Day by day on the Mission: Participants share insights
Photos: Guy Yechiely, unless otherwise specified
The opening ceremony of the The Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas Solidarity Mission Feb. 19, 2024.

By Sharon Wisch-Ray

Day 1:
Itinerary:

  • Opening ceremony, at the Western Wall – Speaker: Sarit Zussman, mother of fallen soldier Ben Zussman, z”l
  • Security overview of Israel since Oct. 7 – Speaker: Ilan Lavi, Brigadier General (Ret)

Forty-eight participants traveled to Israel Feb. 19-22 on a solidarity mission organized by the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas. From the start, the trip was packed from early each morning to late in the evening. 

As the mission began Monday evening, the group gathered outside the Kotel Plaza. One of the two guides, Zalman Spivak, explained that in ancient times the Temple was the gathering place for the community, in particular three times per year. It is an ancient tradition that Jews support fellow Jews in their time of need. In fact, those who were suffering in some way would walk against the flow of traffic so they could be identified and reached out to by their fellow Jews.

“There’s no better place to start a solidarity mission than at the Kotel, where Jews from all over the world come because that’s what we did 2,000 years ago. And that’s what we’re going to do on this mission,” Spivak said.

Sarit Zussman, whose son Ben was killed while serving in the Israel Defense Forces, addressed the group. She shared her son’s story. Ben had been assigned to a combat engineering unit. He loved being a soldier and he had been discharged from the Army in July. He had recently been accepted into the Israel security forces and was due to begin his new job Oct. 14. 

“He wanted to work in security and defend us,” Zussman said.

As Oct. 7 unfolded, Ben, who was fluent in Arabic, was watching events on social media. He immediately said he was going back to the service, even though he didn’t have a specific unit to go back to. He left home and after picking up supplies up north, he went to the southern border and waited for the ground invasion. He still didn’t have a unit. After the humanitarian break, he joined a friend working with new soldiers.

Sadly, Ben was killed in Gaza in December, when a terrorist lay in wait as IDF soldiers were clearing houses. Zussman said she wasn’t surprised when the soldiers knocked on her door to tell her that her son had been killed. On the day of the funeral, she reluctantly walked through the sea of people who had gathered to pay their respects.

“When I saw all the flags and all the people — the street was packed. I don’t know from where, I don’t know how, but my words were, ‘Be proud. Wear a big smile on your face,’ because Ben loved the flag. Ben was fighting for us. We should all be very proud. It’s a war. We need to be strong. Just straighten up and wear a big smile on your faces.”

Mission participant Pam Goldminz was touched by Sarit Zussman’s strength. “She told us that Israel needs us as much as we need Israel. Those words echoed throughout the trip. She also was a reminder of the strength and resilience of the Jewish people. We will get through this, more united and stronger than ever.”

Day 2: The Gaza Envelope
Itinerary:

  • Drive from Jerusalem to Gaza Envelope
  • Visit Kibbutz Zikim, Dallas’ partnership Kibbutz
  • Tour of Kfar Aza 
  • Lunch with IDF soldiers, engage in meaningful conversations about their fears, strength and mission
  • Visit the site of Supernova Re’im Musical Festival – Speaker: Yossi Landau, head of operations, ZAKA
  • Stop at Tekuma, site of the cars left behind
  • Visit with evacuated families from Kibbutz Zikim
  • Back to Jerusalem

At Kibbutz Zikim,  two members of the security team, Kobi and Elior, shared their harrowing experience fighting off Hamas terrorists at the kibbutz fence line. Elior, who is 31, said as the sirens went off, he handed his wife his pistol and shepherded her and their three daughters to their mamad, safe room. He told his wife that if it was anyone other than him trying to enter the safe room, to “give them a bullet.” Kobi said that when the sirens go off, kibbutz residents have about 15 seconds to get to the safe room. He got a WhatsApp message that there was a penetration from the beach and to get to the meeting place. Kobi donned a protective vest and helmet and waited not far from the meeting place. He saw special forces terrorists and the battle ensued. The terrorists were well-trained and had rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) and grenades. The security team was able to hold the terrorists off and maintained their positions until 2:30 a.m. Oct. 8, when the IDF came to evacuate the kibbutz.

