My Israel Journey: Days 3-7

January 24, 2024

By Barak Hermann, CEO, JCC of Greater Baltimore 

Days 3-7 Recap 

The themes from the last five days reflect the incredible amount of resilience and unity Israelis continue to demonstrate. While issues and devastation can divide us, Israel and Jews worldwide are unified in this collective experience we are all feeling. 

National Blood Center & Human Milk Bank Protecting Israel 

This past Wednesday we began our day visiting the recently opened Marcus National Blood Center in Lod. A cornerstone of Israel’s national security, it was designed to protect Israel’s strategic blood reserves from missile, chemical, and biological attack, as well as earthquakes. The Center collects, tests, processes, and distributes all the blood needed by the IDF and Israel’s citizens. The building designed with an underground protected blood bank, is the first of its kind and will provide blood services to Israel’s population for decades to come.  Unfortunately, Israel cannot rely on other humanitarian organizations to support them.  

It was also incredible to learn about the Magen David Adom Human Milk Bank, established in 2018 it has supplied hundreds of liters of donated breast milk to infants and premature babies who have been orphaned, whose mothers have been kidnapped or injured, or have been recruited into the IDF.  

Israeli Association of Community Center Response 

We then departed for a meeting with IACC (Israel Association of Community Centers). I was inspired to hear from my colleagues about the work these directors and their teams are doing under such distress. The leadership of the community centers remain focused on providing recreational, educational, and emotional support for refugees in their communities from the north and south of Israel who were evacuated from their homes on the borders of Gaza and Lebanon. 

My only comparison would be how the JCC pivoted during Covid to serve the Baltimore community with similar services. It was another inspiring example of how Israelis are mobilizing to help each other while dealing with so much personally. Relocating programs, such as preschools, kindergartens, and programs for children with special needs and senior adults, is a major undertaking. It requires significant planning time to relocate programs, sometimes as much as one to two hours away. 

Fighting the Social Media Battle 

We had an open conversation with senior staff from the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs. Developing effective social media marketing strategies has not been successful to combat the anti-Israel campaigns on Tick Tock and other platforms worldwide. We know Israel is losing badly in the public relations battle as the terrorist organizations have a much better global reach and infrastructure. We need to continue to spotlight the personal stories of the hostages and the obscene brutality of children, pregnant women, and older adults in their homes and at the NOVA music festival that left Israel no choice but to respond in such a heavy manner. 

Hamas released a report declaring that many of these stories of brutality are not true, despite their own videos of the massacres in process. Like Holocaust deniers, we will need to battle their lies with survivor stories and other tactics. 

Housing Refugees at Kfar Maccabia Resort 

Thursday, we began our day at Kfar Maccabia which is a resort, conference and events center, sports club, and a spa complex, located on 20 acres. Another inspiring example of transforming a hospitality facility into a temporary home for over 300 refugees who were evacuated from their homes and kibbutzim in parts of southern and northern Israel. They are also providing housing to families who have loved ones hurt in the war, who are hospitalized in Tel Aviv. Kfar Maccabia set up preschools, kindergartens, and mental health services. It is amazing how quickly they pivoted to serve the individual and families impacted by the war, and it was heartwarming to see children playing and learning together, despite six to eight people living together in a single hotel room for many months with no end in sight. 

Leaders Share Personal Stories of Loss & Perspective 

We then departed to Jerusalem for a meeting with Rabbi Doron Perez, head of the Mizrachi Movement to hear the story of what happened to his sons, Yonatan and Daniel, on October 7, and to discuss his understanding of the current situation and his optimism about the Jewish future. Perez’s son Daniel was kidnapped by Hamas terrorists on Oct. 7 while Yonaton was injured. The Mizrachi Movement inspires people with a sense of commitment to Torah, the Jewish People, and the Land of Israel. Rabbi Perez encouraged us to understand the emotional complexity of the war and to understand that our feelings can be in polarity with each other. “Gam vegam”…which means “this and that” is an often-used phrase to describe the times we face. At this time of intense pain and conflict, holding onto multiple perspectives is natural no matter the headache it causes. 

We then had a meeting with author and journalist Haviv Rettig Gur. We discussed aspects of the war and the current complexity of the political crisis. It is never easy to lead, however the pressure on the Government led by Prime Minister Netanyahu is under significant duress and frustration. 

