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A Journey of Solidarity – Part 2

(Part 1)

Day 2 – Preparing Meals for Soldiers

There’s a notable coffee chain in Israel called Aroma. Amidst the challenging times it transformed one of its larger locations into a dedicated wartime sandwich-making operation.

Every day, approximately 10,000 sandwiches are packed with the help of volunteers from diverse backgrounds and age groups, from children to the elderly.

This was our first stop that morning. In this bustling environment, I took on the role of frying omelets. The kitchen echoed with the joyous sounds of volunteers singing and dancing as they cooked. It was a remarkable display of unity and kinship.

One aspect that stood out to me was a designated section where volunteers, particularly children, were engaged in writing notes and decorating sandwich bags for the soldiers. It reminded me of the loving notes a mother might tuck inside her child’s lunch for school — simple expressions like “I love you! Have a great day.”

These notes became a tangible symbol of the care and affection woven into each sandwich.

The soldiers receiving these meals would undoubtedly feel the warmth and love that went into every bite, a touching reminder of the support they have from a community that comes together in times of need. They would realize that we see them as our brothers, sisters and children.

United Hatzalah’s Heroism

Our second day in Israel continued with a deep dive into the harrowing experiences of United Hatzalah, the organization of volunteer first responders.

Raphael Poch, an EMT and United Hatzalah spokesperson, shared poignant narratives that shed light on the organization’s unwavering commitment and the extraordinary challenges faced by its members.

“The situation became dire as one Hatzalah member became a hostage, and seven others had family members taken captive by Hamas,” Poch said.

He recounted an incident where Hamas took control of a police station in Sderot, necessitating its destruction.

Poch delved into Hamas’ sinister tactics, revealing its training from Iran on house infiltration. They had maps detailing the layout of towns, including schools and escape routes. Their strategy was to immediately shoot the husband, hold the mother hostage and force a child to knock on doors of neighbors so they could gain entry.

This is how so many terrorists got into homes even after the residents knew they were in danger. He explained how the terrorists infiltrated the Supernova Music Festival with Paragliders and motorcycles. Amidst the massacre, a 23-year-old Muslim, Awat Darwashta, lost his life while trying to save others. His colleague wanted to leave, but he wanted to stay and help people.

Poch told us about Aryeh, a volunteer with Hatzalah. After hours of helping non-stop in life-threatening conditions he was told to go home to rest, but he refused. He said he couldn’t imagine being home while all this was going on. Finally, after much pushing, they convinced Aryeh to talk with a mental health professional. After four hours of recounting the horror he had witnessed, the therapist got up and begged him to stop. He said he couldn’t handle hearing any more.

United Hatzalah’s impact was profound, saving 3,000 lives on Oct. 7.

“The intensity of the situation led to unprecedented use of medical supplies, with volunteers facing constant danger and challenges in reaching those in need,” Poch said.

Shura Army Base

If that were not emotionally draining enough, our next stop was perhaps the most intense experience of my life: Shura army base, an unassuming outpost that was transformed into a focal point for dealing with the deceased.

Aviad Simhoni, in charge of mortuary affairs, provided insights into the challenges faced by the Rabbinate, the institution overseeing Jewish customs related to life and death in the IDF.

“Shura Base, once among the quietest military outposts in Israel, gained prominence due to the tragic events of Oct. 7. With meticulous care, the base manages the identification and respectful handling of fallen soldiers and victims of the terror attacks,” Simhoni said. The dedication to preserving the dignity of the deceased stood out, even in the face of overwhelming numbers.

The operation at Shura unfolds not within the confines of a conventional, sterile forensic lab, but beneath the expansive cover of large white tents set up in an open area. These tents stand amidst an unsettling backdrop of rows of refrigerated containers like you would see behind a grocery store. Within each container rest dozens of meticulously wrapped lifeless bodies, as well as bags containing body parts collected from sites yet to undergo assessment.

They try to rely on multiple forms of identification before informing families of the fallen. This is challenging when so many bodies have been burnt to a point that even fingernails were no longer discernible. Forensic teams and teams from the antiquities department had to identify people via deep tissue DNA or dental records, because there is nothing else left.

Only two bodies were not able to be identified. Representatives from Shura flew to a lab in the United States to try and identify them. The professionals there could not understand why they flew all this way for just two bodies. Why was it was so important to identify them so quickly that they were willing to fly across the world during a war? They could not understand the emphasis the Jewish people place on life and the dignity of the dead. For the Jewish people, every single life is an entire world.

Rabbi Bentzi Mann shared his experiences as part of the team handling the aftermath. The horrors he witnessed and some that he shared left an indelible imprint on all of us.