“We were told that what saved the kibbutz and allowed his security team to prevent the forced entry of the armed terrorists, Kibbutz Zikim maintained their own rifles and ammo in their homes instead of an arms locker,” said Barry Rothschild, mission participant. “They were able to gather up their small force in a hurry. I was listening to this riveting story in disbelief while seeing some empty shell casings and could not stop imagining how close that beautiful, thriving community came to becoming another list of casualties from the Oct. 7 attack. A small victory took place that terrible morning in October,” he added.

Michelle Meiches was also impacted by the Kibbutz Zikim story. She points out, however, that although a miracle happened there, members of the kibbutz still live in fear.

“This sounds like a happy story, relative to others.  But with it comes so much pain,” Meiches says. “The pain of Adah and Zalmie, in their 80s, from Eastern Europe, Zikim residents for 60 years, who are afraid to go home. Of Manny, their armed guard and self-appointed shepherd. The kibbutz is a closed military zone, the residents are not home — they are scattered in hotels, many children out of school, unsure of their futures.”

Following Zikim, the mission traveled down the road about 15 minutes to Kfar Aza. There the scene was grim. Sixty-three people were murdered; 19 hostages were kidnapped from Kfar Aza, five of whom are still being held in Gaza as of press time Monday. At Kfar Aza the group witnessed house after house burned by fires, destroyed by grenades and RPGs.

Chen was born at Kfar Aza and is a lifelong resident, though she was visiting her sister in Portugal Oct. 7 when the attack took place. Her elderly father and her sister and family were at the kibbutz Oct. 7. Chen guided the mission through the devastation and was frank.

Janice Schwarz said one comment of Chen’s stood out to her regarding the female captive being held and her concern that she had been raped by the terrorists. “She mentioned the number of days (I believe it was 138) and she said that it is critical to get her back as soon as possible since it will soon be too late for her to have an abortion,” said Schwarz. 

Carolyn Wilkov said that despite the unspeakable horror, she saw a glimmer of hope.

“In front of this scene of devastation, I see flowers blooming, waving in the wind, perhaps beckoning to us to find a message of hope in their regrowth. This is the message from every Israeli that we encounter.  We are strong and resilient, we will rebuild and return. We will never forget,” she said.

Lunch with Israeli reservists provided an opportunity to lend support to a group of soldiers who carried out daily missions.

“Having lunch with IDF soldiers was inspirational. We loved talking to them and hearing their stories. We pray for their continued safety and applaud their heroism,” said Allan Fischler, who went on the mission with his wife, Raizy.

Charles Pulman and his wife, Janine, extended their visit following the mission and volunteered on an army base. They had Shabbat with Lone Soldiers.

“We were told that many IDF soldiers are experiencing PTSD and trauma and receiving medical assistance. Nevertheless, the IDF soldiers all expressed their desire to return to the war and their confidence that the IDF will prevail over Hamas and protect Israel and the Jewish people.

“Every Israeli we met thanked us for coming to Israel, especially now,” Pulman said.

At the site of the Supernova music festival at Re’im, the group heard from Yossi Landau, operations director of ZAKA. Landau detailed how his day began Oct. 7, full of joy and the excitement of spending Simchat Torah with his children and grandchildren. He received an alert that something was happening in the south and to bring as many body bags as he had available.

“Yossi talked to us in front of a large sign with the young people murdered at the site of the music festival,” said Schwarz. “We were on holy ground hearing about what happened and paying our respects to those who died. He referred to the young people killed as ‘holy.’ And then we started singing. A man came by with a guitar and then a man with a violin and joined us. It was a beautiful moment.”

