Like so many of us, I have felt an immense pull towards my Jewish identity since 7 October. The abject horror of that day has only redoubled my Jewish commitment. I have taken every opportunity I can – personally and professionally – to demonstrate this, and my support for the Israeli people. And I knew that, as soon as it was possible, I had to go to Israel.
Last week, my son Sam and I finally boarded an El Al flight to Tel Aviv. When the plane touched down, I was comforted to hear the familiar, albeit slightly muted, applause from my fellow passengers; all of whom, like me, were eager to be there.
Walking through an almost deserted Ben Gurion airport, it quickly became clear that the Israel I landed in was not the same Nation that I knew. It was immensely sad; full of grief and palpably traumatised. It was also clear that our visit – not just mine and my son’s but all non-Israeli’s coming into the country – was hugely appreciated. Being there, standing alongside and in support of the Israeli people, meant something.
Similarly, the support the wider British Jewish community has shown to Israel through its substantial fundraising efforts, has clearly been immensely appreciated. Civil society has undoubtedly stepped up to support Israelis in their time of need.
World Jewish Relief, (WJR) the organisation of which I am Chair, made the decision not to raise money to support Israel, but to support two projects, closely linked to our work, directly from our own reserves. We felt with so many established Israeli charities already doing vital work, it was important to not detract attention away from their fundraising efforts. This is a decision that our Trustees are proud to have made with our Team.
On our trip, Sam and I were lucky enough to visit these projects. First a trip to a youth village called Yemin Orde, run by Youth Aliyah. Yemin Orde is a home, school and safe haven to over 400 at-risk immigrant youth in Israel. This includes many who have come from Ukraine and Russia following the Russian invasion. Young people who have fled from conflict, only to find themselves in what is now also a war zone.
Here I met Racheli, one of the directors, who is herself an immigrant from Ethiopia and grew up in a Youth Village. She exudes wisdom and charisma, and she clearly provides indispensable love, support and guidance to the challenged young Israeli Olim today.
We also visited another partner, the Israel Trauma Coalition (ITC), an organisation WJR works alongside in Ukraine. They specialise in psychological trauma care, emotional first aid, and therapy to families and children in Israel, including Bedouin communities – who also suffered grievously at the hand of the terrorists. We heard all about the work they’ve done to provide essential trauma training to therapists across Israel, to try and go some way to help a deeply affected population.
And we spoke to dozens and dozens of people from all walks of life – friends, family, strangers – on the plane, in the street and especially in taxis! Everyone is hurting. Everyone is deeply sad. But yet, the sense of unity and community, and of resilience and determination has only grown.
It’s clear that while daily life is starting to resume, there is now a difference between what came before and what will come after. On a morning run, my son and I reflected on how few young people were present in the streets.
In Tel Aviv, a city normally bursting with life, the neighbourhoods are quiet. Many family members are fighting, many have been displaced. Every little town has a neighbourhood watch with armed guards standing at the gate. And, despite this immense pain, Israelis are worried for us. They’re worried about how we in the UK are being impacted by the reports of antisemitism here.
Leaving Israel is always deeply moving, but this time it felt even more so. Walking through the empty airport, surrounded by hundreds of pictures of kidnapped hostages, I knew I would return again soon to show our community’s – and World Jewish Relief’s – ongoing support to the people of Israel.
- Maurice Helfgott, Chair, World Jewish Relief
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