For the first time in weeks, I didn’t spend my day in a sustained state of angst. I was not checking the news endlessly. My mind was not wandering to war induced places that freeze my heart and shake my spirit.
I spent the day surrounded by soldiers, in the south of Israel, in an area that is no stranger to rocket attacks. Logic dictates that all of these things would make me stressed and take my mind to places where I didn’t want it to go; and yet, I felt nothing but calm as I volunteered today at a soldier rest station along with my business partner and two of our daughters.
MasterChef has nothing on a cigarette smoking woman named Edna and her assistants in the field kitchen that she runs at this volunteer staffed rest station for IDF soldiers located in the south. Edna and her friendly crew exude warmth and competence as they crank out humongous quantities of food that is prepared with both precision and love in the most rudimentary of kitchens. As a woman of Ashkenazi descent with an American accent in a tent full of Moroccan women, preparing food with ingredients that are not part of my usual repertoire, I was a little out of my element. However, it turns out that I was only prepping the food and not actually cooking it. That privilege was Edna’s alone.
It is truly unfathomable that the plentiful offerings of “home cooked” food are produced in a “kitchen” that is little more than a shaded dirt area with a portable range, huge pots, and tables equipped with cutting boards and knives. Any food that needs oven time is transported to a local catering hall where it is baked and then brought back to feed the soldiers. There is a long sink right outside the shaded area where the pots, pans, and utensils are washed and left to dry on shelves, and the refrigerated truck nearby holds food and drinks. There are hundreds of rolls of paper towels and garbage bags used to clean up as messes are made. Standing at the table with gloved hands and a paring knife, conversations flow between total strangers. The natives are shocked and touched that we traveled the hour from Bet Shemesh to come and volunteer. We share information about ourselves; the adults bonding with the adults and the younger generation bonding with each other. It is not an exclusively female experience; there are men and boys in the kitchen as well.
From time to time, a soldier pops his head inside to thank the kitchen staff for the tasty food. With his kind words, each soldier offers a smile that lifts my heavy heart. I am grateful for the opportunity to give something back to these incredible men, my heroes.
At this rest station, the soldiers have anything and everything that they need offered to them. Clean underwear? Check. Fresh socks? Check. Shampoo, soap, toothpaste, and deodorant? Check. Need a shower? No problem. How about a massage? Yep, that too. There is powder for athlete’s foot, sunscreen, aloe vera to treat sunburns, and mosquito repellent. There are also portable phone chargers given out to soldiers in the field who don’t have access to electrical outlets. All of the above was purchased, delivered, and distributed by volunteers. By the way, so was all of the food in Edna’s kitchen. Many supplies are sponsored by donors from abroad who are happy to be able to support our soldiers in any way possible.
There is a fresh fruit station and a snack station including popsicles. Letters and drawings from Israeli children are taped onto the ice cream freezer, telling the soldiers how much they are adored, appreciated, and admired.
The one word that sticks in my head after my volunteering experience today is morale. It’s not easy to be an Israeli these days. Between the sirens, the rockets, the tunnels, the uncertainty of what each day holds, the fear for the safety of our soldiers, the never ending international criticism, the hypocritical international condemnations, and the indescribably heavy loss of our beloved soldiers, it is hard to function. The volunteers that I met today down south were neither dejected nor downtrodden; they were full of life and strength and they possessed a tremendous sense of purpose. There was no complaining or grumbling about the current security situation, there was only an outpouring of love and activity for our soldiers.
The extraordinary soldiers of the IDF who I met at the rest station today have gone through hell over the past weeks. They have faced heavy fire of all types, ambushes, booby traps, terrorists popping out of tunnel holes, and extremely rough combat on turf which is not their own. They have been cut off from their loved ones, living in frightening conditions, and unable to access the most basic necessities for weeks on end. Some of them have lost members of their units who were like brothers. They are hurting, but they also do not complain or gripe; they are fully committed to their missions and to their country. They have incredible morale, amazing resolve, elevated spirits, and a terrific attitude. They are strong, resilient, and fierce.
Being around all of this positive energy, despite the difficult national situation, was a salve for my frayed nerves and a lift to my own personal morale. I am praying that all IDF soldiers can return to their families very soon; but until they do, they will be cared for by an entire nation who could not be more proud to call them our own.