Israel continues to recover from national trauma and remains resilient

I was in a park near Yesud Hamala in Northern Israel, painting a mobile bomb shelter just a week ago, on the Coast-to-Coast Mission. Volunteer art students from Tel Hai College guided our group, with elementary students joining us for the activity. Hila, a precocious 10-year-old, wanted to engage with us and practice her limited English. She came up with an interview game, and was quick to ask the tough questions of Erin Wright, the Partnerhip2Gether (P2G) chair. “Do you believe in G-d? What did you think on October 7?” 

She then told us about her birthday on October 6, about her aunt who lives on a kibbutz in the south and there were terrorists. She expressed how she was terrified and always afraid. Her resilience was more than apparent as she quickly bounced back with her merry band of followers to hop on her bike and take pictures with us before we departed. In the middle of this, our partnership director, Meytal, received an automated call from the mayor of Metullah (where she lives), who informed the residents that two homes had just been hit by rockets. One belonged to a kibbutz border patrol unit member who we were meeting up with later for dinner at the Clore Centre. This was a microcosm of the north, the untold story in Israel.  

Visiting Israel in November felt raw and fragile, cradling the heartbeat of the country in our hands. Having just returned from this Coast-to-Coast Solidarity Mission, bearing witness through stories and engagements with Israelis across the country and society, it is as if I donned glasses of clarity. Survivors and hostage families are sharing accounts that are heartbreaking. However, the unity in the nation and determination to finish this war is unwavering. 

Steve Shafir, (our community relations committee co-chair), Shane Asbell (president of Beth Israel Synagogue) and Erin Wright (P2G chair) joined me on this trip. We were the last group to be taken with full access to the grounds by a resident of Kfar Azza. Nazzi who told us her story of bravery in the face of terrorists who entered her home. While she protected her children, she reassured them that their mother is strong and will keep them safe. Now a widow, she is committed to returning to her home again. Unscheduled, we met mothers of female hostages in front of their former homes, and a 21-year-old whose fiancé died while saving her. She is resolute to celebrate life, ensuring that his loss was not in vain.  

Our visit in the south included a stop at Beit Canada in Sderot, on the day that schools have reopened. We spoke with Mayor Alon Davidi and his top team about the consequences and considerations of serving the community the last four months and the trauma and security of returning.  

We also visited the Supernova Festival site in Re’im, a beautiful, serene field in the agricultural belt. A makeshift memorial has begun, row upon row of signs with pictures of loved ones massacred and taken hostage that day. The night prior, we heard from the sister of Ben Mizrachi z”l from Vancouver, who was murdered at the festival site. She informed our group about his heroism as a combat medic who remained and tried to save people. We are all too familiar with the denial of these tragic events. So I hope you will join us on March 7 for the screening of the SuperNova documentary. This film is an eyewitness account from three survivors of what took place and how they escaped. We are going to have a fireside chat with Yaron Deckel, the Canadian representative from the Jewish Agency for Israel as we contemplate how this has affected the experience of antisemitism in Canada.  

Exploring Hostage Square, we met with families who told us about their loved ones, who they were prior to October 7, what transpired that day, and what has happened since. We found out how our allocation from the Israel Emergency Fund is being used to provide a full range of services to help the families while also supporting the advocacy efforts worldwide on their behalf. Today is the 60th anniversary for Shlomo Mansour, the oldest remaining hostage, and his wife, who have not spent one anniversary apart.  

We utilized the next two days to visit partners throughout the north, thousands uprooted from their homes and lives into makeshift communities. They live with uncertainty, not knowing when they might return. We have since learned that July 7 is the target date for them to go back home. With no guarantee of security and war with Hezbollah on the horizon, people are reluctant to return. So much so that 40 percent have indicated they are likely not to come back. Kiryat Shmona alone has evacuated to over 226 hotels scattered around the country. We could visit one hotel in Tiberias, where the hotel CEO joked now he is a community leader, with makeshift classrooms and kindergarten now taking up the conference rooms. There is a hotel council bringing residents from Metullah and Kiryat Shmona together to figure out simple concerns like laundry to more complicated ones such as how to get through high school. The effects will be long lasting.  

We had deep discussions with mayors, the Israel Defence Force, and civil society leaders about the issues facing the north, and how this will impact the future of the region in the mid to longer term. We visited Tel Hai College, a beneficiary of our annual coast to coast partnership. It’s now becoming a university and seen as an economic and development engine to the northern part of the country. They have developed a model for first responders in times of crisis, used by their social work department head, Tamar. She employed this method when she volunteered with United Hatzallah to sit on the phone for 12 hours with the two of the Idan children. They were hiding in a closet, having just witnessed their parents murdered and their younger sister taken hostage. Her calm and ability to use this tool saved their lives.  

Following the mission, I attended the Jewish Agency for Israel board of governors meeting. This gave me a deeper appreciation for how our core dollars are being leveraged to serve the needs of the Jewish people in this time of crisis. I also spent a day at Yad Vashem, discussing further supports and considerations for our Holocaust education program and potential resource centre at the future Jewish Community Centre.  

My biggest takeaways from this trip are that the country did not ask for this war, but as it recovers from national trauma, it is determined to see it through. The women I encountered, survivors and leaders alike, face monumental tasks and show tremendous courage. I look forward to sharing more of their stories. While I randomly met many people who have Edmonton family and connections, that we truly are one people, “Yisrael Arevim Zeh L’zeh”, and we must continue to support and fight for one another. 

A special shout out to the Aviv dancers on their Chai celebration for Festival Hatzafon this weekend. I hope to see you at this event of Israeli dance and culture. There will be lobby activities (including a Jewish Federation sponsored photo booth) and guest performing groups from other local and national communities. Let’s give them a warm welcome from Jewish Edmonton. Register now before tickets are gone.