According to Israel Defense Forces reports, the Islamist terror group Hamas launched as many as 170 rockets from Gaza into southern Israeli communities Monday and Tuesday, including Baltimore’s sister city of Ashkelon. The onslaught provoked the commencement of Operation Protective Edge, a military offensive that so far has resulted in the launching of approximately 50 targeted missile strikes on sites in Gaza.
In preparation for a possible ground offensive, IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz called up 40,000 reservists for deployment, and bomb shelters opened in Ashkelon, Ashdod and Beersheba with many more to planned to open in Tel Aviv. Sirens warning residents to take cover sounded in area towns throughout Tuesday.
Beth Goldsmith, co-chair of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore’s Israel and Overseas Committee, said that the situation for those living in Ashkelon has become increasingly frightening and — especially for those who do not have safe rooms in their homes — very uncomfortable.
“All of the summer programs, schools, camps have shut down [in Ashkelon], and many parents are staying home with their children,” she said. “Those who don’t have shelters in their homes are relocating. When the sirens go off, you have only 15 seconds to get to a safe place.”
Goldsmith said that The Associated has been monitoring events on the ground.
“One Israeli group we support called AMEN, a volunteer program to engage at-risk teens, has been manning the shelters helping to calm and engage the children there, trying to minimize their trauma,” she related. “We also have staff based in Israel who are running things and keeping us apprised of what’s going on. We certainly hope this does not go any further.”
While there are no Associated-sponsored travel groups in Ashkelon, two programs, the Associated-supported Onward Israel for young adults and the Baltimore Zionist District Teen Experience, currently have about 50 young adults participating in programs elsewhere in Israel.
Onward Israel’s 26 participants are halfway through their program and for four weeks have been living in individual dorm rooms on the Tel Aviv University campus, said Mary Haar, director of the Israel and Overseas programs for The Associated. During most days, the college-aged students work at internships tailored to their interests as part of the program. They also participate in group trips and other events.
“They had a group trip today in Tel Aviv learning about Israeli society, and when they arrived home about 5:30 p.m. there had been a rocket [aimed at Tel Aviv] intercepted by the Iron Dome,” said Haar, referring to the Israeli anti-ballistic missile system. “There was a siren, they went to the shelter [within the dorm].”
Haar added that during a warning siren, it is typical to stay about 10 minutes in a shelter until receiving further instruction.
She said that the students are no longer in the shelter but have been asked to stay in the dorm until further notice from the Onward Israel professional security team, which includes IDF and other security liaisons. The security professionals check in with all group participants, said Haar, and assessments will be made in terms of any travel to internships throughout the week or for other necessary instruction.
“It is definitely an ever-changing situation,” said Haar, “and safety and security is the highest priority for our participants. We, of course, hope it quiets down and calms down quickly.”
At press time, several Onward Israel participants, two of which are from Baltimore, had chosen to leave Israel and travel back to their homes.
Rabbi Michael Meyerstein, executive director of BZD, said his office is in daily communication with partners in Israel.
“We rely on them to be our eyes and ears on the ground,” he said. “We constantly update our parents so that they can feel a bit more comfortable about their children’s situation.”
Meyerstein said BZD can alter the program, which includes 26 teens from Maryland and one from New Jersey, almost at a moment’s notice and re-direct students to a different part of the country or change the itinerary even for part of a day, if necessary.
Associate Director Fran Sonnenschein explained the group just came off of a three-day stay at a Beit Kama kibbutz in southern Israel, and she had just spoken with a parent of one of the teens on their program.
“They spent a couple of hours in a bomb shelter,” she said, “and one student was Skyping with her mother.
“Right this moment, they’re at Mitzpe Ramon — they didn’t go where they were originally going; now they are much farther south,” she added.