Pittsburghers return home inspired by missions in Israel
Israel at warLending support and standing in solidarity

Pittsburghers return home inspired by missions in Israel

“Our presence was comforting for people. We heard that over and over again.” — Rabbi Amy Bardack

Anna Yolkut, Etti Martel, Laurie Klitsner, Yisrael Klitsner, Michael Milch and Rabbi Yitzi Genack gather during a recent mission to Israel. (Photo courtesy of Rabbi Yitzi Genack)
Anna Yolkut, Etti Martel, Laurie Klitsner, Yisrael Klitsner, Michael Milch and Rabbi Yitzi Genack gather during a recent mission to Israel. (Photo courtesy of Rabbi Yitzi Genack)

The desire to stand with Israel led several Pittsburghers 6,000 miles east and into spaces ramshackled by Hamas’ attacks three months earlier. While joining missions organized by World Mizrachi and the Jewish Federations of North America, members of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community visited kibbutzim in the Gaza envelope, spoke with survivors of the Israel-Hamas war and attempted to bolster the Israeli economy.

Squirrel Hill resident Oren Levy traveled to the Jewish state weeks ago alongside members of Congregations Poale Zedeck and Shaare Torah.

Each interaction with an Israeli resulted in “amazement and surprise,” Levy said. “The families of those affected, the soldiers, the people we met, couldn’t believe that we came from America just to show support. It made them feel very cared for.”

Levy said that spending time with injured soldiers was deeply impactful, and that even after returning home he continues to send the soldiers words of encouragement.

Jan Levinson, left and Brian Eglash, right, join Amir, a farmer in Moshav Zekharia, while picking cherry tomatoes. (Photo courtesy of Brian Eglash)
Brian Eglash, senior vice president and chief development officer of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, traveled to Israel in December alongside Federation board chair Jan Levinson as part of a national Federation solidarity mission.

Eglash called the trip “absolutely unbelievable” and essential to “bearing witness to what’s going on.”

He met with survivors of the Oct. 7 attacks during hospital visits, and traveled to the kibbutzim that were terrorized.

“The carnage was horrific: 1,200 murdered, more than 240 kidnapped, almost 7,000 injured. The trauma is so deep,” he said.

Eglash formerly served in the Israel Defense Forces.

Witnessing the remnants of blown-out buildings and residences in the southern kibbutzim was challenging given his former combat duties, he said: “We fired RPGs against tanks, not against homes or humans.”

Levinson said conversations with friends revealed a sense of bewilderment.

During a visit to Pittsburgh’s “sister city” of Karmiel and Misgav, Levinson met with a longtime acquaintance who told him that he moved to northern Israel “because he wanted to be a pioneer, that he believed in shared society, had a lot of Arab friends and was trying to make a society that everybody could live in.”

Levinson said his friend reiterated that the events of Oct. 7 caused “his whole world to blow up.”

The people in Israel feel “very alone and very isolated,” Levinson added. “They need our support.”

The Federation has raised about $7.5 million dollars through its Israel Relief Fund, Eglash said.

While the money helps “those in need” through Federation’s international partners, Eglash and Levinson found another way to lend assistance during their stay in the Jewish state: They volunteered for a tomato farmer.

“There’s no one to pick tomatoes and he needed our help,” Levinson said.

Since Oct. 7, Israel has experienced economic and agricultural challenges. Nearly 30% of Israel’s agricultural areas are in regions primarily affected by battle. Resulting food loss stems from a reduction of approximately 30,000 foreign and Palestinian workers (almost 40% of Israel’s agricultural-related workforce), according to a report from Leket Israel.

“Israel’s economy is having a really hard time,” Squirrel Hill resident Michael Milch said. “I feel like giving tzedakah (charity) and spending money there is literally my calling right now.”

Milch has traveled to Israel three times since Oct. 7.

“My biggest takeaway is that people need to go if they can,” he said.

