Diaries From Wartime: Landing in Jerusalem Amidst a Nation Still in Shock and at War

Image by Walkerssk from Pixabay

Anchoring Truths is proud to bring you Jana Paley’s Diaries from Wartime, a multipart account of her experience in Israel in the wake of the attacks by Hamas in October 2023. Anchoring Truths Co-Founder Hadley Arkes, Paley’s one-time professor at Amherst College, provides a preface to this multipart series here.

December 18, 2023

Jerusalem, Israel

73 Days Since Hamas Brutally Attacked Israel

A few weeks ago, I reached out to Sam Norich, an acquaintance I was lucky to meet through the Gendler family. I suggested to him that the publication for which he had been the Publisher for 19 years, The Forward, write about a Palestinian defector who happens to be the son of a Hamas leader. In my communication with Sam, I mentioned that I was planning a trip to volunteer in Israel. In turn, Sam asked me to include him in my email chain if I was keeping any sort of a journal or relaying my observations to friends at home.

Honestly, it had not occurred to me that my friends would be interested in receiving any sort of daily account. People lead busy lives and though I figured many would watch for my Facebook pictures coupled with a one or two line blurb, I hadn’t considered sharing a journal. With Sam’s suggestion on my mind, I started asking friends if they would have the bandwidth to read my firsthand reflections on what I would see in Israel; to my surprise, many told me to start writing the minute I hit the ground.

My journey and what Israel means at its core became real to me the moment I sat down on my El Al flight from Frankfurt to Tel Aviv. Sitting across from me was a 92 year-old family matriarch and her granddaughter, or perhaps her great granddaughter. Before I had a chance to exchange a “hello,” the stately woman told me that her immediate family, 25 people in total, had been lucky enough to leave the south of Israel on October 9 and that they had been living in safety, in what seemed to her to be self-imposed exile, with extended family scattered through Europe. They were now back together for the first time in almost 70 days and were returning Home to rebuild their communities. Though I saw no tattoo from the Shoah on her forearm, she explained that less than 80 years ago her small family had been decimated and that only a fortunate few had successfully run. Those who survived created new lives out of Nothing. This time, her family was returning to Something they had helped build. Please note the strategic use of capital letters as the elderly woman’s voice commanded that I employ them. The true resolve and steadfast determination on this woman’s face may as well have been carved out of granite.

When we touched down in Tel Aviv, all 25 members of her family simultaneously erupted into a combination of cries, laughter, and even screams. Their raucous sound will be with me the rest of my life. I am not a crier, but I shed tears then and a tear is rolling down my cheek as I write this entry. This family understood the meaning of “Home” in a way I hope no one I know will ever be faced with comprehending it. Launching my journey to do what little I can while watching a family return to rebuild has a symmetry that is impossible to articulate.

I am about 30 hours into my visit and what I can tell you is that in Jerusalem there is little evidence of the war. Israeli flags are everywhere which is quite reminiscent of the days following 9/11 when so many people flew American flags. And, there are The Posters — the same posters we see in the US of the hostages. There are also signs in yellow print, “Bring Them Home.” The first poster at the Damascus Gate, an entry into the Old City, was of Sagui Deckel-Chen who was taken from Kibbutz Nir Oz. It is a small world —Sagui’s family lives in Sarasota. I said a prayer for Sagui’s safety at the Wailing Wall even before making a prayer for the health of my own mother. For those of you who speak to Rickie often, let’s keep that between us!

The only hint of the conflict I saw firsthand was a random security stop of cars heading out of the airport. All of you know me well and I am not known for packing light, but I told the soldiers to knock themselves out and if they saw anything they liked, they should help themselves. Everyone laughed and they took a peek and we were on our way to Jerusalem.

Already making new friends and my volunteer work starts tomorrow, so I am going to call it a night! More tomorrow!


December 19, 2023  

Jerusalem, Israel 

My second full day in Jerusalem began with meeting a soldier clad in boots with a machine gun slung over his back in the hotel elevator — not something I see at home!  I asked him where he was going and, in perfect English, he said he had just returned from the Gaza border for a 24 hour leave. I profusely thanked him for his service and offered to buy him breakfast, but he interrupted me to ask what I was doing in Jerusalem.  When I explained I was volunteering, he insisted that he buy breakfast — I reminded him that there is a commandment to respect your elders, but he argued that he receives a paycheck for his work. I suggested we flip for it and we walked off to Kadosh, a well known cafe. 

