Day 1 – April 1, 2024

We all went into this day with some trepidation, but just didn’t know what to expect. Jack Maizel, Federation past Board Chair, summed it up well as we were reflecting after dinner. He admitted to expecting a slow build of anticipation followed by a wall of negative emotions as we faced meeting after meeting with people who have faced – and are facing – terrible trauma. Yet, our actual experience was one we should have expected – yes, stories that were so difficult to hear, but told by people who could tell them with strength, humanity – even occasionally humor. And we realized that the day was actually filled with moments of hope and incredible strength from the beginning to the end. But let me start at the beginning:

Jeremy Pearl
Jeremy arriving in Israel.

Click on photos to enlarge.

Guard House at the gate to Kibbutz Mefalsim
Guard House at the gate to Kibbutz Mefalsim
Learning About Sha'ar HaNegev
Learning about Sha'ar HaNegev
Community Center Pool
Community Center Pool used for Hydrotherapy
Jeremy Pearl and Gil Schwartzman
Jeremy Pearl and Gil Schwartzman
  • Our day started with a long drive to Sha’ar HaNegev. On the way, we passed right by the Sderot train station, where many of us were greeted by crowds of happy children last May. The station is now deserted, closed for up to two years. Arriving at Kibbutz Mefalsim, Sha’ar HaNegev former Mayor and current Deputy Minister of Defense for Israel Alon Shuster, described the 3 1/2 hour brave battle to successfully defend the kibbutz. He described a fence designed to keep out robbers not terrorists.
  • We heard from our guide, Yona, who volunteered to bring out civilians trapped in their homes in the Gaza envelope during the first three weeks after October 7th, while terrorists were still at large and the IDF was focusing on securing the border. With no help from the IDF, they traveled in teams of two cars, with two to a car – one driver, one gunner.
  • We met with the mother of hostage Emily Damari, 27 years old. A softly spoken, strong woman who described her quest to speak to senior politicians around the world to get her daughter released. What she described and fears should not be put to writing.
  • We took a look at the Sha’ar HaNegev Operations Center, recently opened, and viewed a presentation summing up the physical and people damage while also laying out a hopeful plan to move forward.
  • The equivalent of our JCC houses a beautiful pool used for hydrotherapy, as well as dedicated pool space for special needs children and a gym. Damaged after October 7th and closed until very recently, the dedicated staff have made repairs and reopened a community resource. The Community Center is supported by the Federation of San Diego.
  • At an absorption center, we geared up to paint a shelter and construct benches and planters for recently arrived Ethiopian families. Alas, the painters were foiled by small children who thought they deserved all the fun! The site hosts what is affectionately named the San Diego House.
  • At the SouthUp Incubator for startup companies, I got to spend some time with CEO and IDF reservist Gil Schwartzman, along with their Board Chair and counsel. With a track record of incubating 45 companies to date, they are starting a new fund to expand to 65 companies and hope to attract US investors looking to impact employment and growth in the region. As a number of our donors have been actively engaged with SouthUp for some time, the hope if for JCF to be able to facilitate investments from DAFs, as well as potentially making a discretionary investment.
  • Finally, we enjoyed dinner with some of the host families from the Community Trip last May, and a couple of them shared their own stories of the terror they faced on October 7th.

Day 2 – April 2, 2024

After an immersive and jarring day yesterday deep in the heart of Sha’ar HaNegev, today we headed west to Tel Aviv to learn more about some of the people and organizations supporting the victims of October 7th.