“How do you identify a body without a head?” he asked barely able to get the words out, reliving the images that must be forever fixed in his mind.

He shared that after so many days of the most gruesome work he thought he had lost the ability to cry. A few days later, after working around the clock for days on end, he had the opportunity to return home to his wife and children. During that short stay he was playing hide and seek with his son of three or four years old. His son hid under a sheet. The sight of that, no doubt bringing up images of murdered children arriving at the base for identification and burial under similar sheets, left him crying uncontrollably.

He explained that typically when a Jewish person passes away, the body goes through a purification process called “tahara” or “purification.” However, when soldiers die defending the Jewish people they are referred to as kedoshim, holy ones, and therefore they need no purification. In fact, soldiers are buried in their uniforms and boots instead of the typical burial shrouds.

Yedidya Atlas, a veteran with 30 years in the army, emphasized the spiritual and symbolic aspects within the military. The distribution of tzitzit, Shabbat candles, menorahs and Torah scrolls showcased the intertwining of religious practices with the daily lives of soldiers, reinforcing a sense of unity and purpose.

We visited the world’s largest Ark, which houses thousands of Torah scrolls for Army units. It was very moving to hear how the units begin each operation with prayers and the recitation of psalms. A special psalm book was made for the army with special thin paper to fit under the vests. The soldiers go into to battle shielded by their tzitzit and prayer books.

By now 100,000 pairs of tzitzit have been distributed to IDF soldiers. Many who don’t normally consider themselves religious wear them. They call it their “real bullet proof vest.”

Shlomit: A Community Bound in Adversity

We then continued with a visit to the Cramim hotel, where we ran an event for displaced families from Shlomit who had found temporary refuge there. A beautiful spa hotel which normally does not allow children is now full of children running up and down the halls and elevators with sounds of laughter and play.

The highlight of the event, which was sponsored by the Abelson, Mackiernan, Miller and Shoflick families in honor of Ashtyn’s Bat Mitzvah, was a magician who entertained the kids. Gifts were handed out, as well a foosball table sponsored by the Boulder JCC. The children were so happy and grateful.

While the children were being entertained we heard from some of the adults about their harrowing experience on Oct. 7. We first heard from Rabbi Adler, a head of school. Fifteen graduates from his schools were murdered on Oct 7. He was part of a group of 15 families that left Gaza in 2005 and started a new area in the Western Negev called Chalutza. He later moved to Shlomit, right on the Egyptian border, to start a girls school.

On the morning of Oct. 7, the community was jolted by wailing sirens. Within 60 seconds, a rocket struck perilously close to his house, causing pictures to tumble from the walls. Miraculously, while two houses suffered damage, there were no reported injuries.

In these tight-knit communities, civilian units took on the responsibility of guard duty. It was during this chaotic moment that they received distressing news: the nearby small community of Pre Gan had been infiltrated by a group of 12 terrorists. Despite the commander, known as “Benny,” not being obligated to intervene, a decision was made to leave his own community vulnerable and rush to the aid of Pre Gan.

The ensuing battle was intense. Later, as they combed through the aftermath, they found maps in the pockets of the killed terrorists and uncovered that their community was the next target. Tragically, two defenders lost their lives. Benny’s bullet-riddled car stood as a testament to his unwavering resolve, with traces of the terrorists’ blood under his fingernails indicating a fierce struggle until the very end.

Despite the heavy toll and serious injuries sustained, they held their ground in Pre Gan, waiting for over 90 minutes for reinforcements. Remarkably, no civilians in Pre Gan were harmed, a testament to the collective strength and determination displayed in the face of adversity.

Who knows what could have happened if the brave men from Shlomit hadn’t run to help?

Next we heard from Tamar Ratzon, an English teacher specializing in special education. She shared the disbelief felt by her and her community when terrorists unexpectedly breached the fence. I smiled when she said that their community, right near Gaza and Egypt was so safe, not like Jerusalem, where terror attacks happen all the time. (From my time living in Jerusalem, I alway thought of it as safe, unlike the border communities — just goes to show that our feelings of safety are just an illusion.)

She related, how they stayed in their bomb shelters all day until the following day brought a sudden evacuation order, granting them a mere 20 minutes to leave, with no clear indication of when they could return. What would you take if you could grab only a few items?

Tamar emphasized the collective sentiment that going back without the job being done would be the worst outcome.

While the hotel is beautiful and people may see it as a nice vacation, it is anything but. The absence of her husband, who is fighting on the front lines, and the challenge of accommodating five kids, added layers of difficulty.