Immediately, he told me he was fortunate to be manning a station at the border and that he has not been inside Gaza, but his friends have crossed inside and he explained that he would rather not discuss their missions.  My guess is that he was not trying to protect me, as I don’t look fragile, but that he was being polite as he cannot discuss what he knows.  He articulated that the task before the IDF is both monumental and essential. He also noted that among his buddies, there is a strong presumption that serious problems in the North are imminent. 

We sat together for about 10 minutes before I had to walk to my first day of work and when I left I asked if I could give him a good luck hug — he welcomed it — and I also made the “Mi Sheberach,” a prayer for soldiers in English and as I struggled to say it in Hebrew, he said it along with me.  We were together for 15 minutes and I don’t even know his last name, but his face and voice are now imprinted on my mind and I pray he remains safe. 

My walk to work seemed somewhat lonely — you know, the way you feel when you say goodbye to a trusted friend — but, at the same time, I was excited to begin at the Jerusalem Civilian Command Center.  On arrival, Dana, the gal in charge, assigned me to work under Ohad, a film animation student, in one of the warehouse areas.  The JCCC has taken over a theatre complex at the Campus for the Visual Arts which has experimental theater spaces with roll-away bleacher seats that provide enough floor area to accept all the goods that are coming in from Israel and abroad.  Our task was to sort clothing which sounds easy enough until you try to figure out what sex a garment was actually meant for and for what age group it might be appropriate.  Let’s just say it was a long day and there are going to be more long days ahead. 

For those of you who feel compelled to donate clothing or other goods, I have to tell you that whatever you want to send to Israel take it instead to your local Goodwill, get your tax break, and send money instead.  That is what is truly needed!

Without getting too political, there was much to learn from the young people with whom I interacted throughout the day.  There were two overwhelming themes: The first is that most were incredibly sympathetic to the Palestinian people, at least until 74 days ago.  Now, they seem to feel a true sense of betrayal.  They wanted to help these people and instead, the Palestinians literally stabbed their extended family in the back.  Everyone I met today knows someone who was murdered and their anger is palpable.  The second theme is that these kids, mostly students, have contempt for the Ultra-Religious who escape service and contribute little to the economy.  They all tell me that they believe in true scholarship, but that they find it hard to believe that there are over 100,000 scholars gaining new insights into Torah and other religious texts. 

It was an energizing day, but I look like the grandmother to this group.  Hope I can keep up…and yeah, I bought the soldier his coffee and pastry!


December 20, 2023  

Jerusalem, Israel 

Up until today, I have had two distinctive experiences in the retail industry.  The first is I am a pretty good shopper and perhaps that is some sort of genetic predisposition or flaw, because so is my mom.  My other experience came from helping my grandmother and grandfather stock their toy, bike, and juvenile furniture store late at night during the Christmas holiday season when I was still a young child — and that may explain why I am a night owl.  But today, my job at the Jerusalem Civilian Command Center was to rack up a temporary clothing store for the refugees from the South, and, actually, anyone in need so they could come in and find exactly what they want.  Of course, this is not true retail as nothing carries a price tag, but the JCCC is encouraging people to make whatever donation they feel they can so funds may be used to purchase new merchandise that people so badly need, like under garments and socks, but which normally are not sent as donations from the public.  I have to say, stocking a store must be like riding a bike — once you know how to do it, well you always know how to do it. 

With a gang of about 10 people, we were able to set up full garment racks of menswear, womenswear, clothing for teenagers, infant’s and children’s clothing, and baskets full of accessories.  We even set up a small toy store, complete with a tot-sized table with coloring books and crayons to keep the kids busy while their parents rebuild the family wardrobe.  While we set up the store, the public relations team spread the word about the JCCC to refugees being temporarily housed throughout Jerusalem.  People started coming in even before we had everything in its proper place. 

The real treat of the day had little to do with actual work, but perhaps it had everything to do with the spirit that brought me to Israel to volunteer.  I was lucky enough to meet up with Claudia Kraut, an old friend from Andover, who is here assisting farmers harvest their crops.  Andover’s motto is Non Sibi, Not for Oneself, and I guess that is the spirit that brought us both to Jerusalem and brought us together.  Claudia is having an incredible experience working with farmers who have lost the majority of their labor force.  Many of you probably are unaware that Palestinians provide much of the day labor for the farmers as do temporary workers from the Philippines and Thailand.  We all know what happened to the Palestinian workforce, but also the foreign laborers have mostly returned home.  There are also young Israeli’s working on the farms, but many of them were called up for army service or are on reserve duty.  Without volunteers who have come from around the world, a vast amount of fruits and vegetables would literally wither on the proverbial vine.  Claudia helped round up a group of 65 people who are staying in Jerusalem and leaving at the crack of dawn each day to go to the farms.  She deserves kudos for this mitzvah from all my PA friends.  Check out her Facebook posts!