  • Our first stop: Shamir Medical Center, where we met with Dr. Shai Efrati, head of Sagol Center for Hyperbaric Medicine. They use a hyperbaric chamber to treat trauma, infection, and PTSD with a combination of pressure and oxygen. We learned 20 years of research was rapidly synthesized and put into practice to heal and save lives. They have developed unique therapies since October 7th.
  • Next, we visited Schneider Medical Center, which treated all the hostage returnees. The hospital serves children of the Middle East, not just Israel. There are open spaces, soothing decor, personal space, and classrooms to continue schooling. A beautiful “toy store” is available for children to “shop” and choose their favorite item – or deliver to children unable to leave their beds. It was established by Iris Artenstein, who was seriously burned by candles as a child in San Diego and treated at Children’s Hospital. While at Children’s she was given a teddy bear – and never forgot. At a presentation, we were told about the preparations behind the return of some of the hostages, the resources and strategies used and some of the family stories. Only one photographer was present for the returns, with the permission of the families. We are fortunate he is accompanying us this week to record our visit and share his personal stories.
  • After lunch, we spent some time at Hostage Square in Tel Aviv, a large plaza with a number of art installations, many, many reminders of the missing hostages, and a place for their families to gather and share with each other and those who visit to give their support. Established by the Hostage and Missing Families Forum, it is more than just a place. It felt like the atmosphere changed as we got off the bus and walked into the square. Voices were hushed and the atmosphere felt heavier as we and every other visitor took in the Empty Dinner Table installation; the digital sign counting up the seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, and months since the hostages were taken; the replica of a tunnel in Gaza; the gathering of family members…and the pictures of the hostages….everywhere!
  • For our last stop, we headed a little north of Tel Aviv to visit the residents of Kfar Aza, currently living at Shfayim’s Kibbutz Hotel, or in one of 50 newly located mobile homes on the property. Before dinner in the kibbutz dining room, we had the privilege of meeting with Vered Libstein, Ofir’s widow, who visited San Diego (and spoke at our Board meeting) last December. This is a different time from December. Vered was not here today to talk about what happened, but rather to talk about their community and how they have come together. The future is very uncertain. Daily living is the main priority – assembling even a semblance of normalcy. Children were running around indoors, outdoors, playing, and shouting. It had the feeling of a hotel full with families on vacation, but the reality is that many of the families are still crammed into a hotel room. Many more mobile homes are needed.
  • After dinner, they opened the bar for all of us to gather, with Vered and other members of Kfar Aza. The bar was just recently created as an exact replica of Kfar Aza’s own bar and a real reminder of home. One difference – Kfar Aza are the soccer champions in Sha’ar HaNegev and two framed jerseys hang on the wall: #22 was killed on 10/7 by jumping on a grenade to save his wife and #20 was the head of security killed defending the kibbutz, and husband of one of the residents, Mazi, who joined us tonight. Mazi joined Graeme’s group for lunch during the Community Trip last May, and she was happy to see him again. For a while, there was laughter, conversation, reflection, toasts and then we had to leave for Jerusalem. Lots of hugs, but we didn’t want to leave them, knowing the challenges they face.

Many of the organizations we have come across and will see, including the Hostage and Missing Families Forum, have been supported by Impact Cubed, our donors – and some are being interviewed by our JTF teens.

Click below to watch video of Jeremy Pearl reporting from Hostage Square, Tel Aviv.

Hostage Square in Tel Aviv, Israel

Jeremy in Jerusalem, Israel
Jeremy in Jerusalem, Israel
Shamir Medical Center
Shamir Medical Center
Schneider Medical Center
Schneider Medical Center
Schneider Medical Center's Toy Store
The Toy Store inside the Schneider Medical Center
Hostage Square in Tel Aviv, Israel
Hostage Square in Tel Aviv, Israel
Posters of Hostages Displayed in Hostage Square
Posters of Hostages displayed in Hostage Square
Ayesha Ziadna
Speaking with Ayesha Ziadna, Bedouin Community Center Manager
Paramedic Hillel
Paramedic Hillel, who bravely served the people of Sderot on October 7th
CCTV feed showing terrorists overrunning the police station in Sderot
Hamas Pickup Truck
A pickup truck, modified by Hamas, used to mount heavy weapons
Our guide in Ofakim, at the site of her brother's murder
IDF Base
IDF Base where we met Bedouin Soldiers

Click below to watch video of the Nova music festival site.

Nova Music Festival Site

Day 3 – April 3, 2024

I’m trying to process the unfathomable horrors we heard about today. This time was different though, seeing some of it with our own eyes. Nothing could prepare me for this day. But along the way, our two very different interactions with the Bedouin community provided some community, wisdom, and hope.

  • We started the day with Lishay Miran, 39, on her kibbutz in southern Israel. Lishay is the wife of Omri Miran, who was kidnapped from Nahal Oz on October 7th. Lishay’s husband and two young daughters, 6 months and 4 years old, were held hostage by Hamas for nearly 8 hours. Hamas terrorists held guns to their heads, streamed them on Facebook Live, and tortured them physically and mentally during that day. Lishay and her daughters made it out alive. Her husband, Omri, was taken as a hostage onside Gaza and is still in captivity. Lishay helps the children cope by reading them the classic Goodnight Moon at bedtime, telling them: “Daddy will be home soon”.
  • Our next stop was the Bedouin Community Center in Rahat. Rahat is the largest Bedouin city in Israel, pop. 80,000. It is a young city – 62% of the population are under the age of 18. In a beautiful new building, our host and CEO, Ayesha, described some challenges. 60% of women are unemployed. But women are increasingly running small businesses out of their homes – catering, sewing, etc. The trend is for women to become better educated but that is less true for men. Their community is still dominated by a traditional Arab patriarchy.

