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Home > Email Forwards >J. Tcath Israel Report

Subject: J. Tcath Israel Report
Author: Jay Tcath
Date Sent to Zipple: December 09, 2000 8:31 AM

* Motzei Shabbat December 2, 52 Chicagoans departed on El Al in the largest North American Jewish community solidarity mission to Israel since the outbreak of sustained violence in late September. Mission participants included JF/JUF President Steven Nasatir, members of the JF/JUF Board of Directors, and 9 rabbis, including the Presidents of both the Chicago Rabbinical Council (Leonard Matanky) and the Chicago Board of Rabbis (Michael Siegel, who also served as Mission Chairman).

* Participants were Israel-trip veterans and first-timers, residents of the North Shore, City, and South Suburbs, members of Reform, Conservative and Orthodox synagogues as well as some who are unaffiliated, both supporters and skeptics of the Middle East peace process, and young singles and grandparents. Despite, or perhaps because of this diversity, the group enthusiastically embraced the Mission's overriding theme: Jewish unity and solidarity with Israel during these difficult days.

* Usually this Saturday flight is direct from Chicago to Tel Aviv. Given the precipitous drop in tourism to Israel, it now stops in Newark to fill the plane. With the rare exception of one or two ministers and one clearly identifiable Haare Krishna, the vast majority of passengers seemed to be American Jews or returning Israelis.

* Upon arrival in Jerusalem, Mission Chairman Rabbi Michael Siegel led our group in a recitation of the Shehecheyanu. Tired but inspired, we expressed our appreciation for the blessing of being among those few Jews in the last two millennia who have had the opportunity to visit and pray in our people's capital city as free and secure Jews.

*Later that first night, several of us were awakened by the exchange of heavy gunfire between Israeli and Palestinian forces around Rachel's Tomb in Bethlehem, just a few miles but a whole world away.

*The Mission got underway in earnest the next morning with a visit to Nebe Samuel, the highest hilltop in northern Jerusalem. We climbed atop the roof of a unique, historic structure -- one that houses both a synagogue and a mosque. There we enjoyed a bird's eye view of parts of Jerusalem, Ramallah and neighboring Jewish communities. Retired Colonel David Chacham, Special Advisor to the Prime Minister on Arab Affairs and a key participant in last summer's Camp David summit, provided a clarifying briefing. Pointing to this or that road, this or that hilltop, he explained the meanings and boundary lines of the maze that constitutes "Areas A, B and C." These three areas define territories in the West Bank that are either under full Palestinian (A), joint Israeli and Palestinian (B) or full Israeli (C) control. His was an illuminating explanation of how geography, topography and demographics complicate - but may also ultimately solve - some of the thornier issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

* Chacham was a central player in the tragic 1995 Hamas kidnapping of Israeli soldier Nachshon Waxman, who was murdered in a heroic but failed rescue attempt. That drama played out in a Palestinian village just down the slope from Nebe Samuel. Ironically, on our Mission's final day, we read in Ha'aretz of the Hamas mastermind of that and several other terrorist outrages who had "escaped" the day before from a Palestinian jail.

* Our first day's activities continued with visits to David's Citadel in the Old City and insider briefings by Police Commander Dubi Lutski (on the violent disturbances by Israeli Arabs) and by Rabbi Michael Melchior, Minister of Israeli Society and World Jewish Communities.

*That night, just how surreal Israeli life can be was on full display. The Jerusalem and Haifa soccer teams, bitter rivals vying for first place, battled in Teddy's Stadium, named for former Mayor Teddy Kolleck. As 20,000 fans cheered, the almost daily sniper firing from Beit Jalla into Gilo commenced. Israelis in Ramat Sharet watched the furious ebb and flow of the soccer game from their front window. From their back window they followed the even more furious ebb and flow of gunfire between Beit Jalla and Gilo. Thankfully, no Israelis in Gilo were hit that night. Still, just like the soccer match that ended in a 0-0 tie, no one would consider the evening's developments in Gilo a victory.

* The Mission's 2nd day highlighted the ever-deepening ties between Chicago Jewry and Israel. In an overview of the peace process and other regional issues, Ambassador-designate to the Czech Republic Arthur Avnon reminisced fondly on his 5 years in the 1990s as Israel's Consul General in Chicago. [Later in the week we also heard from Haim Koren, an expert on Israeli Arabs, who served with Avnon in Chicago.] We then proceeded to the Jewish Federation's Partnership 2000 region of Kiryat Gat, Lachish and Shafir. We explored how this 4 year-old project has expanded the personal and communal relationships between Chicago Jews and Israelis for the benefit of both. We saw first hand how this Partnership has assisted the provision of Jewish education to religious and "secular" alike and the delivery of needed social services to new immigrants. Finally, we treasured the chance to dialogue with a half dozen Kiryat Gat teenagers - learning about their hopes and fears and answering their questions about Jewish life in Chicago. Unfortunately, at the time of this lively discussion, we were unable to answer their most pressing question: who would be the next US President.

