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Winnipeg Solidarity Mission Participants with Jean Berman at Soroka Hospital

Chief Evans, Jim Mc Fadden, Rev John Howson , Rev Don James and Zev Faintuch visiting a wounded soldier at Tel Hashomer Hospital

Reverend John Howson blessing Jean Berman at Soroka Hospital

Winnipeg Solidarity Participants heading to President's Rivlin's Residence in Jerusalem


Mission participants with Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai


It is a “humbling experience to visit parents whose wounded sons are in comas fighting for their lives

By Rhonda Spivak, September 20, 2014









Michel Aziza, who co-chaired  with Mel Lazareck the recent Jewish Federation of Winnipeg's Solidarity Mission to Israel  between August 20 – 26, 2014 said that everywhere the group went, Israelis were "touched and appreciative" that  "we had come all of this way to show our support" during Israel's most recent conflict with Hamas.







During the mission, which was co-ordinated by the Federation’s Shelley Faintuch, the group of 18 people visited wounded IDF soldiers and civilians at both Tel- Hashomer hopital and Be'er Sheva's Sokora hospital.






“It was one of most difficult experiences" and "so humbling," Aziza said. In particular he remembers vividly the visit to a father of a 29 year old soldier who was in a coma, and the mother of a 23 year old soldier who was also in a coma.






"Both told us their stories and both were praying for their sons to come out of the coma," Aziza noted. 







One father made a point of telling the group, "My son didn't serve in the army to attack Palestinians in Gaza. He served to defend Israel and Israelis."





Albert Aziza, Michel's older brother from Toronto, who was also part of the mission, spoke of how unified the country was during this time. "By the time we came to visit the wounded, there had been hundreds of people who had already visited the hospital. Israelis had come with food and gifts. There was an outpouring of support. At Soroka hospital the entire floor had been decorated with pictures made by kids for the wounded."






Michel Aziza pointed out that during the mission he became aware of how Israelis in general "were very concerned about the perception people in the world had of Israel, her army and her citizens."  






As Aziza recalls, "One 23 year old commander at Soroka Hospital came to speak to us about the reality on the ground in Gaza. He told us about one instance when a young Palestinian boy, between 8-10 years old came out of a house waving a white flag. The commander's unit went into the house to see what they could do to help this boy out. The house was unfortunately booby trapped and the boy was killed and so was one of the soldiers."






At Soroka hospital, the mission met a father who was injured saving kindergarten kids from an incoming rocket from Gaza. Jean Berman, 35, and his wife Leora had brought their three-year-old son to the kindergarten for his birthday celebration that morning, when a siren sounded, warning of an incoming projectile from Gaza. They had only 15 seconds to run for cover. With many children still gathered outside the kindergarten, Berman and the kindergarten teacher dashed to herd them inside the building reinforced against rocket attacks. As the last of the kids made it into the building, the rocket struck, and although Berman was inside, shrapnel blasted through a window, injuring him in the arm and chest.







According to Aziza, Berman, along with other Israelis they met throughout the mission, were especially touched by the fact that there were non-Jews on the mission who had come all the way from Canada to express their solidarity with the people of Israel. Three representatives from Bridges For Peace had joined the group as well as Chief Ron Evans from Norway House Cree Nation.







Ariel Karabelnicoff, executive director of the Winnipeg Chapter of the Canadian Associates of Ben-Gurion University explained that after the “extremely emotionally charged visit to Soroka University Hospital,” the group went across the street to Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.







“Prof. Rivka Carmi, President of Ben-Gurion University received us and was so appreciative of our visit in such difficult circumstances, especially in the Negev. Prof. Carmi briefed the group about the fluid situation and how the University and its students were impacted. When the war started, it was during spring exams, and 1500 students received Tzav 8 (emergency draft notices to fight in Gaza). Spring exams were immediately cancelled, hundreds of BGU students volunteered in the community by opening day camps for children, and assisting elders.








Carmi explained that, “Students were not able to work this summer to earn money to pay for tuitions and books, so we will help them with scholarships.”







According to Karabelnicoff, on August 24th after the University was closed for 50 days, Prof. Carmi made a dramatic announcement saying that “We cannot be closed any longer. We are an institution, we have to keep going, and we are resuming activities on August 26th. We have shelters, and our students and staff will go to shelters when necessary.” There was complete silence in the boardroom.







Karabelnicoff said, “I was so proud of her determination and  fortitude. She is a remarkable leader. Ben-Gurion University created a $1 million dollar Scholarship Fund to help students pay for tuitions.”







Sharon Zalik, executive director of the Winnipeg Chapter of Canadian Friends of the Hebrew University said that it was “an honour and a privilege” to participate in the Solidarity Mission to Israel.






“It was an eye opening and emotional experience that will resonate with me forever, especially since it involved not only listening to well informed speakers, but visiting wounded soldiers in hospital and touring areas that had been affected by the conflict. I have been fortunate to visit Israel on several occasions, but this trip was different and difficult since it was during a war.






