, he relayed with uncommon eloquence the unity that the moment demands and El Al’s commitment to its mission of keeping the skies open. This was followed by the chief steward’s welcome and then prayer for the IDF. The flight itself was uneventful until 20 minutes out when the standard “put your seat up” announcement incorporated an explanation of the “adjusted” landing approach and the action the plane (and we) would take in case of an alarm. Indeed.

 

Monday

Ben Gurion airport is very quiet with very limited flights and even fewer planes on the ground. After being stopped in customs (for carrying six duffel bags of slippers), my explanation of its destination for Sderot’s evacuees now living at Dead Sea hotels was accepted with the creation of some “on-the-spot” documentation from AMIT. God bless email.

All throughout Israel, in advertisements, television shows and on buildings are signs, logos and banners declaring “Achdut” (unity). It is the opposite of six weeks ago—almost as if they turned every banner around and wrote on the other side.

I traveled to AMIT’s headquarters in Ra’anana to meet with our director general, Amnon Eldar, and staff. It quickly became apparent that following the first week of the war (when all resources were directed to emergency physical needs) the staff’s focus now is both on addressing our emergency response efforts and our ongoing projects. In other words, all we were doing before, and a comprehensive response to the war’s impact on our students.

A percentage of the headquarters staff (perhaps 20%) has been called up for IDF service. As a result, there are many “wartime promotions”—staff fill the gaps and effectively work multiple jobs. Virtually all our staff (and this is true throughout Israel) have family members (sons, brothers, son-in-laws, grandchildren) in combat situations. As such the personal stress level is very high as they have little or no contact with their loved ones for extended periods. Some view the work as relief while others have required special accommodations to deal with the challenge. In creative AMIT fashion, each staff member is part of a small group with a mentor who looks after each of them.

I heard a series of comprehensive series of reports, and this is what I gleaned:

On the Saturday night of the war, the AMIT network senior staff immediately jumped into action. It quickly became clear that this was a national crisis of unprecedented proportions and a confidence crisis beyond imagination. Our AMIT war room was activated, and a silver lining of the COVID experience was that key communication with all stakeholders was immediate and bug-free. The AMIT culture of flexibility, empowering principals and quick bureaucratic-free decisiveness allowed critical decisions to be made without delay. As a result, The “Tatzam” Personal-Professional Growth Plans’ model immediately assigned one teacher/mentor to 15 students with a trackable, documented system of accountability. Each student receives a serious touch point every day, no matter where they are, to meet their needs. Students in southern schools (generally more impacted) have a Tatzam ratio of 1:5 to give each student more attention. It became clear that Sderot (where we have educational responsibility for 4400 students) was impacted beyond anyone’s imagination and a special crisis committee was formed to address their needs. Every mentor has a card that includes the student’s name, contact information, picture, location and whether/who an immediate relative is serving in the IDF and if there is a special situation.

The country was divided by the Ministry of Education into three educational zones—those in the first zone were to be evacuated; those in the next zone were at home but schools were not permitted to open; those in the last zone were able to open with many limitations on attendance due to required shelters in case of an alarm. The rules for each zone and the zones themselves are always changing.

Our partner network became a critical component. The national government is effectively paralyzed—all efforts are geared toward fighting the war to the virtual exclusion of all else. This is complicated more by the fact that many of the government’s qualified professionals have left service over the last few years and this current government is considered finished as soon as the war ends.

But our long-term professional relationships on the local and regional level became critically important. A complicated mapping process began for both staff and students. Many staff were called up (including principals and teachers), and many students (especially those in the south) were relocated either due to physical danger or simply the desire of the families to be together. AMIT TV was activated providing two hours a day of vital programming geared towards providing a source of emotional support. It was successful, so much so that other educational networks and the Ministry of Education have requested access to programming, which we of course shared.

In addition, many major nonprofits have stepped into the gap with myriad relief efforts. There is much duplication among the minor players, but things are getting sorted out to the benefit of the people of Israel. The great shame is that many well-meaning people have sent things that either haven’t been allowed into the country or have no use because of IDF guidelines.

The student/staff mapping revealed that our students were evacuated to five places—to hotels in Eilat, the Dead Sea area, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and with the remainder with family/friends across Israel.

Each location presents its own logistic and staffing challenges, and Rabbi Dani Rahat (AMIT deputy director for strategic relationships) was put in charge of overseeing the efforts of serving our students in these various locales. Working with his team, we quickly retained staff for each of the locations—including the recruitment of 75 national service girls by Amnon—to set up programming and schools at each location. It is clear early on that our students want and need the connection to their peers and our schools, even if they are not ready for academic instruction. They want and need to be in a structured environment and crave the “normalcy” that has been stolen from them. Across the Reshet we are committed to this goal as much as possible. The best thing for our students (except for the most severely traumatized) was activity and a sense of purpose.

