by Thomas J. Morgan, Journal Staff Writer
PROVIDENCE, R.I. — “Stop the sirens — Israel under fire” read the banner on the sidewalk outside the Jewish Community Center on the East Side, where a crowd of about 200 turned out Wednesday to show support for Israel’s campaign against rocket-firing Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.
“Israelis have a right to live without the fear of terrorism,” Sharon Gaines, chair of the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island, told the rally.
Rabbi Sarah Mack of Temple Beth El said, “We are heartbroken at the loss of life as Israel battles those who don’t want it to exist.”
Mack said she and her family were in Israel last year when President Obama visited. “He said, ‘You are not alone,’” she said. “We say to the people of Israel, ‘You are not alone, because American Jewry stands with you.’ May peace be upon us.”
Maor Mintz is a young Israeli spending the summer in Rhode Island as an Israeli emissary, someone to explain daily life in Israel. In an interview before he spoke at the rally, Mintz told of life in the Holit kibbutz, or settlement, very close to the Gaza Strip.
“The tunnel threat is very intimidating,” he said. “There was a tunnel not far from our kibbutz fence. Terrorists got through the tunnel about a week ago. Fortunately they were spotted just as they emerged, and they were eliminated by the IDF,” or Israeli Defense Forces. “They were trying to attack either our kibbutz or a kibbutz near us. It’s a very tense area.”
He spoke of Israelis practicing to protect themselves when the sirens signal that rockets are on the way. The rule is to not be further than 15 seconds away from a bomb shelter, he said. “We have reinforced concrete rooms in our houses, but there are a lot of difficulties when you are working in the field.”
Mintz said the agricultural kibbutz raises wheat, oranges and mangoes.
“We are all trying to be as strong as we can,” he said. As for the Israeli military’s drive to neutralize the rockets, “This is something we know unfortunately we have to do to get back the relative peace we had before the operation,” he said.
Mintz, 25, is a staff sergeant in the IDF, a member of an infantry unit that was activated for the emergency. He said that when the fighting broke out, he was on the verge of hopping an airliner back to Israel, “But my officer told me to stay here, to advocate for Israel.”
He “came here to show kids Israel in an active and fun way, and from a first-person perspective, not a video.” He said he will return to Israel at the end of the summer, to be reunited with his girlfriend. “It was pretty hard for me to leave her alone in the kibbutz, with a constant fear of being bombed. We talk a lot. I’m trying as much as I can to make sure she’s safe.”
Mitzi Berkelhammer, vice chair of philanthropy for the Jewish Alliance, said she had just returned from Israel.
“The first sight is many signs for bomb shelters,” she told the audience. “Then you are asked to take part in practicing a bus evacuation. Then came the sirens, and we huddled in bomb shelters. A little later it was easier, because we then knew that Iron Dome was working.” Iron Dome is the Israeli anti-missile defense system.
“We were in Israel for only four days,” she said. “But for Israelis the sirens are daily.”
Throughout the talks the audience remained rapt, silent, except for occasional bursts of applause.
“I’m glad we are not alone,” said Naomi Sommer, an Israeli teenager. “The IDF is one of the strongest armies in history. So we are safe.”