ASHKELON—A group of 27 mostly American Chabad rabbis are visiting southern Israel, in the first major solidarity mission by Diaspora community leaders since the surprise Hamas attack more than two weeks ago.
The rabbinical delegation, whose participants hail from the U.S., Canada and Australia, toured southern cities still hard-hit by Hamas rockets, visited the families of some of the more than 200 hostages being held by Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza and paid a shivah condolence call to members of a border kibbutz.
“We are here to strengthen the connection between Diaspora Jewry and Israel in this very challenging and important time,” Rabbi David Eliezrie, from Orange Country, Calif., told JNS in an interview on Tuesday following a briefing in Ashkelon’s municipal situation room. “We are here to bring a message that we stand strong with Israel.”
The eerily silent coastal city of 170,000, located eight miles north of the Gaza Strip, has been hit by more rockets than any other city or town since the Hamas assault began on Oct. 7.
Over the last two and half weeks, terrorists in Gaza fired about 1,200 rockets at Ashkelon—about one out of every eight launched at Israel—with 180 striking the city, Ashkelon CEO Hezi Halavia told JNS.
Four residents have been killed and 60 others wounded by the rockets in the city. With only 10 seconds to run for shelter when the sirens wail due to the proximity to Gaza and a lack of public bomb shelters, Ashkelon has been a favorite target for Hamas.
Forty thousand people, or about a quarter of the population, living in older apartments do not have any safe shelter, Halavia said in a briefing in the underground bunker serving as the city’s situation room.
“There is such a disconnect between what you see and hear abroad and being here on the ground,” said Rabbi Yisrael Bernath from Montreal. He noted that many of his acquaintances had urged him not to come on the four-day visit citing safety concerns, something that only strengthened his determination to make the trip.
“We are one Jewish people,” Bernath said.
“When you hear the stories face-to-face you really get a sense of both the urgent needs as well as the positivity and hope of what will be for the future despite the challenges,“ said Rabbi Eli Goodman from Long Beach, N.Y.
The delegation then made its way to Sderot, which, unlike Ashkelon, has been mostly evacuated.
They distributed about $500,000 in aid during their trip.
Spirit of volunteerism
Just outside the Ashkelon city limits, the Israeli spirit of volunteerism was on full display as the convoy of rabbis drove on their way to the next stop on an unusually warm late October afternoon.
At an intersection, as at many others in the south of the country, Israelis from across the nation had set up make-shift stands offering soldiers anything from food and drinks to haircuts adjacent to parked tanked and armored personnel carriers.
Two families from Jerusalem have been at this spot outside Ashkelon for two weeks, providing thousands of soldiers three home-cooked meals a day, a welcome break from the canned foods they subsist on in the field. Cheese, hummus, tehina, tuna and cold-cut sandwiches were being offered on Tuesday afternoon alongside cold drinks.
“We will be here as long as the war lasts,” said Ruth Ben Baruch, 59, who was serving a happy crowd of soldiers with the help of her daughters, 18 and 21, and had received private donations to cover costs.
Such was the popularity of their barbecue lunch last week that the IDF instructed them not to offer it anymore due to safety concerns over overcrowding in a public space. They switched the lunch offering to salads and sandwiches.
“Even the chance to sit on a plastic chair to eat normally is better than in the field,” Ben Baruch said.
As explosions could be heard in the distance, an Israeli Chabad rabbi offered soldiers near a tank a chance to put on phylacteries, or tefillin, the set of small black leather boxes with leather straps containing scrolls of parchment inscribed with verses from the Torah, worn by adult Jews during weekday morning prayers.