Challenges abounded. For example, in Tel Aviv, students are spread out in many different hotels and, because of constant alarms and trauma, are unwilling to leave their families for any length of time or be at all distant from them. In response, our staff formed small groups of 15 in mini “hotel clusters.” In the Dead Sea area, we have Sderot students from two schools—a secular and religious school with many other non-AMIT students mixed in. We’re creating a school on the ground but are challenged by the need for physical space and staff. In Jerusalem families are based at multiple hotels not necessarily near each other, and students are unwilling (in fact afraid) to travel. Escorts are required to help them.

There are hundreds of small challenges and many other larger ones to be overcome but overall, our staff are highly responsive and are meeting the myriad challenges head-on and with great tenacity and sensitivity.

In terms of our student body—it is a very difficult situation. While every student in Israel has had and will continue to have some level of trauma, those from Sderot suffered horribly. Many would not leave their families, hotel rooms and, in extreme cases, their beds. For those in the worst situation we have already recruited and retained psychologists. I won’t offer you horror stories—there are many—but we are addressing the students’ mental health needs.

At each location we now have principals on site (some “recruited” from retirement), teachers (although we need more) and many staff from the national service and other sources. Programming began with recreational activities in small groups and will grow exponentially as staffing and logistics allow.

At the end of the day, I traveled to the Inbal Hotel in Jerusalem. (AMIT has a relationship with the hotel in which we offer them advertising in our magazine in exchange for heavily discounted rates). To their credit, they are open and serve evacuees with the same level of service/quality of meals as a typical guest. It’s an ugly thing, but many other luxury hotels made the choice to close to avoid being used to house evacuees—worth remembering after the war is over. I shared dinner with a group of Sderot evacuees. Most are in different stages of shock, but they are physically safe.

 

Tuesday

I was joined this day by a small group of AMIT lay leaders including Yoshevet Rosh Tamar Benovitz, Randi Gelman and former presidents Sondra Sokal and Debbie Moed. It was a wonderful show of support.

We first traveled to AMIT Noga in Beit Shemesh. We met with the remarkable principal Miriam Koren and, joined by the teaching staff, learned firsthand what it means to operate a school in wartime.
The challenges include:

Two teachers serving in the IDF.

15 teachers whose spouses are serving in the IDF.

10 teachers whose children are serving in the IDF.

A family whose brother was taken hostage.

One to two rounds of alarms.

Safe spaces for 280 students with a student body of 500 and 80 staff.

The school divided into two sessions so everyone could attend at least part-time, and attendance is 100%. What became clear from the decision was that those staff who were doing well had a good support system. Even the littlest gestures (like a cake before Shabbat) went a long way to helping the mental well-being of staff and students. Miriam remarked that the Reshet had sent her pizza with a supportive note—she recognized the impact on her and then did something similar for all her staff.

These challenges are typical for all schools being permitted to open in what is and will remain an extremely fluid situation.

We then traveled to Jerusalem to meet with Nurit Davidi. Nurit is both the principal of our AMIT Dina and Moses Dykman Ulpanat in Be’er Sheva and the wife of Sderot Mayor Alon Davidi. She is currently living with her family at the Vert Hotel in Jerusalem, and we met in her room. Nurit, one of the strongest people I have met, described the outbreak of the war and the first few days with descriptions and detail. She explained how a barrage of rockets began at 6:30 a.m., which was a diversion for the invasion of terrorists into her city. The battle lasted for days, with many families including hers spending the entire time in their safe rooms. She also described how she gave knives to her family members for self-defense if their apartment was penetrated. Tragically these stories are now common—but hearing from Nurit and seeing her expression was chilling.

Nurit then explained that the first call she received was from AMIT. In her words, “in hours and not days,” our staff was on the ground offering every type of assistance possible. Now based at the hotel, she explained that the needs are very complicated as the students are spread around Jerusalem, but other schools in Jerusalem have invited our students in for the time being. She also expressed how as a mother, teacher, principal and wife, she felt AMIT being there for all those roles.

After many hugs and not a few tears, our group then traveled to the Dead Sea hotel region to meet with the educational staff, national service girls and students. To give some perspective, the opening of any AMIT school is usually a year-long process. Our staff is doing it now within a week’s time for a student population that is deeply traumatized, physically unsettled and effectively homeless. It is a monumental task. Despite that, though, we were greatly encouraged by what we witnessed. Despite huge personal challenges, teaching staff from around the country have taken leadership roles and, in a short time, already have meaningful programming in place. We’re adding more staff resources daily, although the distant location is a problem, so we are developing incentives.

We then met with the students for what made a searing impact on all of us.

The reflections below on the visit with the students was written by former AMIT president Sondra Sokal:

I have been an AMIT member for over 50 years and have been very active on the national and international level for perhaps 50 years, but today may well have been one of the most difficult and searingly emotional ones I have ever experienced with AMIT. Today I met the children of Sderot—not on their home territory, but in a hotel at the Dead Sea: a hotel they and their parents have been evacuated to, a hotel whose vacation-like ambiance could not hide the trauma they had and are continuing to experience.

