Most American Jews were upset when the conflict broke out between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon this summer. Many felt frustrated and helpless watching the news from so far away, wondering what they could do about it.
Matt Altman knew what he had to do: He had to get on a plane to Israel to volunteer up north.
The 30-year-old Angeleno was not the only American to volunteer during the war — there were a few emergency missions from synagogues and young professional groups, such as Care for Israel, which organized a weeklong trip of 80 people. But Altman went on his own, and he was also not your typical rabbi or synagogue member on a mission: A television agent at Creative Artists Agency, he just took off, using his vacation time from work, despite protests from family and friends.
“A couple of people said, ‘It’s crazy, don’t do this,’ but I had had enough of people saying they were giving money and not knowing where the money goes, and I thought it was important to go there.”
Go there he did, leaving abruptly on Aug. 6 on an airplane that was practically empty and arriving at an airport that was practically empty — especially of arriving tourists — for a 12-day trip.
“I always told my parents that I would have fought if I were in the Holocaust, I wouldn’t have just stood there,” he said. “For me, this was something that was like the Holocaust of my time, and I had to go.”
Altman is not a child of survivors. He grew up Conservative in Newton, Mass., attended Solomon Schechter Day School, became bar mitzvahed in Israel and, until this trip, had only visited the country two other times with his family.
“I think that any Jew is a survivor,” he said in the impassioned tones he uses when talking about Israel.
“I must write to tell you all what is happening right now in Haifa … it is horrible and Hezbollah MUST BE STOPPED!!!!” Altman said on a blog he wrote from Israel, which originally started as a letter to friends and family and then was posted on The Jewish Journal’s blog site, along with his photos of bombed-out buildings, empty cities and attractions, soldiers and people he met and spoke with in the north.
Looking at Altman in his Beverly Hills regalia — a shimmery silver pinstriped suit and thin azure tie perfectly matched to bring out the subtle stripes, his power hair supergelled and spiky short — it’s hard to believe this is the same scruffy guy that appears in the Israel photos wearing jeans and a T-shirt, which was sometimes filthy from his work.
Altman got down and dirty in the trenches, volunteering at a different place each day of his trip, which was coordinated by Dani Neuman, executive director of the Haifa Foundation.
“He was amazing,” Altman said. “He was able to take me to many different places — I was able to work at hospitals, a food shelter, help make packages for the army and help make packages for children. I was able to see a lot of things that I wouldn’t have been able to see,” Altman said, including a visit to a city hall meeting in Haifa and a meeting with the city’s mayor, Yona Yahav.
Altman rented a studio apartment in Haifa — paying the rent of a student there who couldn’t afford it because of the war’s economic devastation — from where he could hear the sound of war.
“A lot of the missiles were hitting north of where I was staying; you’d hear boom, boom, boom in the distance,” he said.
Like many people on the missions, Altman toured the sites of the devastation — the shelled, caved-in buildings; the cement walls riddled with ball bearings from the rockets. “The whole cement looked like it was torn off. It was a frightening thing.”
But he wasn’t exactly frightened, at first. He visited with soldiers who hadn’t seen their families for weeks, delivered meals to people in shelters who had evacuated their homes and sat with soldiers and civilians hurt in the conflict.
“There was an old Russian woman who went to the post office and her leg got blown up. She was in the hospital and only spoke Russian — no Hebrew or English — and to me that was the most horrible thing, seeing this woman who was already incredibly poor, how her life had changed. She had her leg [amputated], and yet she was still very sweet. I couldn’t imagine being in that situation,” Altman said.
Before he went, Altman also couldn’t imagine being in a situation of war, and many of his postings read like they were from a naive, earnest foreigner.
“Please tell everyone you know that they must get behind Israel now, as Israel is fighting the worst terrorists in the world, and if Israel doesn’t destroy them, we are about to enter World War III. The news media is INSANE, and the fact that they report anything positive about these murders is asinine! [sic] ….Israel NEEDS YOUR SUPPORT NOW MORE THAN EVER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”
Altman is not all ideologue, however. Some of his postings are quite funny, such as one from Aug. 11, when he worked at the Koenig Soldiers Center, where the navy puts together boxes for every soldier.
