Gregg S. Russo

Israel: A Nation of Heroes

Supporting the Yahalom unit at Mitzpe Ramon
Supporting the Yahalom unit at Mitzpe Ramon

Walking alone in Moshav Gilat the morning of November 29th I was full of uncertainty. I questioned my decision to visit Israel without the structure of a supporting organization. My Israeli friends had encouraged me to come, assuring me that there would be volunteer opportunities for me. I had arrived the night before with close to 200 pounds of requested supplies for soldiers. My host family had left for their weekday activities, so I was left to my own thoughts which were challenging my decision to visit for two weeks.

At home, I had engaged in many activities in support of Israel, but I remained frustrated that I was not doing enough. News coverage about rising antisemitism and Israel’s “disproportionate response” contributed to my sense of isolation and despair.  While I was doing advocacy work, my friends in Israel were being called up for reserve duty, volunteering for civil defense and worrying about their children serving in combat roles. I thought that I was going there to support them, but in retrospect, Israel supported me.

My activities included picking eggplants with the constant “Boom!” of Gaza as background music, grilling hundreds (maybe thousands) of hamburgers with all of the “fixins” for soldiers, organizing food stored in desert “pop-up” army bases, passing out Hanukkah cards created by our community’s children and hugs to hundreds of soldiers on bases, in the streets, and at relief centers, and distributing supplies at the “Hamal” (a free store for soldiers) in Arad. Every interaction was positive and buoyed my spirit and theirs.

At the Hamal, I met an 18 year old soldier named Liam. He was just completing basic training. Looking at him I couldn’t help but think that he should be preparing to go off to college, not war. Another soldier at the Hamal told me how his commander, who he’d known for only six days, died saving his life. Shortly after reading a CNN article that condemned Israel’s practice of having captured terrorists strip to their underwear, I met a driver embedded with the Arabic speaking unit performing interrogations. Zohar explained that these people lacked honor, they killed babies, he stressed, they can’t be trusted not to have bombs strapped to their bodies. He pointed at his fellow soldiers and said, “We are all parents of young children, we are fighting for the babies.”

Volunteering at Gilat Junction

In Ofakim, Yuval, a policeman friend, gave me a tour of how the terrorists infiltrated the border. We visited the bullet-ridden home of Rachel Edri (the grandmother who fed the terrorists in her apartment until help arrived) and he showed me where his best friend, a fellow policeman, was killed outside of her window. I learned that the terrorists had intended to take over the Ofakim police station as they had done in Sderot, but had a bad map that resulted in their getting lost in the city. My host family’s son, Liad, a proud member of the Givati Brigade, told me how he was awoken by his younger brother Ofir, also a soldier, who was concerned with the number of missiles being fired on October 7th. Liad dismissed this as just another missile attack until Ofir insisted that he come outside for a look. Alarmed by what they saw, they turned on the TV only to see Ofakim, eight minutes from their house, under terrorist attack. WIthin minutes Liad donned his uniform, grabbed his gun and fought the terrorists in the streets of Ofakim.

One morning, joining friends for coffee at a cafe in Ofakim I was told that the cook, Roei, had survived the Nova Music Festival. Roei recounted how he ran from the terrorists for over eight hours fearing for his life. He described the fear of being spotted by the terrorists as he had to traverse open spaces. At one point he was being pursued by three terrorists who had divided up to find him. From underneath a bush, he watched them and prayed as one got closer. Finally, he grabbed some leaves and branches and leapt out at the terrorist closest to him pushing the detritus into his eyes. They fought as the other terrorists shot at them until Roei was able to stab the terrorist with his own knife. Roei ran again, pursued by the terrorists. Seeing the IDF in the distance, he ran to them yelling in Hebrew that he was a Jew and they shot the other two terrorists. Later on my friend said, “It’s like a script from a movie, only it is real.”

At Soroka Hospital in Beer Sheva, I visited wounded soldiers and met with Eyal, a friend and “retired” combat veteran who volunteered for the grim job of informing families about the death of their loved ones. He likened this to throwing a grenade into their homes and then helping them pick up the pieces. The burden of his responsibilities was evident on his person. He carried a heaviness that could consume him. I asked how he coped. We had a laugh recollecting drinking whiskey together, a coping mechanism he still employs, but he also told me that he writes poems. That night I received a beautiful, sad, but hopeful poem from him that again brought tears to my eyes.

I also had the opportunity to visit the Ramon Crater where the families displaced from Kibbutz Erez were relocated. Verad, the mother of three small children, recounted how they were in their safe room for eight hours, afraid to run to the bathroom as they heard shooting and bombing outside their door. They finally made a run for it, only to be stuck in traffic. This prompted me to reflect on family car trips and the challenges of keeping young children amused during a long ride. I imagined the terror that must have filled the safe room and the challenges of picking up a familiar life on the Kibbutz after being forced to move without the benefit of packing or planning.

Hugs at the Hamal In Arad

I had several opportunities to visit military bases. When I explained that I was visiting from New Jersey to offer support and volunteer I was warmly greeted. Some soldiers insisted on thanking me, making me very uncomfortable. Their sincerity was evident as they stressed how much the support of the U.S. means to them. At one of the bases I helped with a Hanukkah party. I was amazed how meticulous the set up was. The sufganiyot were laid out on a red table cloth lightly dusted with powdered sugar and interspersed with Krembo and protein bars. The Bamba flowed from an open bag in a waterfall. Spirits were strong, and beautiful, in this affirmation of life. At this base I was taken aside by a high-ranking officer (a tech executive doing reserve duty), Eliav, who explained the caution that Israel takes to avoid civilian casualties. He wants the world to understand that Israel will not sacrifice its humanity.

As I write this, I feel a hope that I was unable to experience in the U.S. The spirit of the Israeli people is intense, optimistic, and contagious. Despite the horror of October 7th, and the adversity that they face every day, they emphasize the importance of life and the conviction of their beliefs. Israel is indeed a country of heroes, each with a story waiting to be told.

Sharing cards of support from the children of New Jersey at the Gilat Junction
About the Author
Gregg Russo, a retired Biopharma executive, lives in Randolph NJ with his wife Gerri. He has served in extensive and varied roles within the Jewish community and is a graduate of the Wexner Heritage Program.