By Rhonda Schaffer-Maron
“Why did you come?”
We were asked this question repeatedly during the whirlwind, four-day Solidarity Mission with United Jewish Federation of Stamford, New Canaan, and Darien from which I just returned. The simple answer, as our guide Lior liked to say, was “to give you a hug”. So, who did I hug?
I hugged Larry, who escaped the bloodbath of Kibbutz Nir Oz. Sitting in the lovely new apartment he and his wife Clarisse have been evacuated to and hearing how their whole family on the kibbutz miraculously survived, one might be tempted to use the word “lucky” to describe him. But so many of Larry’s friends were killed or kidnapped on October 7th, and their kibbutz was burned to the ground. So no, this word cannot be applied to Larry.
I hugged Meirav, a volunteer at the Hostages and Missing Families Forum. Since October 7th, Meirav has been devoting her time to helping families of the hostages keep the issue of the hostages in the public eye. Meirav is strong and compassionate, and committed to helping to bring our hostage’s home.
I hugged Liron, a brave mother of four children who lived in Shlomi on the Lebanese border. After Liron and her children were evacuated (to a single hotel room for all 5 of them!) tunnels were discovered directly under her house. Subsequently, a missile launched by Hezbollah landed on her home. Liron has no idea when/if she and her family will be able to return to their home.
I hugged the IDF soldiers on the base we went to. We brought them homemade cards and bracelets from our local school children. And how grateful they were for the hand knitted hats that would keep them warm during their cold evenings on patrol. We made sure they knew how much we appreciated everything they did to keep our homeland safe.
I hugged our guide at the National Memorial Hall for Israel’s Fallen. One of the most moving stops on the trip for me, this relatively new memorial reminds the visitor of the huge cost the State of Israel has paid to defend itself for the past 75 years. No detail was overlooked in the design which shows so much reverence for the sacrifices of so many soldiers and their families.
I hugged the shopkeeper in the Jerusalem souvenir shop I wandered into. When I asked her if business had been slow since the war started, her response “I don’t like to complain, told me all I needed to know. Needless to say, my bags were full when I left her shop.
And then there were the virtual hugs I gave.
To Shlomo, the farmer who no longer has enough workers to harvest his crops. I hope he felt the hug of the 50+ crates of eggplants our group picked. To the families in Hostage Square, as we sat with them, listening to their stories, and promising to keep spreading their stories. To Yaakov, the brother of hostage Elkana Bohbot, who courageously told his personal story to a group of strangers. When he bumped into members of our mission in Jerusalem several days later, we were no longer strangers. To the young couple in Jerusalem whose proposal we wandered upon/crashed. I am certain they felt our hug as our group serenaded them. To the manager of our hotel who asked multiple times if we were okay with all the noise the displaced children housed in the hotel were making on Shabbat. He was so appreciative that we understood that children living in a single room needed a place to play and let off steam. But how could we not be understanding?
With each hug, I made a promise: “I will not forget your story. I will not let the world forget your story”.
These people have lost so much— their loved ones, their homes, their sense of security— but not their hope. With each hug I felt their strength, their courage. The hostages will come home. We will win the war. And the country will rebuild. Am Yisrael Chai.
Rhonda Schaffer-Maron serves as Grants and Allocations Chair with United Jewish Federation.