“On this particular day, I happened to be helping when we received a virtual mountain of men’s dress socks with little cartoon characters on them. I joked with the soldiers that if we ran out of bullets, we could always scare them away with the horrible looking socks,” he wrote.
But his humor is mixed with the realities of war.
“One soldier and I went out to take a break, and he told me about his uncle who was driving home from work last week and was killed by a direct hit on his car. It is so maddening to me, as well as him, that nothing was said on TV.”
Most days didn’t turn out as expected. One day he was at B’nai Zion Medical center thinking he was going to visit with the patients but ended up in the kitchen, preparing food because they were short-staffed.
“After meeting the crew of 15 chefs, the crazy Russian chef took a special liking to me. If you’ve seen the movie ‘Armageddon,’ he was exactly like that crazy Russian cosmonaut, except he didn’t speak a lick of English. He was the clown of the group, and he spoke to me the whole time, knowing I didn’t know what the hell he was saying…. I should have listened to my parents when they told me to study at Hebrew school; it would have been very handy in this situation.”
Handy is not really the word for something that could help you in a life-threatening situation.
Altman couldn’t hear anything over the clang of the pots and pans. So when the Russian chef motioned Altman should follow him upstairs, Altman thought they were going to get food.
“The next thing I knew, we were on the roof, overlooking the entire coastline. Sirens were going off, and while everyone in the building was running to the opposite side, we ran up a stairwell.” Alone on the roof, the chef looked at him and said one Russian word Altman did understand: “Katyusha.”
What Altman saw next changed his life forever: “FOURTEEN rockets were flying in the air…. To say it was scary was an understatement. He had wanted to show them to me, and that’s why we were running. I was paralyzed. My heart was in my throat, and I nearly sh — myself. It was unreal; I watched rockets come at me, not being able to even move.”
Altman could not stop shaking for the next two hours. “Try serving soup while shaking; most of it lands on the ground,” he writes jokingly.
But the sight of the Katyushas was not all that shook him to the bone. So did the barrage of rockets on Haifa on Sunday, Aug. 6, killing three and wounding dozens and hitting near his apartment.
“When the missiles hit six doors down, I thought I was going to die,” Altman recalls. “It was the largest, scariest noise I ever heard.”
On his blog he wrote, “The first few hits sounded like normal … but then think what the loudest firework you can ever imagine sounds like … one hit outside where I am staying. Then another! Then another! It is complete and utter chaos right now! Sirens are going off everywhere!”
“It’s very real. You could die,” he explained later. Altman cut his trip short — which was a good thing, he said, considering the terrorist plot thwarted in Britain the following weekend. He decided he’d be more use talking about his trip than packing more food for soldiers and families. “I had been there; I had experienced it; I could be more helpful telling people what happened there from a first-person view,” he said.
Altman left Israel on Aug. 16, and he plans to speak to groups at friends’ homes and synagogues to discuss what he saw and learned there, and to raise money for the Haifa Foundation.
“I think it’s something that no one understands. The bomb sirens go off, and you have to go into a bomb shelter and get into between two buildings, it’s pretty scary. It’s amazing and frightening to me. I don’t know how I could do that every day. I don’t know how they could go outside — to me it’s a very hard way to live. That’s why we need peace. These people should not have to live like this. Nobody should have to live like this.”
On Sept. 13, Altman will be at the Israel in Crisis Fund’s winetasting fundraiser in Santa Monica.
During his time in Israel, Altman saw the remnants of war, such as these ball bearings that killed Israelis and inflicted damage on homes.
On Sept. 13, from 7:30-10:30 p.m., Israel in Crisis Fund will be holding a wine tasting fundraiser with an auction and live music at Hamilton Galleries, 1431 Ocean Ave., Santa Monica. $25 (in advance), $36 (at the door). For more information, contact (310) 963-5674.