    Engaged at 15, Aisha later refused to marry. Many girls wouldn’t speak with her afterwards, as their parents labeled her “rebellious”. Now she is CEO of an organization helping to empower and educate Bedouin women and she is sought out by women – in person and on Facebook.

    Her cousin was killed on October 7th. Members of her family were kidnapped. Since then, she is feeling “hardcore Israeli”. But she feels her emotions stretched. She has family in Gaza. Her family joined the IDF. Her boyfriend is an officer in the IDF. All of this makes her appreciate the peacemakers of the world more than ever. Her work gives her hope and strength. She impressed upon us that “we need to figure this out”. She wonders how Arabs will treat her community after this is all over. Will they be treated as enemies or credited for saving lives by bringing people together?

    Aisha sees Rahat as a beacon and haven to make all Arab and Jewish people feel welcome since October 7. She showed us a video featuring four Bedouin men who used their own car on October 7 to drive a Jewish woman to safety, along with 30 or 40 Nova festival goers. They created a Relief Center, with Arab and Jewish volunteers working together to distribute food from Arab and Jewish businesses. Daily classes are offered for Jews to learn Arabic and Arabs to learn Hebrew – together. It has been a great experience for all – so much so that Benny Gantz, President Herzog, and the American ambassador all came to see this success story.
  • On the way to our next stop in the city of Sderot, we passed a small shelter next to a bus stop, where 16 elderly people in a minivan were murdered as they prepared to take a day trip to the Dead Sea.
  • In Sderot, we visited the paramedic station (MDA), where Hillel described how they faced impossible conditions with only one armored ambulance on October 7th, while terrorists roamed the streets freely. Unable to get to the hospital, they set up a makeshift triage site at their station.
  • A short distance away, we visited the National Digital Center, where the coordinator, a 41-year-old mother with a 4-year-old daughter described how she sheltered for 10 hours in her home, which was hit by a rocket. The neighbor’s 5-year-old boy was killed. Then she played us CCTV clips from the October 7th attack in the police station, which killed 25 officers and many civilians. I have intentionally not viewed raw video from that day and I don’t think any of us were prepared for what she wanted to share.

    Our host described what we saw through the CCTV cameras mounted on the police station. Terrorists in pickup trucks and cars pulled up. Then, a civilian car approached slowly, followed by a police car. In the leading vehicle was a couple with their children lying in the back seats, covered as instructed by blankets. They had sought help from the police car after the attacks started all over the city. The officers they found told them to go the police station and they would follow to keep them safe. The terrorists walked calmly up to the lead car and executed the parents first, and then the children. Then, they murdered the officers.
  • As we left Sderot, we stopped at one of three sites where vehicles destroyed in the attack were taken. This site holds 1,200 vehicles, belonging to victims and terrorists.
  • We then headed to the site of the massacre of over 350 young people at the Nova music festival site. I apologize for running out of words to describe what I felt there. I took some photos and a short video to try to convey the enormity of what happened – in a place of such natural beauty and peace.
  • Next stop was the newly established JDC Resilience Center (with funding from San Diego) in Ofakim, a city of 30,000 people of mostly North African origin, but also home to immigrants from all over the world. On October 7th, two trucks of terrorists entered at 6:20 am and began to indiscriminately kill anybody in their path. 51 people died. A local resident took us on a walking tour and described the day. She stopped at a house where her younger brother, a policeman was killed.
  • Our last stop was an IDF base close to the Egyptian border and 1.2 miles from the Gaza border, where we hosted an iftar meal to break the Ramadan fast for a unit of Bedouin soldiers. Their base was virtually destroyed in the surprise attack but was saved by IDF special forces. Now rebuilt, we spent time talking to them and hearing their stories. Unlike the Jewish population, the Bedouins are volunteers – they are not required to serve. Their combat medic is a Jewish soldier raised in New Jersey. He described the comradery, the natural respect and friendships and sharing of cultures. The Bedouin commander was asked why they choose to serve. He looked around at his unit and shrugged, replying “because it’s our country”. As our guide pointed out earlier, multiculturalism is all around – 25% of the population of Israel is Arab.

And that’s a good place to finish for today. In the face of brutal terror that took innocent lives indiscriminately from multiple religions and nationalities, we heard and saw stories about community – building, restoring, strengthening.

Day 4 – April 4, 2024

Our final day was spent in Jerusalem, full of insights into society and strategies. At first, it felt jarring – a much too sudden shift away from the individual stories of intense pain and the deep connections to our friends in Sha’ar HaNegev. But, in retrospect, it was probably a good thing to give us all a day to draw a breath and reflect deeply before having to depart. And that departure was very, very difficult – much more so than I (and I think all of us) had imagined.