Tamar shed light on the dynamics between the more secular community in Pri Gan and the more religious one in Shlomit. The harrowing experience wove the two communities together in an unbreakable bond. Just a few weeks ago Tamar would have said that they had nothing in common, but when their lives were at risk the men of Shlomit didn’t think twice. She concluded her remarks saying, “Knowing that we have you with us in this difficult emotional time is so meaningful.”

The concluding speaker, Dana Cohen, is the wife of the late community leader Aviad Gad Ben Osher, a student of Eli Adler, who had recently been elected as the leader of the community before his tragic murder in the fight against terrorists in Pri Gan. He was 41. Dana, now a widow and mother of six children, her eldest being 17, painted a vivid picture of her husband. “He was a gorgeous man. And a funny man.”

In a heartfelt plea for support, Dana Cohen uttered, “Please help me,” laying bare the emotional turmoil she experienced in the wake of her profound loss.

Her words resonated with a sentiment shared by many — a collective yearning for her husband’s sacrifice not to be in vain. Dana implored the audience to confront the harsh realities they faced, underscoring the imperative for genuine love and connection among all Jews.

Her second wish resonated with the vision her husband Aviad had for the community’s expansion. Dana yearned for this vision to persist, finding solace in the continuation of the work he had passionately undertaken. She invited us to visit her in Shlomit when it is rebuilt and they return.

Dana urged everyone to cherish their loved ones: “And if you have someone in your life you love, love them.” It served as a powerful reminder of the fragility of life and the importance of appreciating and nurturing the bonds that connect us all.

It was astonishing to listen to a woman who had just lost her entire world, yet spoke from unwavering strength. Her focus was on the daunting task of rebuilding and ensuring that her community of Shlomit would not only endure but emerge from this crisis even stronger than before.

The fact that, amidst her personal anguish, she expressed gratitude for our presence underscored the magnitude of her strength.

It was an incredible moment that reaffirmed, once again, the importance and justification of our decision to embark on this mission.

Innovation Amidst Crisis

Our day concluded back in Jerusalem at the Great Synagogue with a dinner featuring inspiring young participants from Aish’s TLI Leadership program. These tech-savvy individuals, engaged in real-time responses to the crisis, showcased innovative approaches reflecting a blend of resilience, creativity, and determination in the face of adversity.

From the heroic efforts of United Hatzalah to the solemn atmosphere of Shura Base and the stories of communities like Shlomit, each moment of day 2 etched itself into the narrative of a nation facing unprecedented challenges.

Day 3

Picking Sweet Potatoes with Leket Israel

Our day began in a field near Rishon L’Tzion, where we joined Nechama from “Leket Israel” in picking sweet potatoes.   Leket, founded two decades ago, focuses on distributing surplus food to those in need. Last year alone, it served an impressive two million meals.

Nechama shared the organization’s efforts during wartime, delivering food to Israeli refugees in hotels. Despite the challenges, Leket continued collecting excess fruits and vegetables from farms. The Benshalom family, owners of the farm, collaborated with Leket after the passing of their father. These farmers lost all their Thai workers due to the war. Some were killed, others kidnapped and whoever remained fled.

Together, we picked eight tons of sweet potatoes. It felt great to get our hands dirty with the soil of Israel and to make such a big impact during these difficult times.

Army Base in the Negev

Our journey then led us to an army base in the Northern Negev, where we encountered a special forces unit, Unit 5, led by Commander Ravid.

This base is a training facility that is made to look just like Gaza.

Ravid was just in Gaza earlier that morning and still had the dust of Gaza on his uniform. He shared insights into the changing nature of warfare, emphasizing the importance of generals being on the front lines to make better decisions.

The unit then showed us a simulation of the challenges they face, highlighting the need for coordination and protection of the general during operations.

We were introduced to Dr. Sasha, a 69-year-old member of the unit responsible for saving lives and providing medical assistance to soldiers, underscoring the diverse roles within the army.

The unit commander, a blond soldier with perfect English, expressed a resolute dedication to fighting against the horrors of war, drawing parallels to the Holocaust.

A Druze soldier conveyed a powerful message of strength. Another soldier, operating in Arab areas, emphasized the importance of staying united and shared a poignant connection to his grandmother, a Holocaust survivor.

Commander Ravid addressed the challenges faced by reserve units, requesting support for better equipment. As he put it, “If I played hide and seek in your house, who would win?”

He shed light on the dangers of Gaza and emphasized the need for media support to counteract misleading narratives.

We had time to talk personally with the soldiers and share the letters we brought with us from Denver. They were all so overwhelmed with gratitude that we came and so appreciated the letters.

