Two nights on a plane and one day in the Jewish state gave Jeffrey Finkelstein perspective on Israel’s month-long war.
“The theme of trauma was constant throughout my time in Israel,” said Finkelstein, the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s president and CEO.
Whether meeting with individuals whose loved ones are held hostage in Gaza or speaking with a dispatcher from Magen David Adom who “answered calls from Israeli citizens as Hamas invaded, raped and murdered innocent people,” Finkelstein said he repeatedly heard haunting and horrifying tales regarding Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack.
The quick visit, Finkelstein said during a Nov. 6 debriefing, gave Israelis an opportunity to share vital messages with the Diaspora.
One critical point, he said, was raised by Osnat, a woman whose “Aunt Ruti and Uncle Avraham, their daughter Karen and grandson Ohad were taken hostage from Kibbut Nir Oz. The grandson turned 9 as a hostage.”
Osnat made it clear that “we need to put pressure on the International Red Cross and the international community,” Finkelstein said. “She asked, ‘Why is it that the International Red Cross demands to visit terrorists in Israeli prisons, which Israel allows, and the same is not happening for these hostages held in the Gaza Strip?’ She wants us to remember the difference between right and wrong.”
There’s a message for Pittsburghers, Finkelstein said: “Don’t forget their families. Don’t forget the hostages. Keep their names, faces, stories and humanity front and center. Talk to everyone — influential public officials, media — about the hostages.”
Finkelstein credited Federation’s support of the “Shabbat for Hostages” installation at Schenley Plaza as a way of raising awareness locally.
Erected on Nov. 3 and dismantled one day later, the temporary structure displayed nearly 240 empty seats at a Shabbat table. Personalizing the vacancies were photographs and biographical details of the young men and women, children, seniors, Israelis and foreigners who remain hostages of Hamas. Included among the unoccupied spaces were highchairs and teddy bears for the toddlers.
Walking through the installation, Finkelstein said, was “a very, very powerful experience.”
Also impactful, he said, will be an upcoming rally in Washington D.C.
Organized by the Jewish Federations of North America and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the Nov. 14 demonstration is a chance to “show people that we stand with Israel and we stand against antisemitism, which is spiking like we’ve never seen before,” Finkelstein said. “I really encourage everyone to take the day off from work, take your kids out of school. Let’s go down together, as one community, in solidarity, with our allies and speak up for Israel, Israelis and Jews worldwide.”
As a lead-up to the historic gathering, Pittsburghers have demonstrated their commitment to Israel and the Jewish people through financial contributions, he explained.
Adam Hertzman, Federation’s vice president of marketing, said that the $6.68 million raised (as of Nov. 8) by Federation’s Israel Relief Fund is impacting immediate needs on the ground.
“We allocated part of the Israel Relief Fund to refurbish a bomb shelter in our Partnership2Gether region. It did not have a working toilet or sink,” Hertzman said.
Other significant infrastructural concerns were made apparent during a visit to Ofakim — a southern city heavily attacked on Oct. 7 — Finkelstein said.
With only 75% of the homes having safe rooms — and many of those rooms without locks — nearly a quarter of Ofakim’s residents must take refuge in public bomb shelters. On the morning of Oct. 7, however, the public shelters were locked, Finkelstein said.
“Fourteen terrorists entered Ofakim and went house to house to slaughter people, or they killed people when they ran outside of the shelters,” he continued.
Terrorists murdered at least 50 people in Ofakim, according to the Associated Press.
Finkelstein recounted entering the house of Rachel, a 65-year-old resident of Ofakim who, along with her husband, was held captive at home by Hamas terrorists.
“To distract them, Rachel took care of the terrorists and fed all of them. She baked Maamoul cookies,” Finkelstein said. “After [Rachel and David] were in the house with these terrorists for 14 hours, a special unit of the police entered the home, killed four terrorists and found the fifth hiding in a closet. Rachel and her husband were saved.”
Walking through Rachel’s residence brought back horrifying memories for Finkelstein.
“There are bullet holes throughout the home,” he said. “And while I know the bullet holes were there because Israeli police took down terrorists, personally, having walked through the Tree of Life building on several occasions, it was very personally jarring to me to see that again.”
Finkelstein’s returned from Israel with several lessons for Pittsburghers, Hertzman said.
“It’s hard sitting in the U.S. to understand the magnitude of the impact that this has had on the ground in Israel,” he said. “If there was one big emotional takeaway it was that personally, it has rededicated me to doing everything we can to help. I’m in the fortunate position of being able to take action. I think people sometimes feel helpless in a situation like this but there are so many things people can do, including giving.”
“Federation allocates money, and that money goes through JFNA to JAFI (The Jewish Agency for Israel) or JDC,” he continued. “Something that I don’t think people understand about a crisis is there are very strict rules about sending money to foreign nonprofits. The importance of our relationship with JFNA and their ongoing relationship with international nonprofits is it enables us to send aid immediately.”
Giving to Federation also supports local causes, Hertzman said.
“The needs in Pittsburgh are going to be great as well,” he said, “in part because of the ongoing needs, in part because the war in Israel has the potential to retraumatize a community already having gone through the trial of the Oct. 27 killer this summer, and the enormous rise in antisemitism.”
In the two weeks following Hamas’ attack on Israel, antisemitic incidents in the U.S. rose by almost 400%, according to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).
The spike, Finkelstein said, is something “I’ve never seen before in my lifetime.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.