Capping off the evening, the group went to the hotel where many evacuees from Kibbutz Zikim are staying. In small groups with kibbutz members, the mission participants heard about what the evacuees had been experiencing. While some members of the group are eager to get back home, others said they don’t know if they will ever go back. Keeping their families safe is paramount and their faith in the IDF and other security forces has been shaken.

“Many could not wait to get home, the women were wanting to do their own laundry and cook their own food, yet many were fearful and worried for their safety and security,” said Janine Pulman.

Day 3: Jerusalem
Itinerary:

  • Mount Herzl, site of Israel’s national cemetery
  • Visit the memorial at Remembrance Hall in Har Herzl to pay tribute to the 1,400 victims of Oct. 7, 2023
  • Participate in the memorial service for those fallen Israeli soldiers for whom it was their yahrzeit.
  • Visit Shaare Tzedek Hospital – Speakers: Dr. Ofer Merin, director general; injured Israeli soldier
  • Visit United Hatzalah – Speakers: Shai Jaskoll, United Hatzalah director of development
  • Talia Levanon, CEO of Israel Trauma Coalition Center
  • Silent disco with families of Israel’s miluim, reserve duty soldiers
  • Dinner with members of the Partnership2Gether committee from the Western Galilee 

Day Three began in Jerusalem with a visit to Mount Herzl, Israel’s national cemetery. There the group visited the grave of Binyamin Airley, z”l, grandson of Julie Wolk, who is married to Rabbi Howard Wolk. Members of the mission laid stones decorated by Jewish day school students on his grave and “El maleh rachamim” was chanted by Rabbi Moredechai Harris, Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas rabbi in residence and COO.

The group was given a tour of Remembrance Hall, where there is a plaque made out of tank material for every soldier that has fallen in service of Israel since its beginning. The soldiers that have fallen since Oct. 7 are 237 as of press time Monday. Following their shloshim (conclusion of 30 days of mourning), a plaque will be put up, as our docent, who is an army soldier, explained. 

At 11 a.m. the group paused and participated in the daily service for the fallen who were celebrating their yahrzeits that day.

At Shaare Tzedek, Dr. Ofer Meren explained the complexities of treating the thousands of wounded Oct. 7 and the coordinated effort among all the hospitals in Israel. Shaare Tzedek is the main hospital that treats wounded soldiers. One soldier who is recovering joins the group and shares his story. Elan is from Beit Shean and owns a gym with his wife. He looks forward to recovering and getting back to the front lines, though his wife is not so eager.

Rabbi Adam Ruditsky of Congregation Adat Chaverim was a hospital chaplain before becoming a rabbi and led the mission in the Misheberach prayer, which prays for healing of body and mind.

“The healing of spirit is much more than physical rehab or pain pills; it is an emotional journey that can last way after the body is healed. That is what Elan would face,” Rabbi Ruditsky told the TJP.

“I knew that, all of us knew that, but being there in Jerusalem and standing next to this brave soldier, a father, a husband, a son and a friend, as we all sang the words of healing together I realized, perhaps more than ever, that his journey was truly a healing of body and a healing of spirit,” he said.

At United Hatzalah, the group heard from Shai Jaskoll about how Hatzalah has coordinated its force of volunteer first responders. The average response time is under 4 minutes throughout Israel.

Talia Levanon, CEO of Israel Trauma Coalition Center, also addresses the group. She is the person responsible for helping Israelis overcome the trauma from Oct. 7. It is a formidable task. Every single Israeli is traumatized in one way or another.

The mission traveled to Keshet, an elementary school, for its last program of the day. It is the school attended by Ben Zussman and where his mother, Sarit, is a teacher.

The activity is to engage in a silent disco party with families whose parents are reservists serving in the IDF. The children are apprehensive as they don their music-filled headphones. The dance party ensues.