* The highlight of how we demonstrated our ties to Israel, and indeed for many the Mission's top highlight was a momentous press conference/rally in Ramat Gan. Initiated by JUF, it was an attempt to increase awareness of and activity on behalf of the 4 Israelis kidnapped by Hezbollah and held for over two months. During the General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities convened in Chicago back in November, the families of the hostages pleaded with us to do whatever possible to assist in the safe return of their husbands/sons/brothers. In response, the JUF launched the "Blue Ribbon" campaign. The ribbons have already caught-on in many US Jewish communities, and the press conference served as their "introduction" to Israel. Participating in the Ramat Gan event were Minister of Immigration and Absorption Dr. Yuli Tamir, Deputy Defense Minister Dr. Ephraim Sneh, former Minister of Finance Yaakov Ne'eman, Member of Knesset Amir Perez, the mayors of Bnei Brak and Ramat Gan, and JF/JUF President Steven B. Nasatir who explained the Blue Ribbon campaign's genesis and objectives. The rally also featured a performance by renowned Israeli singer Avi Toledano, emotional remarks by family members of each of the soldiers, and poems and songs performed by local youths. The more than 1,000 Israelis in attendance enthusiastically pinned-on the ribbons and pledged to implement the accompanying action steps. (Visit for those details.) The prevailing mood in the hall was both high-spirited and somber: a clear sense of enthusiastic urgency, empowering unity and unbreakable commitment mixed with outrage, frustration and emotional exhaustion. Chaim Avraham, the father of Benny, one of the kidnapped soldiers, was the one at GA in Chicago who asked us to help. After the program, he gave me a chest-crushing but loving bear hug, imploring me to "tell Chicago 'thank you,' thank you for responding to an abba's (father's) pleas, we are all brothers.....don't forget Benny and the other captives." I promised him I would share his 'thank you' with Chicago and that we would not forget about them or stop our efforts on their behalf. [The event received significant TV, radio and newspaper coverage, helping insure that the JUF's Blue Ribbon initiative will soon be a visible, tangible part of world Jewry's connection to Israel].

* From that emotional evening, the Mission continued with both high-level briefings and powerful visits to sites where our JUF gifts make a difference in the lives of ordinary and extraordinary Israelis. A sampling of the speakers include the IDF's Deputy Chief of Staff General Moshe Ya'alon, Likud leader Ariel Sharon, Israel B'Aliyah leader Natan Scharansky, Jewish Agency Chairman Sallai Meridor, and leading journalists and academics. Most memorable for me from these talks was a simple but significant fact cited by Meridor: on that day (Wednesday, December 6), 338 olim (immigrants) from the former Soviet Union were scheduled to arrive in Israel. That 338 Jews were leaving anti-Semitism, economic distress and an uncertain future for the promise and uncertainty of Israel is extraordinarily typical; extraordinary that for so long such movement was denied, typical in that over 60,000 other Jews will return home to Zion again this year. For many of us, the most memorable site visit was to the Ben Yehuda junior high school in Jerusalem's Katamon neighborhood. There, among other impressive projects aimed at overcoming educational and social challenges was one funded by the JUF-supported American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee ("Joint"). This program features weekly visits and joint classes between special needs and "normative" children. The mutual affection and learning from one another was immediately evident. The sheer joy of their interaction, much of which involves music, was contagious and heartwarming. The students' only complaint was that the program was but once a week and did not last all day. My only regret was that budget constraints endured by the Joint prevented the expansion of this school's program and its replication across the country. And the essence of these needs, while exacerbated by the current crisis, are ultimately impervious to who becomes Israel's next Prime Minister or other political questions of the moment. Just as we re-ignite our pro-Israel advocacy in Chicago and across America, we must simultaneously recommit to assisting Israel address its many pressing social service challenges.

* As done by all Solidarity Missions to Israel these days, we visited the southern-most street in Gilo, the one whose residents are regularly under sniper attack from Beit Jayla, the Arab village just across the nearby valley. The cement barricades that were quickly put up were just as quickly graffitied by the residents: the political posters reveal their anger, the slogans their humor, and the colorful murals of nature scenes their abiding artistry and hopefulness. And hopeful they are. One of those southern-facing Gilo apartments is undergoing substantial renovation. Imagine, in the midst of gunfire and precision missile attacks, someone is continuing to invest tens of thousands of dollars to improve their home. What's more, the construction workers are, of course, Palestinians.

* Later that same evening, prior to a pilgrimage to Ben Yehuda street to help infuse the economy with some much-needed retail sales, we visited the Western Wall plaza. Together, in a manner sensitive to all customs and indicative of the spirit of absolute unity which characterized the Mission, we recited Psalms, sang, and visited the Wall to pray for the most personal and the most universal. That spirit of respect and accommodation, leavened with the compelling climate of solidarity, allowed for shared morning minyans and other experiences that too rarely occur back home in Chicago. Of course, special thanks are due to the wonderful rabbinic leadership that made these and so many other aspects of our Mission so successful.

* A variety of additional group meetings and personal experiences filled our very busy 4-day itinerary. One of them was a small group dinner with the Chicago Tribune's Israel correspondent. We and he shared our perspectives on developments in Israel and how the Tribune is portraying them.

* Finally, during the last day's caucus everyone shared their thoughts about the Mission and expressed support for the work of JUF-funded agencies in Israel. Everyone also pledged to return to Chicago and regardless of where they live and other "differences," to tell the story of Jewish solidarity. Most simply but significant, the themes of that story are that they enjoyed themselves, never worried for their security, and would urge everyone to make plans soon for a trip to Israel.


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