She added, “By the time we arrived in Israel, the 75 Canadian students who were doing summer programs at Hebrew University in Jerusalem had completed their programs and returned to Canada. When the war first began, a number of students from the US and Europe returned home. But our Canadian students showed their solidarity and their true Canadian spirit and stayed until their programs were completed.”






Moe Levy, Executive Director of the Asper Foundation noted “Given that The Asper Foundation supports a number of initiatives in Israel, we felt it was important for our senior management staff to visit during the conflict to get a real sense of how it was impacting people and institutions.  Many of our community action centers and projects came to a standstill while others were in emergency mode though things are thankfully getting back to normal now.”






Jeff Morry, Senior Program Manager of the Asper Foundation added, “The timing of the trip was an important one.  Face-to-face meetings with people from many walks of life gave us insight into how the conflict was affecting the country as a whole and Israelis as individuals.  It strengthened my personal and professional connection with Israel.  The resilience of the Jewish state is incredible and inspiring.”






Mel Lazareck, who co-chaired the mission, told the Winnipeg Jewish Review that “Karyn and I have been on many "missions" to Israel. This was one of the most unusual for several reasons; our group was a real cross-section of Canadiana i.e. students, representatives from Bridges for Peace, community activists, and a  First Nations Chief (Ron Evans). 





“On several occasions our entire group, clad in Canada Israel T-shirts, waving the Israel and Canadian Flags, "demonstrated” our support for Israel at various sites , and received much horn honking and waving acknowledging our "demonstration". We weren't arrested once, Lazareck added.






“Israelis unfortunately have to adjust to rapidly changing conditions as we found out especially as we traveled south .The most frustrating part for the Israeli's has to  be repeatedly experiencing "cease fire situations" without really resolving anything.”







Jennifer Johnson, a student participant on the mission, said that "Travelling to Ashkelon was extremely eye opening because the place was a ghost town. While we were in Israel, an average of 40-60 missiles were fired in its direction daily. We stopped for lunch at a local falafel shop there and it was so sad how happy the employees were to have business. They kept trying to give us free food but we felt guilty accepting their generosity because we just wanted to support them.  I was really proud to see The AMEN centre with older kids volunteering to look after younger children using Jewish values. It is a terrible situation to be in, having to entertain kids in bomb shelters with limited resources. It is not ideal for the children either. The place was run down, smelled of mildew and overcrowded but they made it into a sanctuary where parents could feel their children would be safe and kids would not feel alone. I left wishing I could do more for them, and I think about their lives and hope they feel more freedom to be kids now that the ceasefire is in effect."






Rev Donald James , National Development Director, Bridges for Peace Canada said “As a Christian, it was an awesome privilege to share in this solidarity mission with the Jewish community of Winnipeg.  As a Canadian, it was encouraging to see that the support of our nation, especially through PM Harper, is making a significant impact on so many people in Israel.” (I am returning to Israel October 30-November 9, leading a tour. People should call the BFP office for an application; or call 204-489-3697.)






Caleigh Isen, a student who went on the mission and was visiting Israel for the first time, said "This experience has helped enhance my activism and encouraged me to participate actively in the promotion of Israel. I will take the experiences of this trip with me in all directions of life including my involvement in my university classrooms, campuses, clubs, programs, social media usage and all that my future and career will hold for me as a young Jewish woman living in Canada. I think most importantly, I wish to head back to Israel as soon as possible to continue my connection, involvement, defense and love for the land of Israel."







Rev. John Howson National Director, Emeritus, Bridges for Peace Canada added “Israel has been a big part of my life for many years. This was my 49th visit. I have been burdened for the trauma Israel has been forced to endure. The trip was enlightening and gave me a new passion to stand with Israel. I have a greater understanding of the dilemma she faces.”
(P.S. My next trip is January 20 - 29, 2015)






Zev Faintuch, a student at Western  who enlisted in the  IDF in 2011 and completed his service appreciated being able to show solidarity with Israel  at President Rivlin’s residence in Jerusalem and  Rabin Square in Tel-Aviv", in addition to visiting the wounded soldiers. "I will no doubt recount my experiences on the mission and explain the conflict through a lens that the mission crafted for me. As an International Relations student, Israel is discussed in every one of my classes. My experience on the Solidarity Mission will help me make the case for Israel in the classroom."






Jim McFadden said, “This was my first time to Israel and I was honoured to be included in the solidarity trip to stand in support for Israel just a few weeks ago. The people we met on the streets were warm and welcoming as we shook hands and handed out Canadian flags. I am looking forward to return with my wife on a tour with Bridges for Peace this October.”

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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

Opinions expressed in letters to the editor or articles by contributing writers are not necessarily endorsed by Winnipeg Jewish Review.