“As I looked around the school, I saw children of all ages, some enjoying the experience more than others,” said Kim Kaliser. “Those of us on the mission knew we were there with the intention of raising the children’s spirits but in the meantime, they were raising ours. Toward the end of the night, I spotted a young girl, around the age of 10, standing with her father and young brother, looking shy and unsure about the whole experience. For a brief second, I wondered, ‘Where is her mother? Is she serving in the IDF? Is she still alive?’ Without further thought, I started to dance with the child. I decided that through music and dance we would cheer each other up.”

Tom Elieff, Levine Academy head of school, who was in Israel for the first time, said, “The solidarity mission certainly left us with an indelible feeling of Israel’s agony, but we also felt the ecstasy of a better tomorrow when we danced with dozens of reservists’ children — just those minutes of letting loose with the kids, crazily and joyfully, allowed us to return home with the gift of love and hope.”

When it was time to go, one of the mothers, baby in tow, was looking for Rabbi Michael Kushnick. She had something important to tell him. She found him after walking a couple of blocks to the mission buses. She thanked Kushnick for spending time talking with her and her family and said it was one of the best programs they had been to in a long time. She was so happy. Rabbi Kushnick told the mission participants that for him, “It was one of the most impactful moments of the mission.”

Day 4: Bring Them Home Now
Itinerary:

  • Briefing with Rebecca Caspi, update from the JFNA Israel & Overseas office.
  • Drive to Tel Aviv
  • Volunteer at Eran’s Angels
  • Visit the Hostages and Missing Families Forum Headquarters – Speakers: Family members of hostages
  • Visit Hostage Square at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art Plaza
  • Drive back to Jerusalem
  • Visit with President Isaac Herzog  at the President’s residence
  • Reflection and dinner
  • Head to Ben-Gurion Airport

The final day of the mission focused on the hostages being held in Gaza. At press time Monday, 134 hostages remain.

Half of the group heard from a father whose sons were kidnapped, while the other half heard from the uncle of Almog Meir Jan. 21. The families of the hostages are desperate to have their loved ones returned to them and battle daily to keep them top of mind. 

“Constantly retelling their stories is akin to reopening a wound for these family members,” said Joel Schwitzer, AJC regional director. “Given that, I am especially in awe of their dedication to ensuring the world does not forget. Hearing about their loved ones compels us to do everything in our power to advocate for their safe release and to constantly keep them in our hearts.”

The group visited Hostage Square, where various art installations encapsulate the pain caused by the continued captivity of the hostages in Gaza. 

Cindy Moskowitz shared her impressions at Congregation Anshai Torah’s Shabbat service Saturday.

“For most of the people we met, the reality is that these hostages are in our midst, now, and their release is the preeminent need for klal Yisrael. And only then does the work of rebuilding begin.”

The last major event of the day was a visit to President Isaac Herzog’s residence, where the group had an audience with him and his wife. President Herzog listened carefully to the group’s questions and answered sincerely. He expressed his appreciation for the Dallas Jewish community and the solidarity mission. When Pam Goldminz asked how to convince parents of day school students that it is safe for them to send their children to Israel, Herzog responded by recording a brief video to share.

“I was excited to meet the president of Israel to tell him about our Israeli art and archeology exhibitions in Dallas at the National Center for Jewish Art and the Museum of Biblical Art,” said Scott Peck, the two museums’ executive director. “President Herzog shared this with the first lady, saying that this is a special area of interest to her and that we should be in contact.” Mrs. Herzog then asked for Peck’s business card.

Final thoughts

Whether it was their first trip or 23rd trip, the solidarity mission left an impression on its participants.

For Mandi Albert, who went with her husband, Chad, it was her first trip.

“I was one of two people traveling to Israel for the first time. Many were sad or worried that this would be my first experience, that I wouldn’t see Israel the way they saw it prior to Oct. 7,” Albert said. “Yes, I (we) witnessed so much sadness, a country mourning, people displaced from their homes drowning in uncertainty of what their future life looks like. However, this mission trip changed the whole trajectory of my connection to Israel; my connection to the mission of the Jewish people’s right to exist on this land; and my connection to Judaism. I couldn’t imagine a more important time to show those in Israel that we stand with them in solidarity — a first trip I will never forget.”

