A Journey of Solidarity: Reflections from the Baltimore-Ashkelon 20th Anniversary Mission

This past March I had the honor to join the Baltimore-Ashkelon partnership 20th anniversary solidarity mission. A four day mission to Israel that started in the city of Ashkelon, Baltimore’s partner city, and ended in the city of Tel Aviv. In these four days we got a chance to not only see the places that were affected by the horrors of October 7th, but also meet the people, hear their stories, and strengthen our connection with Israel and our partner city.

We arrived to Ashkelon Monday morning, fresh of the plane and after seeing a beautiful exhibit in Ben-Gurion airport in honor of the hostages, and dived straight into our packed schedule. We had a chance hear Major (Res.) Dan Feferman, an intelligence analyst who now runs Sharaka, a nonprofit promoting Israel’s relationships with Abraham Accords nations, who gave us a briefing on the war, giving us the basics. From there we went to the municipalities war room where we’ve learned the amount of effort put into keeping the people of Ashkelon safe and how affected this city really was (did you know the 25% of all missiles shot to Israel were to Ashkelon?). We’ve also learned about the amazing project of “Meishiv HaRuach” (returning the spirit), whose mission is to help Ashkelon citizens build resilience by creating communal events and opportunities to come together. There were other really great projects we were introduced to, like the “Ilay soccer association” that develops skills and builds confidence for kids with special needs through soccer. But the best part of the day, in my opinion, was our dinner with a family in Ashkelon. I had a chance to enjoy an amazing dinner and meet the family of my co-coordinator in one of the partnership projects I lead, Shevet Achim, a school twinning program, giving me a chance to spend some face to face time with her, rather than our usual zoom meeting.

After a long day, and a good night sleep (no jet lag! Who knew?) it was time to start our second day, not before enjoying my favorite part of Israel- the Israeli breakfast buffet. Our second day was also Ashkelon focused and gave us a chance to really hear about the effects of the war on the city and it’s resilience. We started the day in the Merkaz Klita (Absorption Center) where new Oliym (those who moved to Israel) live when they just make Aliyah to Israel. From there we went to the Ashkelon Resiliency Center where we heard about Israel’s efforts to face the impossible challenge of supporting an entire nation going through collective trauma. For lunch we’ve met with teens and leaders of the Amen center, an organization that is focused on volunteerism, where we truly got to hear about the strength of the community of Ashkelon, how even under a “rain of missiles” these teens still came to volunteer making and distributing food for people stuck in the bomb shelter for hours. After lunch we had a chance to visit one of the school of Shevet Achim and hear about the challenges schools in Ashkelon are facing and their ways to connect the students and help them cope with everything going on around them. And after a quick stop helping with distributing costumes to members of the neighborhood, we ended our day in a partnership 20 year celebration ceremony, where we had a chance to meet our Ashkelon friends, hear the mayor speak and come together as a partnership that is still strong 20 years later. Oh and dinner in the marina, we can’t forget that amazing dinner!

Our third day was the one I was nervous about the most. This was the day we drove south and got to see first hand the horrors of October 7th. Joint by our tour guide, we got on the bus that took us to Kibbutz Be’eri, one of the 24 kibbutzim that were targeted in the October 7th attack. The contrast between the blooming trees and flowers and the sight of destruction around us was mind blowing. Burnt houses, signs showing who used to live in each house and weather they are dead, kidnapped or thankfully released from captivity, and the most heart wrenching, the Sukkot that are still up from the holiday, that no one took down, showing how even though we were only a few days from the holiday of Purim, for the people of Be’eri, it was still October 7th. Walking on the paths of the kibbutz, I couldn’t help but think about the horrors that occurred there only a few months prior and how much hate the terrorist had to have in their hearts to reach this scale of destruction. Knowing what life on a kibbutz is like, I know how different the sights I was seeing were. From a vibrant kibbutz filled with screaming children it’s now so silent, with only the birds chirping, reminding us all that life is stronger than anything. One of our stops in the kibbutz was the infirmary. This is where Amit Mann, the paramedic I’ve written about in my previous blog was murdered. I don’t think I could ever forget the feeling I had walking inside that building, knowing the horrors that happened inside, and after learning Amit’s story, knowing that this is where she spent her last few hours alive, trying to save as many people as she can. I never imagined while writing my last blog that I’ll actually get to be where she was, but as hard as it was, I feel like it was destiny. Twice during our time in the kibbutz a huge explosion was heard that sounded like it was right next to us and made us all jump. Though it felt like a bomb went off just 20 feet away, this was actually the sound of IDF artillery landing in Gaza, helping us realize that it’s actually just a short distance away.