  • We started with an update from the incredibly informative Becky Caspi, JFNA’s SVP Global Operations: reflections on the hostages, President Biden’s tweet, Israeli public opinion about the war, and economic activity. JFNA is in frequent communication and collaboration with corporate funders. JFNA’s Israel Emergency Allocation is $158M out of $803M raised in total. Becky’s team still has a lot of work ahead to implement all the grants – due diligence, organization selection, grant agreement preparation, etc.

    We heard in detail how Hamas wanted to destroy the Israeli dream. They were intentional in destroying agricultural infrastructure. 350,000 chickens were slaughtered at a site where no people were present. Tractors, irrigation equipment such as pipes, and controllers – were targeted en masse. This has affected food security for not just Israel but the broader region – the Western Negev is vital, much like the California Central Valley. JFNA is focused on the emergency purchase of equipment – a whole season has been lost for some crops.
  • Next, a representative from International Consulting Firm Deloitte briefed us on what is already an extensive and thoughtful rebuilding plan for Sha’ar HaNegev. Funding is key – especially Israeli government funding, which will likely be a challenge. Federation is leading a committee – which includes some JCF board members – to stay up to date with the plan and interface with the regional council.
  • Heading out into the city, we were led by Charlene Seidle, President and CEO of the Leichtag Foundation, to learn from their deep experience in supporting grassroots initiatives to connect communities. First stop – the Hamiffal Art Center, to discover how artists have coped since October 7th. There are big challenges, especially for Arab residents of East Jerusalem who have to “prove” their connection to Jerusalem for residency. This haven has been a vital resource since October 7th, for mental health, connections and social therapy. Leichtag is looking to share some of the lessons from their initiatives with Sha’ar HaNegev. We met talented artists and creatives including a medical clown, Mishy Harman, host and producer of Israel Story, the first and wildly popular podcast started in Israel 13 years ago. The artists described their efforts immediately after October 7th to go from hotel to hotel and provide food and relief to the traumatized refugee families.
  • Next stop – Jerusalem Food Rescuers, an inspiring organization that is combatting food insecurity by creative and targeted use of rescued surplus or expired foods. They focus on food rescue (five tons a week are rescued from the wholesale market, restaurants, and businesses), food distribution, education, catering, collaboratives, and policy work. They provide employment to marginalized East Jerusalem residents – as well as housing them during the work week.
  • Finally, we visited the home of the Leichtag Foundation’s Jerusalem Initiative, a co-working space. We gained insights from their CEO, Dr. Haneen Mgadlh. Dr.Nechumi Yaffe, professor at Tel Aviv University, briefed on the changing ultra-orthodox society – making up 14% of the total worldwide Jewish population. It is a very young population, dominated by the under 18 age group. Lastly, we had a sobering briefing from United Hatzalah, a community-based volunteer emergency medical services (EMS) organization committed to providing the fastest response to medical emergencies across Israel even prior to the arrival of ambulances and completely free of charge. Their role on the day of October 7th was critical – and the stories were a mix of heroism, selflessness, and tragedy.
  • Back at the hotel, Tail Levanon, Director of the Israel Trauma Coalition, prepared us for a final session together – one of deep, personal reflections about what we saw, heard, and felt. It was raw, authentic, difficult. Lots of words but, at the same time, sometimes no words.
  • I am so appreciative that I had the opportunity to join this mission, led by Federation’s incredible, tireless CEO, Heidi Gantwerk and expertly supported by Dana and the Federation team. Thank you also to our brilliant, patient, and wise guide, Yona Leshets, whose daily lessons in history, geography, politics, and humanity helped lend some perspectives far beyond the superficial headlines and slogans that bombard us all daily. And thank you to my fellow participants – accomplished leaders (and all-around good people) deeply committed to our San Diego and Israel communities. I so appreciated getting to know you all better and I know our relationships will benefit us all in our work.

This journey was just a beginning for me. As I take on my new role as CEO, I feel a deep obligation to share what I learned to support our team and donors to repair, rebuild, and strengthen the people of Sha’ar HaNegev and Israel. It will be an enormous task, but I have no doubt that the strength of JCF and its community of incredibly generous donors will be there for as long as it takes.

Becky Caspi
Learning from JFNA's Becky Caspi
Hamiffal Art Center
The Hamiffal Art Center
Hamiffal Art Center
Inside the Hamiffal Art Center
Charlene Seidle
Charlene Seidle leading a group discussion
Jerusalem Food Rescuers
Jerusalem Food Rescuers
Jerusalem Food Rescuers
Jeremy, Charlene, and group visiting the Jerusalem Food Rescuers
Jeremy Pearl
Jeremy Pearl on the Federation's Solidarity Mission 2024