During a recent trip organized by World Mizrachi, Milch and congregants of Poale Zedeck and Shaare Torah met Mia Schem, one of more than 240 hostages taken by Hamas on Oct. 7. Schem was among the 105 captives released during a temporary ceasefire in November.

“Sitting with Mia Schem and having a conversation with her, and other people there, is something you cannot have in America,” Milch said.

Etti Martel, left, hugs released hostage Mia Schem. (Photo courtesy of Etti Martel)
Israeli-American and Squirrel Hill resident Etti Martel also met Schem during the recent mission.
“I was shaking looking at her,” Martel said. “She noticed I was shaking and told me not to cry. I was there to comfort her, but she was comforting me.”

The mission was essential, Martel said, as is returning to Israel.

On Oct. 7, Martel, her husband and their children were celebrating Simchat Torah with family in Jerusalem.

When the war began, “me and my older kids were in fear. Nobody was leaving their house,” she said. “The next three days in Israel were miserable for me and my kids. Everything was closed, even the shuk. My kids were scared. They said they didn’t want to go back to Israel.”

Days after the Israel-Hamas war started, the Martels traveled back to Squirrel Hill.

“I had a lot of guilt,” Martel said. “There was a lot of crying. It was very emotional.”
When Shaare Torah’s Rabbi Yitzi Genack approached Martel months later about returning to the Jewish state on a mission, she immediately agreed.

“As an Israeli living so far away from my family, and the guilt of that, I was able to get some strength,” she said. “We are so worried here, but they are so strong there. They have been through hell and yet they are still comforting us.”

Reid Simmons and his daughter, Rachel, traveled to Israel nearly three months after Hamas’ terrorist attack, spending Dec. 25 to Jan. 3 in the country. The pair visited Simmons’ family while volunteering.

Reid Simmons and his daughter, Rachel Simmons, spent time in Israel recently, volunteering and visiting family (Photo courtesy of Reid Simmons)
“We did a number of meal packing activities there, mostly for soldiers for Shabbat meals,” he said.
They also worked on farms near Netanya, picking strawberries and pruning plants, as well as sorting and packing scallions.

Simmons said the Israelis he spoke with were stressed and concerned, but that after three months, life has begun to return to normal.

“There were people with children in the military who were very concerned,” he said, “but we would see people go to restaurants, shopping. It was a fairly normal atmosphere with an undercurrent of concern, but people are trying to get on with their lives.”

Most Israelis, Simmons said, were hyper-aware of the Israel-bashing going on around the globe.
“They realize they have to do things on their own,” he said. “They’re not going to be able to expect the support and sympathy of the rest of the world.”

Rabbi Amy Bardack visited Israel in December as part of a Rabbinical Assembly mission. The organization represents approximately 1,600 Conservative rabbis around the world. The trip included 24 rabbis.

“The goals were to support our colleagues, Conservative rabbis in Israel, who are managing their own pastoral care with their own people, to get an understanding of the situation on the ground and all the people who’ve been affected by Oct. 7 and to ‘bear witness’ —meaning listening and learning,” Bardack said.

She was based in Jerusalem but spent time exploring other parts of the country.

“We toured one of the kibbutzim on the Gaza envelope, Kfar Aza,” she said. “We spent time in Be’er Sheva, which is also in the south.”

Among several other stops, mission participants also visited a home for neglected and abused children; spent time at a volunteer site helping soldiers on temporary leave and went to a Conservative synagogue, meeting with a rabbi and congregants.

Bardack said she is still processing what she learned, which is why she thinks the mission provided an important service: listening to their colleagues.

“They were in the stage of acute traumatic response,” she said. “They were still reeling with ‘How could this have happened’ and still dealing with what tomorrow would bring. It was very raw, even more than two months after the attack.”

She likened the experience to a shiva call.

“Just being there with empathy and stepping into somebody’s pain, that was really it,” Bardack said. “Our presence was comforting for people. We heard that over and over again.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org. David Rullo can be reached at drullo@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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