These children had volunteered to tell us their stories. The very telling, I have come to understand, can be cathartic and therapeutic. One child decided that, when the moment came, she simply could not share her story. Another, a young seventh-grade boy, had never told his story. As children that age often do, he tried to be funny; we saw it for what it was: a raw, defensive mechanism. He told of his extended family—perhaps 40 in all—sheltering in a 10-foot by 10-foot mamad (shelter). He told of the nearby direct hit; of his brother’s determination to build a weapon with two bottles of beer and a container of gasoline; of the metal baseball bat that was their only defense; of the noise of gun fire in the street; of the progressive breakdown of his family; of the fighting between his parents; and finally of the decision to leave Sderot. All this from a 12-year-old! When I asked him privately, as we were leaving, “How is mom now?” He answered, “Not so good.”

Following the meeting and a lot more hugs and tears, we then handed over a few hundred pairs of slippers to the evacuees that were brought from the U.S. Many left Sderot and the surrounding attacked areas with literally the clothing on their backs and have been wearing the same shoes for three weeks. The small gesture made us all feel just a bit better, especially when one beautiful little girl’s face lit up because she got a pair of slippers with hearts on them. She ran back to her hotel room to her mother, clutching them to her chest.

 

Wednesday

I traveled to Or Akiva, a secular vocational school in a city near Caesarea. It is normally an extraordinary place, and now magnified 10 times. The student population of about 150 is considered at high risk during usual times and the school, knowing that free time is a great danger, was one of the first to reopen in Israel. Attendance on the first day back was 100%—students are longing to connect with each other and their teachers. While many aren’t yet up to tackling academics, there is much focus on the social and emotional aspects of the war.

After meeting with the staff, we then had the privilege to meet the father of Matan Abergil. Matan, an alumnus of the school, was killed in action as he heroically threw himself on a hand grenade to save the lives of six of his friends. Matan’s father told us that Matan lived for seven minutes after being mortally wounded. During that time, and knowing full well that he would not survive, Matan spoke of his commitment to the State of Israel and his friends. He then left this world.

Matan’s father spoke with tears, with pride in his son and with great faith. It was a moment unlike any I have ever experienced but typified what is tangible in Israel right now—everyone agrees on the need to eradicate this evil. There is no disagreement whatsoever from any corner. But there is also the realization that it will come at great cost—a cost all will bear for the survival of our people and nation.

One of the staff in the room was the local representative from the regional council whom I had met on a prior occasion. She’s tough and hasn’t always seen eye to eye with our plans for the school. When we said goodbye, she called me aside for a moment. “We always thought this generation had no values,” she said. “We thought they were interested in their phones and Facebook, and had no sense of history or respect for the state. We were all so wrong.”

Matan was a weak student from a last-chance secular school. He didn’t have a life of privilege and yet chose in a millisecond’s time to willingly sacrifice his life for an ideal. I don’t think I’ve ever fully appreciated the potential of every child until now.

Joined by AMIT senior staff we then traveled to Sderot to meet with Mayor Alon Davidi. As you travel south, traffic just disappears, and as you enter the city it is, for all purposes, deserted, apart from patrolling police and army units. The city, now evacuated, has suffered terribly with over 100 homes destroyed and Iron Dome considered ineffective in defending the Sderot area for reasons we were asked not to relate.

We met in the community center, which is a protected space that also houses the emergency municipal offices and the command center. All were fully staffed with representatives from the army, police and many other different agencies. AMIT knows Mayor Davidi well—we have a strong relationship with him and there is great mutual respect. AMIT Director General Amnon Eldar gave the mayor an update on our efforts regarding the students from the area, which was met with much appreciation.

He then related to us an update on the situation. Given the scope of the destruction, he is concerned whether many residents will return at all. Their security has been shattered, many homes destroyed and many more damaged. His residents are scattered all over the country—to his credit he visits them all from Eilat to the north—and the city faces serious challenges on every level.

Our message to him was simple and straightforward—AMIT was here before the war; we are here today, and we will be here tomorrow. His response was straightforward and to the point:

“There are many organizations that came to Sderot before the war with all sorts of promises that never materialized. There are many who want to come now. AMIT is the one I wanted to come because I know that you are doing your job for our children every day no matter where they are. You were the first here right after the war started and I know you will be here with us tomorrow.”

I have served at AMIT for a decade, but I have never had greater pride in being part of AMIT than that moment. We do what we say, with great professionalism and dedication, without bombast or acclaim. All our work to date and the herculean task facing us in the months to come is only made possible because of your leadership and financial support. Since the start of the war, we have transferred $1 million so we can act fast, first, with decisiveness and flexibility.

May Hashem help us all in the challenges ahead.


Andy Goldsmith is the executive vice president at AMIT Children and can be reached at [email protected]

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