Gary Levy of Dror Israel, spoke to us while packing for his upcoming flight. Very few of us have boarded a plane in recent months, but Levy is getting ready to fly to New York City. He will be accompanied by two of his colleagues, Hod Laish and Carmi Tint. What brings Israelis to travel to a city that has become one of the epicenters of the pandemic in the U.S.?  

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“I’ve spent the past few weeks thinking about the times American Jews sent delegations to Israel in times of crisis,” Levy explained. “They’ve come over during wars, in times of frequent terrorist attacks. They came here after Prime Minister Rabin was assassinated. This might be the first time in history when U.S. Jews are in a more challenging position than we are. The pandemic has severely affected the Jewish community in the United States, and specifically in New York. Thousands have died and many more have been  infected. We wanted to show solidarity."

Gary Levy, Dror Israel

Levy, 46, is a member of Dror Israel. It's a social movement dedicated to "educating for a just and equal society" in Israel. He decided to turn his thoughts to actions, and created a delegation that will spend four days in the New York area, meeting with as many people and organizations as he can get in touch with. 

"I'm happy to meet them outside their homes, wearing masks, keeping our distance. But at least we will meet," he says.

"It's our turn to show we care"

"American Jewish communities are strong, and the U.S. has rarely faced existential threats, so the Jews there are generally in a stable position. However, we have been seeing increasing violence against the Jewish communities in the U.S. in recent years. In just over a year we’ve seen three lethal attacks against Jewish communities: Pittsburgh, Monsey and Jersey City. After Pittsburgh, Israeli Minister of Education participated in the victim’s funerals. I felt that his presence as a formal representative of Israel sent an important message. The same goes when the coronavirus is running wild there.”

Rodef Shalom Rabbi Aaron Bisno, right, delivers his sermon during an Erev Shabbat service that is being streamed live on Facebook, Friday, March 20, 2020. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)


But this time, he hasn't heard of a formal delegation. "We’ve been feeling a need to demonstrate our solidarity, and show American Jews that we are aware of the challenges that they’re facing in these difficult times of COVID-19. We see it as our duty to show our support for them, just like family members support each other in times of crisis." 

"This is a challenging time for American Jewry. Not just in terms of the pandemic, but also in terms of social issues being placed front and center thanks to the Black Lives Matter protests."

"The last two decades have seen increased activity of Dror Israel in American communities, federations and youth groups. We have olim who have decided to take part in our various projects. We are a family, so we want to act like a family should act. Sitting shiva is done with family and friends. We want to show American communities that we’re together in this."

Is it just a symbolic act?
"Sometimes acts of solidarity, even if they’re just gestures, can be very powerful. We can’t stop the coronavirus, but we can send a message."

"There are also issues that are creating tension between American communities and the State of Israel. Mayor of Jerusalem Moshe Leon recently announced last month that Reform Jews will not be allowed to pray at the Western Wall. He said that when Reform communities are burying their loved ones. That was hard for us to hear. We want to be part of building the bridges between Israel and Jewish communities around the world. It’s a very narrow bridge anyway, as they say."

Michael Tokar observes from his car as his father, David Tokar, is buried at Mount Richmond Cemetery in the Staten Island borough of New York, Wednesday, April 8, 2020. Tokar's father had a cough and fever and a home health aide got him to the hospital. Two days later, he was dead, with the coronavirus listed as the cause. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

"Look, there’s no doubt that as Israelis and as members of a movement that has dedicated itself to build Israel, it’s important for us to strengthen our relations with the Jewish diaspora. We have a shared history, and hopefully also a shared future. But we want our delegation to have symbolic meaning for our friends and communities in Israel as well. Israeli children learn about the golden age of Jewish culture in Spain, Jewish communities in 19th century Poland, but they hardly ever get to know the largest Jewish community outside of Israeli today."

What is planned for the visit?
"Our solidarity mission will include three members who have been involved in building those bridges with U.S. communities over the past years. We will be spending four days in New York and the surrounding area, meeting representatives of the UJA Federation and other Jewish organizations. We will be meeting Rabbis, educators and the families of olim who have joined our movement in Israel."

חסידי חב"ד בברוקלין ניו יורק מתפללים בריחוק חברתי 20 במרץ (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

"We want to meet the widest possible spectrum of Jewish communities, but mostly with our partners who have been working with us on different projects. One of our members who was born in the States has a sister who lives with her husband in New York. They’ve both been sick, and she’s not been able to help them from Israel. We want to show that we care."

The pandemic has spread much more in New York than it has in Israel. Aren't you afraid?
"Two weeks of quarantine is a personal price that we are going to have to pay when we get back home, but we will make the utmost effort to be safe and take all the necessary precautions. We’ve taken tests, and we will take them again when we get back. Of course the situation is frightening, but that’s the reason we’re going to show that we’re together even in times of great difficulty."

"Just like I found it very significant when we had delegations come over from the U.S. to see our projects in Sderot and stay in bomb shelters with us, I hope that our coming over now will be meaningful for our American partners."