Some 600 people stood in silence as a recording of a wailing siren filled the room at Adath Israel Congregation, creating a harrowing picture in sound. Andrew Frank, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Princeton Mercer Bucks, expanded the image in words, evoking the fears that come when Israelis have 15 seconds to take action that can mean the difference between life and possible death — “to get yourselves and loved ones into secure shelter, for aging parents to shuffle to whatever passes for safety or security,” he said.
At the July 22 community solidarity rally for Israel in Lawrenceville, supporters also heard of Rabbi Eric Wisnia’s experiences of sirens and shelters during a recent congregational trip to Israel and from Elad Strohmayer, Israeli deputy consul general, who explained Israel’s position on the conflict with Hamas.
The rally was sponsored by the federation, AJC-American Jewish Committee, and the Board of Rabbis of Princeton Mercer Bucks with the support of a host of local congregations and organizations.
Adath Israel’s Rabbi Benjamin Adler, who welcomed the crowd, led the prayer for Israel and said, “We stand for peace in the hope that this war will end soon so all peoples of the land can live in safety and security.”
His words were echoed by Frank, who said, “We look for the day when the rockets are silent and replaced by the symphony of a population going about its daily life, when the existence of the Jewish state is unquestionably accepted.”
When Wisnia, chair of the Board of Rabbis of PMB and religious leader of Congregation Beth Chaim in Princeton Junction, heard his first siren on Jaffa Street in Jerusalem, he said, he didn’t quite realize what it was until “suddenly the Israelis looked in horror at each other, and they all went to a shelter.”
Suggesting that because the missile attacks against Sderot near the Gaza border have been intermittent, with few casualties, they have been largely ignored, Wisnia expressed thanks that the relative casualties for Israelis in the current battle have been low. “The casualties are uneven in this fight, thank God — Is there a need for more dead Jews for the world to take notice?”
Wisnia called Hamas “an evil organization” that holds its own people hostage and puts its weapons close to civilians. “If civilians are killed, that is exactly what Hamas wants; they are martyrs in the war against Israel,” he said. “I’m sad — and everyone I have talked to is very unhappy — but we can no longer allow Hamas to shoot missiles at us with impunity.”
Noting that Israel has decided that Hamas “must be taken down, no matter what it costs,” Wisnia observed, “Too many have died for this senseless stupidity. When Hamas ends it, it will end; until it ends, all Israel will stand together.”
In his presentation, Strohmayer — who represents Israel in the Mid-Atlantic Region — drew in part on personal anecdotes to bring home the situation on the ground in Israel and Gaza. He spoke of his five-year-old nephew telling him about going to the “thinking room” (the shelter); of talking to his brother, a veteran of many wars, who was at the border, crying, noting the determination of the Hamas fighters to kill them; and of the funeral of a “lone soldier” from Texas whose unit used social networking to urge people to attend.
“Twenty thousand people came to show support for the sacrifice that young man from Texas made because he loved Israel like we all do,” Strohmayer said.
Laying out Israel’s position in the conflict, Strohmayer noted that no nation would sit still when 80 percent of its population was under fire, with terrorists trying to infiltrate its borders through tunnels and over the sea.
“Our goal is to stop attacks on Israeli citizens,” he said. “We want quiet and stability; we don’t want to stay in Gaza.” He said that some 40 Hamas-made tunnels had already been destroyed by Israeli ground troops.
Strohmayer made the case that Israel’s neighbors do not seek peace, but rather the opposite, using international aid to build tunnels for mounting terror attacks and buying weapons. “Hamas is trying to achieve more fatalities because they don’t have any respect for life. Every rocket fired from Hamas to Israel is a war crime.”
He told NJJN, “When we cherish life, they cherish death. Hamas is targeting the civilian population in Israel and fires rockets from within the civilian population of Gaza and uses them as human shields. This is a war crime.”
Based on information he has from people on the ground in Gaza, he said, “Hamas is preventing people from going out of their houses. Hamas threatens their lives and to ruin their houses and are doing blockades in neighbors, and they are scared.”
“Why should we not react?” Strohmayer asked. “We want to sanctify life; by launching this operation that is exactly what we are doing.”
Community speakers shared their connections to Israel and the Jewish community.
Father Patrick J. Mcdonnell, pastor of St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church in Hightstown, said, “Israel wants peace and not war; many people in Gaza want peace and not war. The demons who want to destroy peace must be exorcised.”
Ron Nelson, associate minister, Princeton Church of Christ, spoke of the special affinity he has for the Land of Israel and the Jewish people. “We do what Scripture says,” he explained. “We pray for the peace of Jerusalem, pray for Eretz Yisrael, pray for the special place on this earth that is so special to so many different people.”
NJ State Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-Dist. 14) commented on the tremendous ecumenical spirit at the rally. “We as Jews, being a minority, always do seek out others and always find great friends; we are in crisis in now and have great friends we can turn to,” she said.
Other community speakers included the Rev. Tom Simcox of the Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry; Molly Fisch-Friedman, a student at Princeton University and intern at American Jewish Committee; Loel Hudis, who served as a “lone soldier” in Israel; native Israeli Gila Levin, educational director at the Jewish Center of Princeton; Bernard Fowler, pastor of Mount Olivet Baptist Church in Hightstown; Lionel Kaplan, on the national board of AIPAC and a past president; and Satya Dosapati of the Hindu Jewish Coalition
Federation president Mark Merkovitz closed the event, urging participants to continue standing by Israel in the weeks and months to come and to donate to the federation’s emergency Stop the Sirens campaigns — part of the national Jewish Federations of North America effort — 100 percent of whose funds will go directly to help Israelis affected by the war.
Attendees from throughout Mercer and Bucks County told NJJN why they had come to show their support for Israel.
Douglas Rubin of Temple Micah in Lawrenceville told NJJN, “I support Israel’s right to defend itself from rockets being launched into their sovereign nation by Hamas.” Then he added, “I’m proud to be part of the Jewish community in such a wonderful, diverse country as ours.”
Judy Fleitman of the Jewish Center in Princeton said, “In the time of Israel’s greatest need we find there is more that unites us than divides us.”
“Israel, as any country, has a right to existence and a right to defend itself from those who want to take that right away,” said Mark Perkiss of Congregation Beth Chaim. “It’s important for us here to show support.”
Henry Echeverria of the Jewish Center said, “We’re here to listen to the truth, where the truth is not based on moral relativism and there is a right and a wrong.”
Joyce Kalstein, a member of Beth Chaim and a board member of the Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Greater Mercer County, said she “felt a very strong sense of community because the news you hear every day is so harrowing.”
Bert Arwas, a member of both Ohev Shalom of Bucks County in Richboro and Congregation Brothers of Israel in Newtown, expressed his concerns that Hamas uses ceasefires as an opportunity to rearm and that the group, knowing it cannot defeat Israel, is seeking to separate the U.S. from Israel by deliberately seeking civilian casualties.
Two women in attendance, Sarah Frank and Lois Gross, members of the Flemington Jewish Community Center, both have children who have made aliya, and Gross noted that “nobody is saying how they are suffering for their survival.”
Sherry Meyer of the Jewish Center said, as she left the rally, “It is wonderful to see the community come together in a time of need and wonderful to see cross-denominational support for Israel.”