JERUSALEM — When rocket attacks on southern Israel escalated to more than 100 a day following Israel’s Nov. 4 assassination of Hamas military wing chief Ahmed Jabari, thousands of Israelis fled northward.
Most Israelis who live outside rocket range did not dare venture south.
But Rabbi Clifford Kulwin of Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston got on a plane to Israel and went straight to Ofakim and the Sha’ar Hanegev region in the Negev, and Rishon Letzion, a central city now in range of Hamas’s missiles.
Kulwin, Jim Paul of Summit, and Kulwin’s daughter Molly, who is in Israel on a gap-year program, delivered 200 pounds of school supplies, games, and toys for children stuck for days in bomb shelters.
“People in New Jersey and Israel said we were crazy for going there,” Kulwin said. “But the biggest problem people in the South were dealing with was tedium. The kids in the shelters were bored out of their minds and hungry for things to do. We got to a house, and the kids saw what Jim was bringing. They screamed ‘games!’ and followed him around like he was the Pied Piper.”
It wasn’t the first time Kulwin had embarked on such a venture. When another war between Israel and Hamas broke out during B’nai Abraham’s family trip to Israel four years ago, he returned a few days later with several congregants to volunteer renovating bomb shelters and entertaining children.
“Everyone needs a hobby,” Kulwin joked when asked why he had taken up rocket-chasing. “This time, it was natural to do the same thing and come back here.”
The group was in southern Israel for just three days, but Kulwin said it felt like three months, because they had packed in so many visits in such a short period of time, and because of the number of people who thanked them for coming.
Kulwin said he was amazed at how residents of the South were taking the rocket attacks in stride. After a while, he got used to them, too.
“Everyone was so calm and matter of fact,” he said. “My only complaints were that when we had to go to a shelter when a siren went off, my tea got cold, and the Wi-Fi didn’t work if the shelter door was closed. I don’t remember feeling anxiety except for two seconds when Molly wasn’t in my eyesight.”
Providing a connection
Paul had been in southern Israel during rocket attacks last year. On this trip, the first time he heard a siren he wanted to hurry to the nearest shelter, but the local residents calmed him down.
“My heart raced, and I went quickly, but a lady told me we have plenty of time,” Paul said. “It was surprising how nonchalant everyone was. They had been hearing the sirens for a long time.”
Paul recalled how people in Rishon Letzion, which came under attack for the first time, were much more shaken by the rockets than people further south. He said he was impressed by the social workers who were helping people deal with the stress.
Ofakim, Rishon Letzion, and the Sha’ar Hanegev Regional Council are all partner communities of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, under the Jewish Agency’s Partnership 2Gether program. Kulwin coordinated the trip with Neimah Tractenberg and Amir Shacham of the federation’s Israel office.
The group visited the municipal command centers in the southern communities, including a facility in Kibbutz Erez near the southern border donated by families from Greater MetroWest. The municipalities make a point of knowing which residents left town and keeping people who stayed home informed by text messages.
Molly Kulwin, 18, went southward with the blessing of the director of Aardvark Israel, a gap-year program that combines academic studies, touring, and community service.
“One of my roommates said it was cool that I was going down south, but another said, ‘That’s way scary, good for you, but I don’t think I can do that,’” she said. “People asked if my dad was coming because he was worried about me, and I said, ‘Not one bit.’”
Molly said the most exciting part of the three-day mission was visiting Erez, which is so close to the Gaza Strip that she could hear rockets fly past the kibbutz and then listen to the IDF respond with artillery and drone attacks.
The group was still in Erez when a cease-fire was reached. Paul said it was surreal to have to keep going to bomb shelters when rockets continued falling following the cease-fire announcement.
Paul compared how people back in New Jersey reacted to his time in the South to the calls he got from Israel during Hurricane Sandy.
“This experience wasn’t as traumatic to us as it was to our friends back home,” Paul said. “It works both ways. When Sandy struck, a lot of people in Israel wanted to know how we were doing. For me it was important to reassure people there.”
Kulwin said the main message he conveyed back to his congregants was how important it is to have personal connections with Israelis.
“When you feel at home somewhere, you want to be there,” Kulwin said. “The people of Erez had a better feeling about our community because we came. I don’t think this feeling can be achieved in any other way. It underscores the importance of the work the federation does.”
Kulwin said he was motivated to go home, share the sense of solidarity he felt in Israel, and get more people to come.
“Coming here provides a connection that nothing else can,” Kulwin said. “We have a congregational group coming next month, so I thought coming now would show them not to be afraid.”