Clevelanders on Federation Israel Missions Share Experiences During Iran Attack

Tags: Federation, Israel, Volunteer

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The Jewish Federation of Cleveland’s volunteer mission in Rishon LeTsiyon, Israel, where they harvested kohlrabi for Leket Israel, a food rescue organization. Submitted photo


Article reprinted with permission from Cleveland Jewish News

As Israel came under attack from Iran early on April 14, many Clevelanders were visiting the Jewish state on missions through the Jewish Federation of Cleveland in Beachwood.

A volunteer mission of 12 people was coming to a close, and 20 were joining a humanitarian mission for business and civic leaders as over 300 drones and missiles were launched from Iran at Israel. Almost all of the strikes were shot down by Israel’s anti-missile defense system, backed by the United States and Britain, according to the Associated Press.

The Federation took to Facebook shortly after the attack to share that the missions remained safe and to offer prayers for Israel.

“As news of an attack on Israel breaks – this time directly from Iran rather than through one of the various terrorist organizations it funds – we are comforted to know that all our colleagues and local community members who are currently traveling in Israel are safe and sound,” the Federation’s statement read. “We pray for all who are defending Israel from Iran, as well as the Israeli people who again find themselves in harm’s way. We pray for peace, and for the day when others share our want for peace.”

In preparation for the attack, Israel began closing its airspace at 12:30 a.m. and reopened at 7:30 a.m. April 14, resulting in flight cancellations out of Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv. Allison Wuliger, who was in Israel as part of the volunteer mission, made it out on one of the last flights.

“My flight left Israel actually as the attacks were happening from Iran,” Wuliger, a Cleveland resident and member of B’nai Jeshurun Congregation in Pepper Pike, told the Cleveland Jewish News on April 16. “I flew home on Saturday night and my flight was scheduled for 1 a.m. that Saturday into Sunday.”

She described her “nerve-wracking” final hours in the Jewish state as news alerts about school closures and the airspace came through as she traveled to the airport, unsure if she would be able to leave.

Once there, she said it was “complete pandemonium” as people tried to work through the chaos. All the bomb shelter doors stayed open in preparation, and her flight was moved up to 12:30 a.m., allowing her to make it home as planned.

“It was a pretty crazy scenario knowing that my flight took off at 1 and the sirens were sounding at 2 (a.m.),” said Wuliger, volunteer mission co-chair. “I’m very thankful that my flight was able to take off and thankful that really everyone is safe and Israel defended the country so well, and with the help of other countries, too.”

She said since the Oct. 7, 2023 Hamas surprise attack on Israel that started the war, she had felt a pull to want to go to Israel and do more, and that this mission proposed the perfect opportunity for her.

While her trip to Israel did not end the way she expected, looking back at her time, Wuliger does not regret going. The mission, which began April 8, took her to memorials at Dizengoff Square and Hostage Square in Tel Aviv and the site of the Nova Music Festival; to border communities near Gaza such as Kibbutz Kissufim and Ofakim; to Cleveland’s sister city of Beit Shean, and to Jerusalem.

As a volunteer mission, participants bore witness to the lingering affects of the Oct. 7 attack and helped restore the communities directly affected in the hopes of its residents one day returning home. They volunteered with Leket Israel, a food rescue organization, as they harvested kohlrabi in Rishon LeTsiyon.

They also brought cards from Cleveland Jewish day school students and made more with Israeli students, along with cakes to give to Israel Defense Forces soldiers. In Jerusalem, they went grocery shopping and met with evacuees from Northern Israel who fled from the rocket fire coming from Hezbollah in Lebanon.

“A theme that came out of this trip was the sense of community, and really feeling it being in Israel, that we are one big Jewish community, one big Jewish family,” Wuliger said.

Ira Kaplan and his wife, Amy, arrived in Israel on April 12 for the business leader mission running from April 13 through April 16. Despite the attack, which resulted in the group spending a late night and early morning in a hotel lobby in Tel Aviv, he said the trip and its mission of showing solidarity and bearing witness continued mostly as planned.

“We sat in the lobby as a group and we talked, and I would say there was some concern,” Kaplan told the CJN on April 16 from Israel. “But what it did was bring us together and allow us to get to know each other better.”

However, as the second mission came to a close and airlines continued to cancel flights, getting home once again posed some challenges.

“Our plans were to leave Wednesday (April 17),” Kaplan said. “They still are, although it’s a little bit more circuitous in terms of we have four flights home – first through Cyprus and then through London and then to Kennedy and then to Cleveland.”

After their original return flight was canceled, like many others on the trip and in Israel, he said it was “a little bit of a logistic nightmare, but it’s not anything that people are angry about. It’s just one of those things that we’re working through it together.”

While Kaplan has been on three business missions with the Federation before and looks forward to participating in the next one in the works for next year, he said this one was different as it focused more on supporting a nation still grappling with the events of Oct. 7.

“The universal reaction of people we have met has been gratitude for us just being there,” he said. “That Israelis feel, for I think understandable reasons, very much abandoned by the world, and that our Jewish community, and certainly our Cleveland Jewish community through the Federation, has strongly taken steps through almost a continuous presence in Israel of being there, showing support, learning the truth, bringing it home and sharing it.”

This mission also took participants to Hostage Square, Kibbutz Kissufim and the site of the Nova Music Festival. They also met with two Palestinians working with the Jewish Agency for Israel’s Youth Futures program, which is supported by the Federation, and retired Major General Noam Tibon who rescued his son, Amir, daughter-in-law and their two children from the Hamas attack on Kibbutz Nahal Oz on Oct. 7.

“By and large, we saw and heard what we came to see and hear. So, I would say the attack really had minimal impact on us,” Kaplan said. “It did probably, in terms of a lot of us, raise the understanding as to what the complex relationship is between Israel and the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, and the interplay there with the government post-Oct. 7.”

The attack marks the first time since the start of the Israel-Hamas war that Iran, which has relied on proxies, had launched a direct attack on Israel. Iran stated the attack was retaliation for an airstrike widely blamed on Israel on consular offices in Syria that killed two generals of its Revolutionary Guard on April 1, according to AP.

Federation President Erika Rudin-Luria was also on the humanitarian mission for business and civic leaders and shared her thoughts in a blog post. She expressed her gratitude for Israel and the global community that assisted in defending the Jewish state from the Iranian attack. She acknowledged the two Federation missions that were in Israel and spoke of the resiliency of the Israeli people, but the need to continue to bear witness.

“I have deep appreciation to those traveling with me on this humanitarian trip, as well as those who had just completed our Volunteers’ Mission when Iran attacked,” Rudin-Luria wrote. “These individuals are seeing, hearing and feeling the pain and trauma that so many have misreported or misunderstood. Their presence in Israel is important beyond words.”

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