They said that what gives them the most strength from the letters is knowing that Jews throughout the world are thinking of and praying for them. Many acknowledged that Hashem was fighting their battles and they were being protected by the prayers and support of the Jewish people.

Kibbutz Alumim: A Tale of Resilience

Situated at Kibbutz Alumim for nearly four decades, Jeremy Mizel began by describing the idyllic setting — a beautiful village where life unfolded in harmony. Little did they know that a night of joyous celebration for Simchat Torah would turn into a nightmare. Rocket fire disrupted the peaceful night, signaling the onset of the dire situation.

Jeremy vividly portrayed the sudden shift from festive dancing in the shul to the harsh reality of imminent danger. The security team’s urgent message prompted residents to seek refuge in protected rooms, bracing for a potential terrorist infiltration.

As the night unfolded, the distant sounds of gunfire indicated a threat that no one could have fully prepared for — five or six terrorists had invaded their haven. With the assumption that IDF assistance would arrive within hours, they huddled together, waiting for a rescue that seemed imminent. However, the reality was far grimmer. From 6:30 a.m. until midnight, the residents were held captive in their own homes.

Jeremy painted a haunting picture of the attacks as he shared satellite images captured by cameras surrounding the kibbutz. Ten terrorists on motorbikes breached the back fence, shooting at those attempting to flee the nearby music festival.

Amidst the terror, the kibbutz faced severe challenges, including days without food for their 700+ cows. Fear-induced stress led to a significant decline in milk production.

Those who fought the terrorists endured multiple gunshot wounds, with a lone midwife providing critical aid over the phone in the absence of ambulances.

The resilience of the 12-member security team shone through as it fended off 40 to 50 terrorists, all surviving the ordeal. Benny, a 80-year-old, faced terrorists head on, surviving two gunshot wounds to the stomach.

Shachar Bergsten, a 32-year-old, was tragically murdered.

The aftermath saw the kibbutz homes mostly empty, with residents seeking refuge in hotels. Offers of support flooded in, from stand-up comedians to volunteers aiding with daily tasks.

Jeremy Mizel, reflecting on the traumatic events, acknowledged that the kibbutz’s future security would require a paradigm shift. Residents grapple with the decision to return, with many eager but cautious, especially those with young children. The uncertain future is marked by a collective determination not to rely solely on protective rooms.

This close-knit community stands as a testament to the strength of the human spirit in the midst of chaos and tragedy.

At an Army Base near Ofakim, Aish, sponsored a BBQ for 700 soldiers. It was an opportunity for us not only to enjoy a meal together but also engage in meaningful conversations, share hugs and express our deep love and appreciation for their dedication.

We distributed more cards. The response from the soldiers was overwhelmingly positive. They expressed genuine gratitude for our presence and the thoughtful items we brought, particularly the cards. As one soldier stated, “I can make my own sandwich, but the cards are something special.” The impact of our gesture was clearly felt.

About the Author
Rabbi Menachem Lehrfield lives in Denver, Colorado with his wife, Sarah, and their five energetic children. He serves as the Director of the Jewish Outreach Initiative (JOI), a transformative program reshaping the Jewish landscape in Denver. JOI is dedicated to providing authentic Jewish experiences and learning opportunities for individuals from diverse backgrounds in a meaningful and engaging way. Additionally, Rabbi Lehrfield is the Co-director of SITE (the School of Integrative Torah Education), a Hebrew school alternative where Judaism is brought to life in a fun, camp-like atmosphere. He hosts the "Zero Percent” and "Dear Rabbi”podcasts and cohosts the "reConnect" podcast, further broadening his influence and connection with a global audience. Known for his warmth and genuine love for every Jew, Rabbi Lehrfield's approachable demeanor enables him to connect with people across all age groups and backgrounds. As a dynamic and engaging educator, he employs analogies and humor to make complex, profound ideas accessible and relatable to all, from novices to experts. Rabbi Lehrfield earned his M.Ed from Loyola University in Chicago and received two rabbinic ordinations; one from Yeshivas Beis Yisroel in Jerusalem, and another from Rabbi Zalman Nechemia Goldberg, the Chief Justice of the Jerusalem High Court. Beyond his professional pursuits, Rabbi Lehrfield is passionate about photography, baking, rock climbing, and snowboarding. These diverse interests allow him to engage with a broad spectrum of individuals and communities, furthering his mission to make Judaism relevant and meaningful for all Jews. You can follow Rabbi Lehrfield's activities and insights at @JOIdenver on Instagram and Facebook.
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