The matzav (situation) in Israel and Gaza is pretty bleak right now. Failed efforts for a temporary cease-fire to the rockets being launched at both sides and preparing ground troops sound like a recipe for war to me. And if that’s what’s for dinner, I’m not very hungry.
The last time Israel was at war was the summer after my freshman year of college. I was interning at the local Federation office in Pittsburgh and things had been pretty quiet in the office. I divided my time there working on both fundraising and community building projects. I spent my days making flyers for women’s philanthropy events, and I planned activities for an upcoming visit from Israeli teenagers. We had sent 93 Pittsburgh teens to Israel for the summer, and they were going to bring some Israeli peers back with them for two weeks.
The day war broke out with Lebanon, my summer changed. My parents sent me to work with a check – an early donation for the Israel Relief Fund that was surely being created as we ate our breakfast that morning. When I got there, I had an email from the Federation CEO inviting me to join his senior staff in the board room. It was 8 am, and they had already been dividing up tasks. First and foremost we needed to closely monitor the safety of our youth traveling in Israel. Second priority was keeping their parents well informed. At that time, it was determined that minor itinerary changes would be made, but the touring would continue. Then there was development – raising funds from community members like my parents to provide relief to families affected by the war. There was public relations to take care of – preparing talking points for supporters and responding to inquiries from local reporters. Finally, there was community engagement. We hold a pro-Israel rally for the community. It was 9 am and the meeting was about to adjourn. “Any questions?” our CEO asked. I had been a fly on the wall up until that moment. But now it was my turn. “How can I help?” I asked.
I was assigned to the rally team. With two other people, I planned a community rally in just three days that was attended by over 1,000 people. The other members of my team had experience in this. They found their notes from the last rally which took place during the Second Intifada. They even found a picture of me and my old friend sitting in the crowd at their last rally – I was in middle school at the time. We secured a venue, invited local politicians, ordered blue and white balloon arrangements, and solicited bottled water donations. We handed out flyers to local businesses and press releases to email lists and newspapers.
Meanwhile, the fundraising gurus held a caucus for their relief fund. The leading philanthropists from the community sat together in a room and pledged their financial support. An older man stood up and proudly declared that he and his wife would give $20,000. A middle aged woman stood up next, promising $5,000. This went on for an hour, with supportive applause following each pledge. It was unlike anything I had ever seen. Later that night, I helped collect donations in water cooler bottles during a lecture at the JCC. People gave loose change and small bills they were carrying. People gave what they could, large and small.
As the war intensified in those first few days, parents grew more fearful for their children abroad. The Federation booked flights for all 93 teens and our local staff to return home, just hours before the rally took place. It wasn’t easy. There weren’t a lot of planes going in or out of the war zone.
The day of the rally was a scorcher in high 80s (by DC standards, that’s not bad. For Pittsburgh, it was a really hot day). I spent over 10 hours outside setting up, attending the rally, and cleaning up, with a walkie-talkie on my hip. Two of the returning teens spoke and the whole group attended. My mom showed up. So did many of my friends who were home for the summer. There were a couple Pro-Palestinian people protesting the rally but everything was very peaceful.
At the end of the day, I felt like I had accomplished something. I know that rallies don’t save lives or end wars. At best, they provide an outlet for people who feel otherwise empowered to show their support and solidarity. At worst, they become riots with more casualties. But at the time, I still felt like I was doing something.
This week, I find myself in a different city, in a different stage of life, and still asking the same question. How can I help?