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Jonathan Riskind
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American Jews: Now’s the time to volunteer in Israel

Harvesting crops, feeding soldiers, packing care boxes for the injured – your presence is needed and deeply appreciated
Volunteers pack donations of food and other necessities for Israeli soldiers and citizens in the south, in Tel Aviv, October 9, 2023. (Miriam Alster/Flash9)
Volunteers pack donations of food and other necessities for Israeli soldiers and citizens in the south, in Tel Aviv, October 9, 2023. (Miriam Alster/Flash9)

We spent the morning on a late December day picking lemons on a farm close to Sderot, one of the communities in the so-called Gaza envelope savaged by Hamas terrorists Oct. 7. Like so many farms near Gaza and elsewhere in Israel, volunteers are badly needed in the wake of the atrocities carried that day and subsequent war to make up for lost workers – some of the thousands of Thai farm workers in Israel were among the murdered and kidnapped Oct. 7 and most of the foreign workers left – and prevent the crops from spoiling on the vine.

That afternoon, our group of Jewish National Fund-USA volunteers traveled to Kibbutz Revivim in the Negev Desert south of Be’er Sheva, whose cemetery is the temporary burial site for some of Kibbutz Be’eri residents – men, women, and children – slaughtered on Oct. 7. We honored them, saying the Jewish mourner’s prayer, Kaddish, and added to the stones placed on their graves. It was impossible to bury the Be’eri victims in their home cemetery in the days following Oct. 7, but the intent is for the living to rebuild and, as a part of that, return their dead to a permanent resting place.

Already, some volunteers have begun the grim work of clean up at Be’eri and other communities shattered and burned out that horrific day, and JNF-USA, we were told, is gearing up to join that work as future missions arrive in Israel.

I hope there will be plenty of people ready and willing to undertake that work, and whatever else is needed in the months ahead. So far, signs are encouraging. Hundreds of American Jews are filling up the available spaces on the JNF-USA volunteer missions as fast as they are being offered; the next trip with openings (at least as of this writing) is scheduled for March 10-14. The Dec. 24-28 trip that my wife and I participated in was sold out with more than 100 people from across the United States (and a few from Canada) anxious to help any way that was needed, from harvesting crops to packing boxes of gifts for the injured in hospitals, to preparing meals for soldiers and organizing boxes of clothing on a military base for distribution to the troops.

Many of our friends and family seemed somewhat alarmed that we were planning to travel to Israel. “You’re voluntarily going into a war zone!” But as my wife remarked, she felt far calmer the moment we landed in Israel and throughout our trip, than back in the States amid the cauldron of bubbling antisemitism and a flood of reflexively anti-Israel and anti-Zionism sentiments, no matter how ignorant.

If you are an American Jew, regardless of whether you were there this past summer, haven’t been there in years, or have never been at all: Go to Israel now and see for yourself what nearly half of the Jewish population in the world is contending with. If you think there are simple answers to complicated problems like why there has yet to be a two-state solution or believe the current government of Israel is the same as the people of Israel, there is no better time to be in Israel. Many American Jews also don’t seem to realize, when faced with anti-Zionist “colonialist” rhetoric and other canards, that Israel is an extremely diverse country that is majority non-white and of non-European descent after some 850,000 Jews were expelled from Algeria, Iraq, Morocco, Iran, Yemen, and other Arab countries after 1948. And, of course, more than 20 percent of Israel’s population is not Jewish; about 18 percent is Muslim, 2 percent Christian, and 2 percent Druze.

You can go on a mission with JNF or another organization. If you have Israeli friends, they no doubt are volunteering in the fields, as we did that one day, or making food for soldiers starved for non-Army rations, as we did when our group grilled 500 hamburgers and packed them into boxes for soldiers in the Golan. We did the latter in the restaurant of a Druze woman from Julis, near Akko, who koshered her kitchen just so she could make meals for soldiers and the tens of thousands of evacuees from the south and the north now living in hotels and other temporary residences.

If you think this is make-work that is being arranged just to make the volunteers feel good, think again. Just being there, being present, is extremely meaningful to Israelis.

Several soldiers came to eat with us before taking the burgers back to their units. They were a bit dumbfounded, yet very happy that we were willing to come to Israel in the middle of the war and spend time cooking for them. One young man looked so ravenous that my wife gave him her burger, which he turned into a double burger, wolfing it down with a look of pure ecstasy. 

We also had the opportunity to meet with survivors of the Nova festival massacre, for whom sharing their stories seemed to be both therapeutic and a way to make sure that others can help bear witness to their terrifying accounts of brutal and barbaric slaughter and torture.

Israel is a country unified by loss and resolve. Everywhere you go in Israel there are two constants: one is the phrase, “Together We Will Win,” on buildings, store windows, and city buses, literally any surface you can think of; and the other is memorials to the murdered and kidnapped, the assaulted, raped, and mutilated.

Spend some time walking around Tel Aviv, past the large, overstuffed teddy bears with blood stains propped on benches, and head for Dizengoff Square and its popular fountain that is now home to a living, evolving, lovingly tended memorial of photos, poems, letters, toys, flowers, and other remembrances of those slain, raped, and kidnapped on Oct. 7. 

But even as people constantly walk around the fountain, reflecting, taking photos, and replacing worn or weather-damaged objects, life is going on around it, people are hanging out again at the bars and cafes, and families are strolling with their children and babies, often with a husband or wife on reserve carrying a weapon.

As several Israelis told me, one of the things that keeps them up at night is the feeling that there was no state there to protect its citizens on Oct. 7. But at the same time, they are comforted by the amazing speed with which the citizen-movement, especially groups like Brothers in Arms that were among the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Israelis, that mobilized this past year against the governing coalition’s attempt to overhaul the judiciary, turned on a dime to provide the civil assistance and support that the government seemed incapable of taking on effectively in the immediate wake of Oct. 7.

Finally, at the end of our volunteer mission, we walked around an outdoor shopping area next to the Old City in Jerusalem. During past visits, we would hear English and other languages. This time we heard almost no English, only Hebrew as it was nearly all Israelis walking around, and in much smaller numbers than normal. We walked into a shoe store where we have frequently shopped and the saleswoman recognized us with a startled and disbelieving look: “What are you doing here?” When we responded that we were here to volunteer, to help in some small way, and to see our friends, she started to cry. It means so much, she said, to see that Americans are not abandoning us. 

So, please go to Israel. Work. Observe. Hug people. You won’t be sorry.

About the Author
Jonathan Riskind is a Washington, DC-area resident who, in addition to his recent participation in the JNF-USA mission, has visited Israel 6 times since 2017 and is active with AJC, the American Jewish Committee.