Less than a year ago, a report was released of the world’s happiest countries. Hard to believe now, but Israel was ranked number four in the world. Number four. The only non-Nordic country in the top five. The United States? 15th.
To be fair, the survey pre-dated the political turmoil in Israel earlier last year. But fundamentally, Israelis led happy lives. They believed in the near invincibility of the IDFits intelligence capability, military preparedness, and operational prowess.
Despite the overt hostility of neighboring countries, Israelis didn’t worry about being massacred. Or being kidnapped from their homes. The promise of Israel is that, in the Jewish state, Jews don’t hide. They feel secure.
All that was shredded in an instant on October 7.
The question that now underpins every aspect of life in Israel is how to regain even the most basic sense of security and trust.
I spent a jam-packed four days in Israel this week traveling the country, toggling between two trips: The first, UJA’s planning department mission, here to determine how we best focus our funding in the period ahead. The second, a group of major philanthropists who’ve launched a “Day After Fund,” to be administered by UJA, focused on addressing the longer-term needs of the country.
As is widely known, Israelis living near the southern border with Gaza have faced mass evacuations. Over 140,000 people from the south are internally displaced — many of them families now housed in cramped, single hotel rooms. The goal of the current military operation in Gaza is to defeat Hamas so that Israeli communities along the Gaza envelope can eventually return home and rebuild their lives.
Less frequently discussed is what’s happening in Israel’s north.
Before the war, 450,000 residents lived within approximately five miles of the 85-mile-wide Israeli border with Lebanon. Now, somewhere between 85,000 – 125,000 have evacuated, some by order of the government, others on their own.
A case in point: The northern city of Kiryat Shmona, once home to 25,000 people, is a military zone. And its residents are currently scattered at more than 200 hotels across Israel.
The security situation in the north is getting progressively worse, with ever-increasing, daily barrages of rockets and drones launched by Hezbollah into Israel, coupled with frequent mortar attacks.
In fact, today there are many more attacks into Israel from Hezbollah in the north than from Hamas in the south. And while there has been no formal declaration of war, there is already a de facto war between Hezbollah and Israel, with Hezbollah using advanced weaponry to keep expanding the zone of attack deeper into Israel.
We met with heads of regional councils and communities who’ve been displaced from the north, both Jewish and Arab-Israeli. Everything that was challenging in these communities before the war — inadequate mental health care, gaps in social services, problems in the education system — has gotten much worse.
UJA has provided millions of dollars in emergency funding focused on caring for evacuees in the north, particularly children and teens at risk; funding enhanced medical and mental health support; and bolstering the capabilities of shelter cities.
I visited one of those shelter cities, Tiberias, on Wednesday. A beautiful resort town on the Sea of Galilee, it’s buckling under the strain of meeting the needs of evacuees. Classrooms are overcrowded. Teens need structure. New olim from Russia, Ukraine, and Ethiopia require extra support.
Our funding is helping to alleviate these challenges — from hiring additional teachers to expanding violence prevention programs for young adult olim to creating a social club for seniors.
In addition, we’re helping support the establishment of a specialized mental health trauma center in the north that will focus specifically on evacuees, soldiers, Nova survivors, and other victims of the war. We’re also funding a new rehabilitation center enabling residents of the north to receive services currently only available in the center of the country.
Beyond these critical needs, residents of the north face enormous uncertainty ahead. In the south, there’s currently a path to return people home. But residents of the north have no idea when — or even if — they’ll feel secure returning.
Amid all these dramatic challenges, there are nonetheless reasons to remain hopeful. We saw them all around us during this trip.
Israelis may have lost trust in their government — a common refrain we heard — but they’ve found it in abundance in other people. The herculean effort to restore the country is not being led top-down by the government, but bottom-up by people in the army, civil society, philanthropy, and business, who with enormous heroism, determination, and compassion are moving Israel forward.
You also see awe-inspiring courage and resilience on full display.
On Tuesday, we visited a hospital we’re supporting — Sheba Hospital located outside Tel Aviv, which has the largest rehabilitation facility in the country (and, with our help, will be working with a hospital in the north to increase rehab capacity).
I met with a group of recent amputees, including a young man whod lost a leg from the knee down, fighting in Gaza. Shrapnel was seared into his face and skin, he had lost hearing in one ear, and had a major elbow injury.
He told us about his co-commander, who was Orthodox from a small moshav (farming collective), while he was a secular Jew from Jaffa. They couldn’t have been more different, including politically, he shared, but they were brothers on the battlefield. His co-commander had been killed, and this soldier had survived and endured 30 surgeries, so far. He was determined to rebuild his country and honor his fallen dear friend.
Despite everything, he was lighthearted and charismatic, and his mother who pushed his wheelchair radiated pride.
With wry humor, he said to us:
“Don’t worry about me. You know what we call this in Israel?” he said, referring to his wounds.
“A light flu.”
He shared his plans to go into diplomacy and represent his country abroad. I don’t doubt he’ll succeed.
Because he represents the best of Israel.
The best of us all.
Shabbat shalom from Israel