“Israel is not Disneyland,” I heard Rabbi Riskin of Efrat say during the Second Intifada. He was lamenting that Jews in the diaspora tend to see Israel as a fun, vacation destination, rather than as our homeland; the place we should visit in good times and bad. With those words reverberating in my head, I recently spent two weeks volunteering and visiting friends and family in Israel.
Truth be told, I came to Israel selfishly. During these excruciatingly difficult times, it felt so much better to be in Israel, than to be thousands of miles away, worrying and praying for everyone’s safety, while endlessly glued to the news, monitoring multiple news sites daily, in Hebrew and English. Upon landing in Israel, I stopped watching the news and relied on WhatsApp alerts to keep me updated. I was home, together with my people, all of us in the same boat.
Every day that we were in Israel, I witnessed the magic of the Jewish people; their strength, resilience, and generosity of spirit. Within hours of the attack on October 7th the entire country mobilized into “helping” mode. The infrastructure that had been created before that date for anti-government demonstrations against the judicial review, pivoted on a dime to support the war effort; helping families of the hostages and the bereaved, collecting, and sorting military gear for reservists, and providing clothes and household supplies for tens of thousands of evacuees and on and on. Along with sadness and disbelief at this new reality, I saw incredible tenacity, resolve, and fortitude.
The unity and coming together of Jews from around the world is nothing short of remarkable! Numerous solidarity missions arrive at Ben Gurion airport weekly to bear witness, to help alleviate the burden of the workers who’ve been called up to reserve duty, and to replace foreign workers who’ve returned to their native countries. No task seems too large or too small for the volunteers who readily pitch in; from agricultural work in the fields to packing, sorting, and delivering supplies to army bases throughout the South and the North, visiting the wounded in hospitals and rehab centers, and spending time with evacuee families to help give parents a break.
Every task is greatly appreciated. If not for the many volunteers, then who would be able to help with these many chores? 300,000 reservists have been called up and instantly left their jobs without warning. Tens of thousands of families have been evacuated from their homes in the south, uprooted from work and school. Everything has come to a complete halt and yet the fields need to be tended to and the other jobs need to be filled as well.
Though we were not on an organized mission, each day during our two-week stay my husband and I spent time volunteering; sorting and packing boxes, visiting the wounded and the evacuees, donating blood at Magen David Adom, and picking vegetables with Leket Israel. Our days were meaningful and memorable.
Wherever we went, the dominant question people asked us was, “What’s going on in America, is it safe for Jews? We’re very worried about you too!” There seemed to be a pervasive feeling of isolationism. Israelis are feeling very alone in the world and are worried that even in the United States, things are becoming unstable for Jews. Similarly, never comfortable with the image of “victimhood,” they immediately shifted the conversation away from themselves and inquired about the safety of me and my family back in the US. I assured everyone that we were fine.
Unlike in past trips to Israel, where I was always aware of the many divisions among Israelis; Ashkenazi and Sephardi, religious and secular, leftist and rightist etc., this time it feels like we are all one big family. I’m hoping to go back again soon since it’s so much easier to be there during this time of crisis and war than to be following it from so far away.
Sometimes just showing up is the right thing to do, for them and us.