Healing the World | Israel | Post-Its

Tucsonans on Israel Missions Witness Devastation and Unity

Pictures of the dead, kidnapped, and missing at the site of the Re’im music festival, which Hamas attacked on Oct. 7. (Photo: Todd Rockoff)

Sadness, anger, hope, and resilience. Todd Rockoff, president and CEO of the Tucson Jewish Community Center (JCC), felt all these emotions and more on a JCC Association Board Solidarity Mission (JCCA) to Israel in January.

“I felt a great pull to be there,” he says, to bear witness and “to support our brothers and sisters in Israel” in the wake of Oct. 7, when Hamas terrorists murdered 1,200 people and took 240 hostages.

Rockoff, who helped organize the trip for 40 JCCA participants, says it hurt to be in Tucson, far from our ancestral Jewish homeland, and it hurt to be in Israel, “standing with people in the south who had had the most unthinkable happen.”

“To stand on Kibbutz Nir Oz and to see the devastation and destruction on this beautiful kibbutz” where the grass is still green but no one is there, he says, inspired both the question of how to rebuild “and the feeling that we have to rebuild.”

Two other Tucsonans participated in recent solidarity missions. In December, Ben Pozez joined an eight-person Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) Solidarity Mission. In late January, Rabbi Sam Cohon of Congregation Beit Simcha traveled with 36 colleagues on a Rabbinic Solidarity Mission organized by the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis.

Naomi Adler, a survivor of the Hamas raid on Kibbutz Nahal, speaks to the rabbis on the Central Conference of American Rabbis mission. Her family survived because a Hamas bullet lodged in the lock on the door of their safe room, preventing the terrorists from entering. (Photo courtesy Sam Cohon)

On the JFNA mission, participants donned bulletproof vests and helmets to visit Kibbutz Kfar Aza, one of the sites attacked on Oct. 7. They could hear bullets being shot in nearby Gaza and munitions being fired from Israel, but Pozez says he never felt unsafe.

“It was gut-wrenching,” he says, to see homes destroyed, with “bullet holes going door to door,” simply because the inhabitants were Jewish. “It’s a modern-day pogrom.”

Israelis are experiencing a collective sense of trauma, a PTSD of 8 million people, Cohon says. “There’s not a family in Israel that hasn’t either lost somebody” or doesn’t have friends who did. “Everybody’s connected. It’s just not that big a country.”

Pictures and stories of the hostages are everywhere, but visiting “Hostage Square” in Tel Aviv was overwhelmingly powerful, Cohon says. The square in front of the city’s art museum, across from the Ministry of Defense headquarters, features art installations and memorials.

An art installation at “Hostage Square” in Tel Aviv. (Photo: Sam Cohon)

One of the most affecting, Cohon says, shows a hand reaching up from underground.

The hostages who remain in Gaza are “on the minds of Israelis, all Israelis, all the time,” he says.

In November, as part of a temporary ceasefire agreement, Hamas released 105 of the hostages. On Feb. 6, Israel confirmed that 31 of the remaining 136 hostages are dead; either they were killed on Oct. 7 or died while being held captive. On Feb. 11, The IDF rescued two hostages in Rafah, a city in southern Gaza.

Cohon says his Reform movement colleagues are liberals “who believe in cooperation, in peace.” Israeli Reform rabbis used to drive Palestinians to Israeli hospitals and employ workers from Gaza. He was stunned, therefore, by their complete loss of trust in the Palestinians.

Jewish Federation of North America delegates toured an underground surgery complex at Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem. (Photo: Ben Pozez)

No one Cohon spoke with was pushing for an end to the war until the hostage crisis is resolved.

Two of his U.S. colleagues, both “very left-wing,” he says, each brought some $20,000-$30,000 from congregants to buy flak jackets and other gear for IDF reservists.

“I asked them, ‘When you were in rabbinical school, could you ever imagine raising money for IDF equipment?’ and both said, ‘Never.’”

Rockoff agrees that Israelis living in the south believe in peace. “To believe that some of the people that were coming across the border to work in that area might have been spies, it’s a horribly unsettling and unacceptable situation.”

