Our first stop this morning was probably the most heart-warming, but being Miss America and an ambassador for CMNH, I feel as though I will always be especially touched by visiting the faces of children who are in a hospital. In the town of Ashqelon, roughly 12 kilometers from the Gaza strip, is a small full-service institution, Barzilai Hospital, that houses just over 500 beds. The hospital has a territory of over half a million people and has lived under the norm of mortar and rocket fire from Gaza for the last fourteen years. Today, there were two patients in the children’s ward who were, in fact, from Gaza. Their policy is all-inclusive; treating anyone who walks through the door.
We had the chance to bring warmth and smiles thanks to Mr. Earl Cox, a Christian leader in the US who has long raised funds and support for the people of Israel. Mr. Cox provided plush toys, Nerf guns and Pac Man toys for the children who found themselves at Barzilai today. Honestly, there’s just no feeling like surprising a child with something new to entertain them during the hours and days they spend enclosed in the walls of a hospital.
Our visit went by quickly and then we were on the road again to Kiriyat Hachinuch, a high school in Gevim, Israel, which is roughly 2 kilometers from the boarder of the Gaza strip. The school was built nearly three years ago and houses a few hundred students with an open-air feel and a ton of common space. While our visit was short, it was a chance to meet a classroom of seniors who are, after school, headed to the military (mandatory in Israel). At 18, they will have spent the last 14 years of their life listening for the sirens that instruct them to run for cover from the array of attacks that are being fired their way. In just a few short minutes, we learned about the way a few of them (Matan and Saar) spent this past summer- mostly indoors in hopes of keeping clear of the war fare that is happening in their region of the country. What we also learned, though, is that they do not let their current conditions with Gaza define them. Israeli’s are full of life and have every intention of staying right where they are; home.
While we learned a bit about the way of life over the last decade and a half through the eyes of a teenager, at our next stop we were privy to a wealth of knowledge from the police chief, Koby Harush, at the Sderot Police Station. There we had a chance to see and learn about the rockets that have been fired since the conflict with Gaza began. In fourteen years there have been 26,000 rockets fired into Israel and 8,000 of those were in Sderot. The good news is that there are now several defense tactics in place to protect the people of Israel. Sirens and warning systems, shelters, Ian Dome and combat misels have been developed to protect the people in the state of Israel. Most of the time, the sirens detect incoming fire and sound, giving citizens roughly 15 seconds to find shelter. This technology developed in Israel has saved thousands of lives, but the idea of fifteen seconds to find shelter certainly opened our eyes to the drastic ways the conflict with Gaza has changed the normal, day-to-day ways of living. The harrowing truth is that there are children who don’t know how to ride a bike, basketball courts that remain empty and parents who have to make tough choices. Imagine a siren sounds at 2 am and you have four children….. Fifteen seconds to wake them and find shelter. Needless to say the conversation we had at the Police Station with Koby was one most of us will never, ever forget.
After such a jam-packed morning, we all welcomed the amazing lunch we had at Humus Shel Tehina in Sderot and it is an acclaimed humus spot that was touted as one of the best humus restaurants in the country! We had home-made pita, eggplant humus, chickpea humus, falafel, salad and even French fries. It was to die for! But then…we were back on the road.
Our last official visit of the day is one that absolutely fascinated me. We had the the distinct pleasure of sitting down at the israeli Defense Forces Air Force Base with four young women who serve, or are Captain’s in their respective field along with an IDF pilot, Amit. It was absolutely fascinating to learn about their military, the recruiting process, why they loved what they were doing and how they came to be there. Three of the four women we spoke to were not born in Israel, but chose to come back to defend Israel through service.
Keren was born and raised in Great Britain, living her entire life in “London” style. She laughed as she stated, “I always had my nails and hair done with the best handbag!” But, after experiencing anti-Semitism in London, Keren decided that it was in her calling to serve in the army to protect the land that was the only place of true refuge for Jewish people. Only expecting to serve for the two required years, she is now embarking on her fifth year in a division that deals solely with international perception of Israel, the Spokesman Unit.
And there was also Gabrielle, a Canadian born and raised twenty-three-year-old with an Israeli mother and strong Jewish religious beliefs. Gabrielle grew up with the heart of a servant and immersed in Israeli culture thanks to her mother. Upon graduating high school, she knew she wanted to do something to serve the people who shared her same faith. A “lone soldier,” she picked up her life in Canada and moved across to the Middle East. Now, she’s almost there in her quest to become a Captain and has signed on for a third year of service to the IDF with their Search and Rescue team.
We learned a great deal from these women who, although younger than most of us, were empowered, strong and independent. They chose service in a military where it is mandatory and are happily remaining on board. We asked tough questions about their families, female safety in their military, equality and even co-existence. What I found to be the biggest take away is that the IDF is an extremely diverse religious military with Muslims, Druze, Christians, Jews and Hindus that all work together, collectively, to defend the country that they all call home. We also learned that, in their opinion, peace is possible with the Palestinians, and many of them are already living that truth.
Post our panel discussion, we were whisked down to check out one of the Black Hawk helicopter that carries out everything from special operations to rescue missions. We had a blast hanging out with all of the men in uniform! 😉
From there, we were so excited to be going to dinner with UN Ambassador, Gabriela Shalev. Her life story is amazing, and although we learned much about her, I strongly suggest reading a bit about her life here. We were so in awe of such a strong, smart and accomplished woman who was willing to make the trip specifically to meet and chat with us, answering all of our questions. When I asked her what her proudest accomplishment was, she answered swiftly that her children and grandchildren were the thing that gave her the biggest sense of pride. Honestly, she was beyond.
And- that was the day…. condensed, of course. It’s hard to put in to words what this experience is doing for me. Meeting so many people with such pride and loyalty to the state of Israel, but also with such an immense grasp of what is important in life. Of all of the travels I have been lucky enough to enjoy, I know this will be the most life-changing. I am so grateful to be here.
*Please excuse typos- I wrote quickly!