From the kibbutz, we drove to the city of Sderot, got to go to an overlook called reporter’s hill (named after all the international reporters broadcasting from there) that really showed us how close we were to the Gaza strip. We understood the landscape of the region and heard from Col (Ret) Grisha Yakobovich (used to be known as “The mayor of Gaza” before the disengagement in 2005) who shared with us information about the relationship between Israel and Gaza in the past few decades. After a lunch break and some great ice cream near kibbutz Yad Mordechai (where a siren sounded less than 15 minutes after we left), we made our way to Tel-Aviv where we took a graffiti tour showcasing how people feel about the war through art and words.

We then woke up to our last day of the mission. We started our day with an Israeli breakfast sharing the dining hall with families from both the south and north of Israel which are still displaced, five months later. We then went to volunteer meal prepping and cooking in a kitchen that transformed from hosting cooking classes to cooking for families that are displaced, families of soldiers in the reserves and even for families of hostages. As someone who loves cooking, I really enjoyed this part of the day, feeling accomplished, like I’m doing something meaningful, while also doing something I love. From there we went to visit an organization named project 24 (after the 24 kibbutzim) which aims to use an entrepreneurial approach to bring people together in support of each other. One of their projects connected bakeries in Jewish communities in the US with bakeries in the south of Israel, where people can purchase an extra Challah in the bakery in the US but instead of receiving said Challah, a resident of the south of Israel will receive it, by getting it from a bakery in the south, and the proceeds go to the bakery in Israel to help it rebuild after the financial losses it suffered from being closed during the war. We ended our mission at the hostage square, located in Israel’s national museum in Tel-Aviv, right across from the IDF command center, where families of hostages greet people and share their loved one’s stories, and there are beautiful art works and exhibits all connected to the war and the hostages. One of the exhibits is a makeshift tunnel that tries to portray the feeling of being in an underground tunnel in Gaza, including the darkness and the sounds. Walking inside that tunnel was surreal and made me sick to my stomach. But I couldn’t allow myself to not go through, it felt like the minimum I could do knowing this probably doesn’t even come close to what the hostages are really facing.

This is also where I’ve met my mom who came from the north of Israel to meet me and together we made our way back to her house, where I had a chance to spend time with my family and friends, rest and recharge before returning to Baltimore for the second half of my Shlichut.

Personally, this trip was truly emotional. This was my first visit back home since October 7th and I was a little concerned as to what I will see and how I’ll feel going back. Plus, I only learned that I’ll be going two days before I was already boarding the plane, so that also added some extra excitement to the mix. And though I did think that I will experience mainly negative feelings or thoughts, knowing how things in Israel feel like and sound like living so far away,  I ended up experiencing a full rainbow of emotions varying from happiness to sadness to hopefulness to stress, but not once did I feel scared or unsafe.

It was so empowering to see how even with all the heartaches the people of Israel went through and the horrors they experienced on and since October 7th, they are able to remain so strong  and truly come together and be there for each other in times of need, no matter the disagreements they might have had just a second before. If there is one thing I take back from this experience, it’s a lesson on peoplehood and community. I really believe that nothing compares to being on the ground in Israel if you really want to understand what went on, on October 7th and since. And I’m so grateful that I had the opportunity to be part of this mission.

For more information about Israel Advocacy, contact Maian Rahvalschi.