Besides Palestinians, many of Israel’s farm workers were Thais and other Asians. At least 39 Thais were killed in the Hamas attacks and 32 were taken hostage. Many of the remaining migrant workers left Israel after Oct. 7.

Now, there are not enough farm workers to pick the crops.

Ben Pozez at a farm in Israel’s south, where he and other Jewish Federations of North America mission participants helped pick tomatoes. (Photo courtesy Ben Pozez)

On the JFNA trip, Pozez and the other participants spent a couple of hours picking tomatoes on a farm in the south and learning about the long-term repercussions of the war on Israel’s agricultural sector.

“Israel is really a food island. Obviously, there are hostile neighbors in every direction,” he says, adding that with Yemen’s Houthis targeting cargo ships, Israel can’t rely on imports, either.

Leket, Israel’s National Food Bank, set up a bus service to the south from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem so retirees and other volunteers can help with the harvest, Cohon says. One of his cousins has been going three times a week.

That kind of pitching in is “so Israeli,” he says.

Along with the loss of trust in Palestinian workers, there’s also a stunning loss of trust in the IDF, or at least in the leadership, Cohon says. Israelis were shaken by the fact that it took the IDF six hours or more — in some places, 20 hours — to reach the areas under Hamas attack.

“People will show you their text messages, ‘Where is the army? The terrorists are here,’ sent as they were locked in their safe room, praying to survive,” Cohon says.

There’s a feeling, Rockoff says, “that the sacred contract … was broken.”

Rabbis make cakes and vegetable trays for Israel Defense Forces soldiers. Tucson’s Rabbi Sam Cohon is second from left. (Photo courtesy Sam Cohon)

Nevertheless, there’s a strong feeling of unity throughout Israel.

Before and after the CCAR mission, Cohon spent time with friends and family who run the gamut, he says, from secular to Modern Orthodox, from political liberals to supporters of Likud, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing party.

Before Oct. 7, protests about judicial reforms many believed threatened Israel’s democracy were splitting the country. Now, although most agree Netanyahu is finished politically, Cohon says, those protests have been set aside.

Rockoff and the JCCA group met with Israeli community center leaders striving to provide programs despite their populations being scattered, driving from place to place to stay in contact with constituents. “It’s remarkable,” he says, “the balance of taking care of their own families and taking care of the people around them.”

Hotels opened their doors to evacuees, Cohon says, providing meals and other services. Ordinary Israelis also hurried to help, but aid from the government was slow in coming, many people told him.

Remarking on pop-up community centers and schools and other efforts to re-establish normal routines, especially for kids, Pozez says, “The resiliency of the population … is amazing and powerful.”

On a stopover in London before he flew to Israel, Pozez saw several pro-Palestinian marches and rallies. Rather than calling for a ceasefire, he says, “they were still at that point chanting ‘from the river to the sea.’”

It was challenging, he says, “having to come face to face with reality, which is that the amount of antisemitism in the world today is significantly higher than I ever could have imagined.”

Israeli dignitaries and politicians, Rockoff said, expressed concern about how we in North America are coping with antisemitism, asking, “Are we OK and what are we doing to combat that?”

Todd Rockoff shares a hug with Gitit Botera Zamir, a representative of the government press office in Sderot, Israel. (Photo courtesy Todd Rockoff)

There was a shared recognition, he says, that as communal leaders, “our work is to make sure that we help the Jewish community understand the meaning and essential nature of Zionism” and be unified around Israel’s right to defend itself, despite the realization that this view is not always popular.

Rockoff was struck by the gratitude Israelis expressed to the visitors, whether in formal meetings or just talking to people on the street.

“I’ve never experienced that kind of appreciation, not because we were tourists but because we were connected as Jewish people,” he says. Many people told his group, “You didn’t have to come. What you did was brave by coming to be here. It means so much to know we’re not alone.”

And, as one Israeli community center director told them, “We will be OK because there is no other choice.”

“There is a spirit amongst the Israelis that guides us from strength to strength,” Rockoff says.