Congregation Shearith Israel Rabbi Ari Sunshine has been to Israel more than 20 times and this experience was different.

“Out of 23 trips I’ve taken to Israel in various capacities, this visit was by far the most powerful and emotional,” Rabbi Sunshine said. “We encountered a country and a people that is still heartbroken over the unspeakable loss and trauma it experienced on 10/7 and since. But we also encountered a profound sense of, and belief in, the resilience of Medinat Yisrael and am Yisrael and shared many moments which testified to the strong and unbreakable bond of Jewish peoplehood. Throughout Jewish history we have never before given in or succumbed to those who hate or seek to destroy us and together we will make it through this difficult time as well.”

Jennifer Troice was touched by the close ties she has made with the Israelis she met.

“I never thought I would be having conversations every other day with the people we encountered during our mission,” Troice said. “What they’re going through is so personal and so difficult that I thought they would feel like we wouldn’t understand it well enough to be an outlet for them. I’m so grateful for the links that were put in place and the relationships I’m starting to form with at least four people I met along the way.”

Janine Pulman was impacted by the evacuees who had been relocated to the Dan Panorama, the hotel where about half the members of the mission were staying.

“In the lobby of the hotel, the young children were racing up and down the long stretch of ‘living room’ flooring playing catch, chase, riding toys, bouncing balloons, squealing, laughing, smiling — just being kids,” Pulman said.

“Seated along the sides of the lobby were saftas (grandmothers in Hebrew) knitting or playing Rummikub and moms in small groups chatting.

“After a day or two, some of the little kids made eye contact and shyly smiled at me.

It struck me that we had entered their living room — their ‘home’ away from home.  I couldn’t help but wonder what their life would be like when they returned.”

For others, the rise in antisemitism was top of mind.

“Israel always takes the brunt of hatred for Jews,” said Michael Pincus. “The haters want to whitewash it and say Zionism is the problem. But Jews know better. It is antisemitism.”

He added, “Our trip will be meaningless if we don’t learn from it. Jews in Dallas need to understand antisemitism doesn’t end in Israel. Unfortunately the fight is right in our backyard, from protests in front of Temple Emanu-El to a city councilwoman’s home to stained-glass-window shootings in Plano. 

“We cannot be complacent. It is important for us to do everything we can to protect and defend our local Jewish institutions. It will take more than just ‘educating’ antisemites. If these people were educable, we wouldn’t have this problem.”

Sarina Schick, who was in Israel on Oct. 7, said she is committed to bringing the stories back to Dallas.

“Seeing firsthand the devastation so fresh still, and to take pictures and share to the world that this is a holocaust and we as Jews have to bear witness and give Israel the support they so desperately need,” she said.

Federation staffers Igor Alterman, Rabbi Mordechai Harris And Carly Glikman balanced the dual roles of managing the trip as well as experiencing it. Glikman, was integral to the mission’s success from start to finish, managing every detail. She was pleased that the mission drew a wide variety of participants from across the community. Now that everyone is back home, she can pause and reflect on her experience.

“I hope this is just the beginning of many solidarity missions to come for Dallas. Our participants have returned home eager to spread the stories and commit to a purpose larger than themselves, said Glikman. “The inception of this mission marked not only the start of my personal healing journey, but also a collective call to action. It’s a time for all of us to return ‘home,’ support, care and come back to Dallas stronger for our people than before.”

Temple Emanu-El Rabbi Debra Robbins concluded.

“We went, not to be tourists or voyeurs, but to bear witness to the horrors of Oct. 7, to hear the voices of the mourners, the hostages, the soldiers, the survivors, the people of Israel who are at war,” Rabbi Robbins said. “We went so we could bring back our testimonies — of pain, courage, fear and creativity. We would tell about people who bear the weight of hate and holy light of compassion all at the same time.

“We were blessed to learn how people can be shattered, a nation can be broken and hope for healing and wholeness can prevail.”

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