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Connecting during conflict: Wartime visit brings love and hope to Western Galilee

Updated: Mar 25


Only stray cats and the security team remain at Kibbutz Matzuva, which has been a ghost town since its evacuation on October 7.

The kibbutz, located just over a mile from the border with Lebanon, proudly displays photos from its glory days. But now it hovers in purgatory, waiting for an undeclared war to intensify or for some kind of diplomatic agreement to end the conflict.

Some 30 representatives of the US Central Area Consortium of the Western Galilee Partnership came to Matzuva and other communities in Israel’s Matte Asher Regional Council and the City of Akko last week to show solidarity and bear witness.

They met municipal officials, IDF officers, business owners, soldiers, educators, and evacuees who have become refugees in their own country. They heard about the challenges facing their communities and their fears of the unknown.

Many residents of southern Israel have returned home now that 95% of Hamas’s rocket arsenal is gone. But the northern border remains largely uninhabited because Hezbollah has attacked regularly with rockets missiles and drones and still has an extensive arsenal of 150,000 missiles and rockets, including highly accurate precision missiles aimed at the most sensitive military and civilian sites in northern and central Israel.

Some 80,000 residents of northern Israel have been evacuated to hundreds of sites across the country, and even the top experts have no idea when they will be able to return home. The Solidarity visit gave many evacuees from border communities their first reason to smile in a long time.

“It's easy to come to Israel on vacation during times of calm, but to come at a time like this, a time of struggling and pain, is a challenge for us,” said Nehemia (Nammie) Ichilov, President and CEO of the Jewish Federation of San Antonio. “This visit is for our Israeli friends. It’s a blessing for them.”

Ichilov said that while the mission was intended to strengthen his partners in Israel, he ended up departing strengthened by them.

“I came to support them,” he said. “I am leaving with a stronger connection, personal meaning and something profound to share with my community.”

During the visit, Ichilov dedicated a much-needed trauma room at Galilee Medical Center donated by the Jewish Federation and the Bar Yadin family of his community.

Besides San Antonio, the consortium includes the Jewish communities of Canton, Dayton, Toledo and Youngstown, Ohio; Fort Wayne, Indianapolis, South Bend and Northwest Indiana; Louisville, Kentucky; Des Moines, Iowa, Omaha, Nebraska; Buffalo, NY; Austin and Fort Worth, Texas; and Peoria and Springfield, Illinois.

The US co-chair of the Partnership, Harry Levy, asked Matte Asher mayor Moshe Davidovitz what the Partnership communities could do to help their Israeli friends.

He was told that assistance could be provided in health care, education, culture, and sports for evacuated communities in their current sites and then back home to encourage residents to return.

The Partnership has already provided bulletproof vests for the communities’ civil guards, laptops for evacuated kids, and Hanukkah programming.

"Each community in the Consortium will evaluate what else to direct to the Western Galilee beyond what they gave to the general IEC of the Jewish Federations of North America," Levy said.

Megan Maurer of Indianapolis, who is the incoming Chair of the Consortium, said the goals of the mission were to show solidarity, learn the region’s specific needs and threats, and go back to their communities as ambassadors, sharing the reality on the ground and advocating for what is needed.

“We have to show our kids we can’t survive if we let fear win,” said Maurer, who brought her 14-year-old son Jonah on the mission and has a teenage daughter living in Israel. “We must be brave and instill that in the next generation.”

The mission visited schools, colleges, businesses, municipal buildings, and the Galilee Medical Center, where they toured the 400-bed underground hospital and the Emergency Department that their communities’ donations helped build.

The hospital has treated 380 injured soldiers since the Hamas massacre began the war on October 7 and key departments were moved underground. It is struggling to function despite 550 of its 3200 employees being evacuated from their homes and forced to move all over the country.

“Sooner or later, the northern front will erupt, we will be under continuous missile attacks, and you will all know that you saved lives,” hospital deputy director-general Tzvi Sheleg told mission participants. “Thousands of soldiers will eventually combat Hezbollah and the Radwan forces. We don’t delude ourselves that it won’t happen. We don’t know the extent of the attack or how long it will take, but once the situation erupts, we think there will be massive attacks.”

They heard similar warnings from municipal officials in Akko. Yossi Cohen, the Municipality Auditor who oversees emergency operations, told the mission he expects there to be 3000 rockets fired by Hezbollah every day with mass casualties, buildings collapsing and no electricity, cellular or Internet service.

To help face that challenge, the city has been renovating both public and private shelters. But 22% of the city’s residents have no shelter at all.

Davidovitz, whose home faced a drone strike, said he was glad he gave the order to evacuate eight communities on the Lebanese border on the morning of October 7. He said his constituents were right to fear going back to their homes, and he is concerned that the national government may force them to return before their long-term safety is guaranteed.

“We thought before October 7 that we were undefeatable,” Davidovitz told mission participants on Kibbutz Regba. “What happened that day changed everything. Before October 7 we were the start-up nation. Since then, we have to think about how to become the restarting nation. We are stronger, and we will win, but we have to think differently now.”

Following the meeting with Davidovitz, Greater Des Moines Jewish Federation executive director Jarad Bernstein said that when he returned home to Iowa, he would focus on relaying the message that his community’s long-time Israeli partners needed them more than ever.

“Who else can they depend on?” he asked “This region needs all the support it could get. It's not what the Partnership was made for, but it's what is needed now. Our relationship is a two-way street and a living bridge, but now it’s them that needs us.”

Many of the participants said they felt an obligation to help the people of the Western Galilee, because over the course of the 27-year partnership, they had become like family, hosting representatives of the region in their communities and visiting them in Israel.

Jewish Federation of Omaha chief executive officer Bob Goldberg, who was also involved in the Consortium at two other Federations, said he was impressed by the perseverance of his friends in the Western Galilee.

“We sensed their weariness that an October 7-like attack or worse could happen to them, but we also saw their resilience in that they believe that any attack could be overcome,” Goldberg said. “It's frightening but they aren't running. It's very empowering amid the great sense of vulnerability. Maybe that is the Jewish story: 3500 years of overcoming, against all odds.”

The P2G Solidarity Mission took place in the Western Galilee, March 3-7, 2024

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