We concluded with discussion followed by a meeting with Miriam Peretz, Israel Prize Laureate, known as “the mother of the sons,” who shared her touching personal story, which has become a symbol of maternal heroism. Miriam has lost both her sons in Israel wars and has been a model of support for families dealing with tragic loss of their children on and since Oct. 7 

Shabbat Visit with Family & Friends 

Friday, I took a train to the north to the Carmel Mountain in Haifa where my mother’s family has lived in the surrounding city of Nesher for over 100 years. It was great to see dear cousins– however their stress was very much felt as the tensions grow daily in the north with Hezbollah.  Haifa is a beautiful multicultural city with a wonderful track record of peaceful coexistence. We pray that will remain and there will not be hostility with the Israeli Arabs. I believe that the Arab community in Israel recognizes that their quality of life is so much better than living under a terrorist regime. 

After Shabbat, I took a train south to visit dear childhood friends in the “modern” city of Modi’in. The city in central Israel is known for its thoughtful design and clever planning of urban space. 

An Inspiring Visit to Ashkelon 

On Sunday, I visited Ashkelon, the sister city of Baltimore. Ashkelon is a coastal city in the Southern District of Israel on the Mediterranean Coast. It is eight miles from the border with Gaza. Ashkelon has been a target of rocket attacks for years due to their proximity. Through the Baltimore-Ashkelon Partnership, we connect Baltimore Jews together with Jews in Ashkelon, Israel. Since 2003, our two communities have been intimately involved in meeting the needs of vulnerable Jews.  I was able to visit new and older projects supported by The Associated such as Israeli Lacrosse which started as an idea a decade ago and now has a major national team and local clubs built to foster people to people connections.  It was amazing to tour a brand new Matnas – Community Center – that will hopefully open in four weeks to serve a new developing community. It is located in the southernmost area of the city, within view of the Gaza border. It was inspiring to hear the stories of how the leadership quickly mobilized on Oct. 7 to turn the youth center into a humanitarian relief center, supporting the needs of the community.  It was also heartwarming to hear a song written and produced by a young man on the impact of the war.  

The resilience of young people in Ashkelon is encouraging as many know of peers murdered in neighboring towns of Ofakim and Sderot and from the music festival. 

It has been great to see how the funds raised through the Associated’s emergency campaign for Israel are being used to support Ashkelon. Enabling them to access critical supplies for the city and its residents. 

Looking Back and Looking Forward 

I arrive back to Baltimore with my mind and heart preoccupied with the responsibility of fostering more “people to people” connections with Israel as well as helping ensure the security of our Jewish State. 

We promised as a Jewish people to never forget the Holocaust and loss of six million Jews and millions more who died at the hands of the Nazis. Here we are in 2024, 80 years later, experiencing profound and horrific terrorism and innocent loss of life. We know many want a cease fire and want the hostages released. We know Hamas controls everything in Gaza and teaches their children from the youngest ages to want to hate and kill Jews. We know we must destroy as much of Hamas as we can and at the same this war has created future generations of hatred. We know we have hundreds of thousands of people in the IDF and in the reserves who know this war is not just about the land of Israel. It is about an extremist radical plan to rid the world of Jews. 

We know the global reaction has been anti-Jewish and anti -Israel as many are sympathizers with perceived oppression of Palestinians. 

I can admit that Israel has a PR and leadership problems. It is painful to see any innocent loss of life, however this is a war for Israel’s right to exist and live safely. The rise in antisemitism in Europe, South Africa and other countries makes it unsafe for Jews to live comfortably. We need to ensure Israel’s ability to be a haven for Jews worldwide. A place where they feel they can be their authentic selves. 

We will continue our efforts and incredible work at the JCC and in Baltimore to create a wonderful place to be a Jewish community while also ensuring our continued focus on strengthening and deepening our relationships with the larger community. It is critically important to ensure strong Jewish communities in the diaspora. 

Gam vegam”! Let us hold on to the idea of wanting multiple things at one time and the struggle of making choices.  

Praying for peace, the hostages, and IDF who are the heroes protecting and saving Israel! 

– Barak   

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