It was by no means an ordinary trip to Israel. When Gil Preuss, Chief Executive Officer of The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, traveled to Israel after the Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attacks, he arrived in a country that had just absorbed an unprecedented and unthinkable blow.
Preuss’ three-day trip to Israel was a whirlwind of activity and fraught with emotion, as he spent time learning more about what happened and developing an understanding of how deeply Israel’s citizens were impacted by the horrific attacks.
Despite the fluid situation in Israel as people anticipated a massive Israeli response to the atrocities committed by Hamas, Preuss had no trepidation about going to Israel.
“I had no question that I needed to go. Actually, during these times, I feel like I need to be there,” Preuss said. “I just feel that part of my job is to be there and to show up and to be in direct conversation with people not by Zoom, not by phone call, but just sitting down with people to understand what’s going on. And to see it and then to be able to come back and not only talk about it, but also help make decisions that can support people
After arriving on Friday afternoon, Oct. 20, Preuss had Shabbat dinner in Jerusalem with his friends, Eliot and Rebecca Goldstein, who are related to Hersh Goldberg-Polin, an Israeli-American who was abducted by Hamas. Goldberg-Polin was at the Nova music festival in southern Israel on Oct. 7, and there is video footage of him being taken by Hamas after his left arm was blown off when the terrorists threw a grenade into the shelter where he was hiding during the massacre.
Preuss spent time speaking with his friends about their cousin and discussing the uncertainty and anguish that the hostages’ families feel as the fate of their loved ones remains unknown.
Together with Karen Katzman, Director of the Federation’s Israel office, Preuss met with families from Kfar Aza, a community in southern Israel that was decimated after Hamas terrorists went on a rampage through the town, slaughtering residents and setting homes ablaze. They heard stories from people who were hiding in safe rooms for up to 32 hours before being rescued.
“It’s shocking how long people needed to hide out and how long Hamas was terrorizing and killing people,” Preuss said as he described those emotional interactions with the survivors. “They were telling their stories, and these were horrific stories. The people who survived, it was a combination of bravery and luck. People in the house to the left of them were killed, people in the house to the right of them were killed. They may have survived but their parents were murdered just four houses down.”
Preuss spoke about a father who went to protect his community and then his wife and two children and one of his children’s friends were all kidnapped. “It was heart-wrenching to hear what they went through, the struggle that they had, and the continued struggle,” he said.
Another aspect of Preuss’ visit involved spending with time with a group called Brothers and Sisters for Israel, which went from being one of the leading organizations in the protest movement against the judicial changes to completely changing its mission after the Oct. 7 attacks and becoming one of the leading volunteer organizations mobilizing Israelis in support of other Israelis.
Preuss learned how the group helped people evacuate from southern Israel, organized clothing and toys drives for families who had to leave their homes without being able to take anything with them and linked psychotherapists to people who needed support.
Preuss also visited Sheba Medical Center and spent time in the rehab units where some of those injured in the Hamas attacks were being treated, including a young man whose leg had been amputated due to the serious injuries he sustained. “It was astounding. There he is lying in bed and his leg had been amputated just a few days earlier … But he was positive, he was living, he knew he would be able to have a life going forward. It was an incredible conversation.”
Before he left Israel, Preuss also met with some other organizations that are focusing on grassroots support and spoke with representatives of Kibbutz Re’im, where the Nova music festival took place. The residents have all been evacuated and there was a discussion about getting them the help and support they need to rebuild.
Preuss had numerous conversations with friends in Israel who told him about the trauma they are experiencing and the fear they have, not knowing what might come next. Preuss said he spoke with many people who are trying to make sense of the completely changed circumstance in which they now live. “October 6 versus October 8 are two completely different worlds for Israel,” he said. “And trying to make sense of that, I think that is part of the struggle right now.”
As Preuss responded to a question about the biggest takeaways from his experience, it was clear that it was very different from any of his previous trips to Israel.
“One of them is the significant shock and trauma that all of Israeli society is going through,” he said. “The second is, I am in continued awe at the resilience and the ability of Israelis to come together. Even with all the divisions that existed before this happened, Israelis across all stripes are coming together, cooking for each other, helping each other out, trying to solve problems and seeing this as a collective effort.”
In addition to providing monetary support through the Federation’s Israel Crisis Relief Fund, Preuss noted that political support for Israel and in the battle against antisemitism is becoming increasingly important.
“Continued support for Israel through whatever mechanism – local politics, national politics, other local leaders, faith leaders, anyone with whom people have a relationship, just talking about it is really important,” he said. “The silence of so many in the face of the attacks was so hurtful and harmful. Speech is okay, but not speech that is intended to intimidate or harm.”