After dinner, I decided to take a walk to the Old City and explore the Jewish Quarter at night as I have been told it stays pretty lively til late.  I was shocked to see pizza joints, ice cream shops, and small markets open after 10 pm!  There were also lots of young people, many affiliated with the Yeshivas, strolling through the Quarter.  Though I had not intended to walk down to the Wailing Wall, I realized that the Wall must possess its own gravity.  I was pulled there.  It was quite a surprise to find a full line-up, mostly of young women, praying right at the wall, with the seats in front of the wall also well occupied.  The men’s section of the Wall was even more heavily populated.  Prayer does not keep hours.

When I approached the Wall to say a prayer for my family and for Israel, I heard a young girl chanting names.  Ordinarily, I would not have listened in on her, but I have been told that many have memorized the names of the hostages and they pray for them day and night.  Indeed, she seemed to have organized a song from their names.  From her mouth to G-d’s ears is all I can say.


December 21, 2023  

Jerusalem, Israel 

When I arrived at work today, I got my first taste of what it is really like to be an Israeli.  Just as I put my jacket away, an alarm resounded through the building — and nobody did a thing.  It was literally business as usual.  My new pal Ohad told me not to worry as this was not the Homefront Command Siren system — it was merely a fire alarm.   Apparently, with what goes on in Israel, no one bothers to evacuate in the event that there actually is a fire.  The sirens echoed through the Jerusalem Civilian Command for about 10 minutes and people just went on with whatever they were doing.  I did walk outside, mostly just to get away from the blaring noise, but I did not even see a fire truck come by to check anything.  So it goes in Israel. 

The pop-up clothing store received a good deal of traffic this afternoon and it allowed me the opportunity to interact with those who came through who spoke English.  I spent about an hour helping a young man who had evacuated his residence in the North on October 7th, taking with him only a change of clothes and what sounded like what American’s call a “Go Bag” to get him through a few days.  All I wanted to do was learn about him and I think he really wanted to practice his English, but when he learned that I traveled from Florida to Israel to help with my own hands, he asked if he could give me a peck on the cheek to thank me and I, of course, obliged.  And yes, he was cute!

As we spoke, I discovered he was studying landscape architecture at a University in the North and that he did not have a clue when classes would resume.  He then told me about a design contest he had been ready to enter which had now been shelved for an indefinite period.  I asked if he had the plans on his phone, which he did, and we sat down together and he went through his concept for a truly elegant rock and sculpture garden meant to surround a fictitious institutional building.  Almost immediately, he realized that I knew something about real estate development. Ultimately, I told him that the most important thing to me about a building which people live in, work in, or spend a lot of time in is that they feel a sense of “Pride of Place”, and that great landscaping helps provide it.  “Pride of Place” is a term he had not heard before, at least not in English, and it truly does not translate well into Hebrew, but he still asked me if he could repeat it when making future presentations.  Who knows, maybe the term will catch on!  I helped him bag his new clothes, wished him well, and then returned the peck!

My education of what it is like to live in Jerusalem went into higher gear over the course of the afternoon. In the many years since I have been to Israel, the city of Jerusalem has grown much more religious.  My new friends at the JCCC began to warn me that anything I might want to do in the commercial sphere should get accomplished before noon on Friday when businesses start to shutter for Shabbat.  Okay, all of you know that I fuss over my hair and I just presumed I would get my hair blown out at the hotel’s salon late Friday afternoon.  Well, no such luck!  My new friend Frida from the JCCC made a quick phone call to a hair stylist who is a transplant from Miami and he agreed to add me on at 12:30 pm tomorrow as a special favor! I even rushed out to a liquor store this evening to buy a house gift for new friends who kindly invited me to their home for Havdallah, the service which completes Shabbat, and then for dinner. My honest belief was that Jerusalem closing up for Shabbat was some sort of urban myth — boy was I wrong and I stand corrected. 

Visiting a foreign city as a tourist is vastly different than taking a stake in the local culture, even as a volunteer worker.  My experience thus far has been remarkable and if any of you have an opportunity in the future to engage in a similar way, I will be the first person to tell you, “Don’t think, Just Do!”

Jana Paley has become a leading figure in business as the CEO of Ark Properties, building “affordable work-force multi-family housing,” and Ark Ventures, becoming a “foundational investor” in such companies as PM Pediatrics, a chain for pediatric urgent care. She is a graduate of the Wharton School of Business and the University of Pennsylvania Law School, but even before that she was a student of Prof. Arkes at Amherst College.

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