I just returned from three weeks in Israel, Dec. 31, 2023 to Jan. 18, 2024, with Volunteers For Israel, Sar-El. I will tell you what motivated me to go, the response of the people I met, what I think I may have contributed, what I gained, and lastly why you should go.
The second I learned of Hamas’ genocide, I dropped everything and went, by myself, as did so many others. My husband, family, and friends understandably expressed concern for my safety. I told them while I wasn’t looking to be in harm’s way, Israel is the only place to be because Never Again is Now.
You will experience every range of emotion and some you didn’t know you had. I met people from all over the world: France, S. Africa, the UK, Germany, New Zealand, Australia, many of whom were not Jewish, but simply felt a need to help Israel, post Hamas’ genocide.
You work from Sunday to Thursday on tasks which help to relieve the reservists. My 1st week involved packing medical kits; 2nd week making food packages; 3rd week sorting soldiers uniforms and sleeping bags. You are given work clothes. My co-volunteers got a kick out of the 2nd week’s pants issued to me which were too big and kept falling down! Everyone helps each other out, bonding in the process, working hard and laughing hard. I suggested towards the end of one hard working day that we put on some disco music on a cell phone. And so we did. Donna Summer’s Hot Stuff was blasting away when suddenly our gray haired, 70 something Frenchman began doing his best John Travolta imitation while he continued to sort uniforms, without missing a beat! We laughed until we cried.
As I was loading IV bags into a medical pouch, I asked the woman next to me what she does for a living. She said she had a PhD in Pharmacology. I smiled and asked myself what country, other than Israel, can manage to get PhDs to drop everything, travel at their own expense, and load items for hours on a fast moving assembly line. The medical pouches you pack are in a certain order, i.e. sutures first, then surgical scissors, etc. I was told this is because a physician may be treating a wounded soldier in darkness and can therefore depend upon the order in the pouch to quickly reach for which instrument is needed.
You meet before work for flag raising. A moment of silence is held for soldiers who were just killed. The ache you feel stays with you in a place you try and keep compartmentalized so that you can get on with it. But the ache never goes away fully. Nor should it. You will see the hustle and bustle of daily life in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, people at the beach, shopping, going to work, and be humbled by the resilience of the Israelis while they carry the burdens and joys of being a Jew with dignity, courage, determination and pride.
Lunch is a delicious buffet, in a large cafeteria with soldiers and other Volunteers. I sat next to soldiers who were as eager to hear my thoughts, as I was to hear theirs. Almost all began the conversation by telling me how much they appreciated my being a Volunteer. I told them it is a privilege to be able to volunteer, is the least I could do. Some worried that Israel is becoming isolated in the world. A few asked if the majority of Americans still support Israel. They said seeing the volunteers helps them to sustain hope for the future.
I told them I have my own Blog in The Times of Israel, and am a regular contributor to The Jewish Voice newspaper, Brooklyn, NYC, and have given talks for Israel. They were surprised and said how much hearing this meant to them. They asked to see my Blogs on my cell phone and took photos of it. I wanted to help them feel they are not alone, that we support them and hope I succeeded in this small way. When I went to shake their hands good-bye I always got a big hug, right after the handshake, which will stay with me forever. I met a soldier from Chechnya. I said, “You’re a long way from home.” He said, “This is my home.” I can still see each and everyone of their faces.
The “bosses” at your work site are nice but intense, totally focused, and understandably are under pressure to make their count of how many packages of food or medical pouches they need to have completed by day’s end. One day, I tripped and took a hard fall. I was totally embarrassed. I looked up to see eight arms outstretched to help me up. I grabbed an arm, went right back to my work station, worked through the pain (and humiliation). I thought it would be fun to ask another Volunteer to translate in Hebrew for me, and ask the boss if I was the best looking Volunteer who ever fell. He said “Lo”, Hebrew for “No.” I then asked him if he wanted me to, I could do it again. He again said “Lo” but chuckled throughout this exchange, as we all did, and I still am to this day!
Wednesday evenings the team gathers after dinner to express their thoughts and feelings about volunteering. I asked, and was given permission, to present a piece I wrote to our group.
“I said, “My Story is Our Story”
I am a retired social worker. My husband tells me retired social workers are a dangerous lot—always up to something!!!
My mother was a French Moroccan Jew, in Casablanca during WWII. She met my father who was a soldier. They fell in love. He sent for her to come to America as a war bride. She spoke French and Arabic. On rainy days, when my brother and I were cooped up in the house, bored and becoming totally obnoxious, my mother, overcome with exasperation with us, would revert to her native tongue and begin yelling at us in Arabic. So I now tell everyone we were the only Jewish kids on our block who grew up knowing all the curse words in Arabic!
When Israel became a nation her two sisters fled Casablanca. One went to Israel and the other to France. I was in Israel for the first time in 1969. My cousin was a paratrooper in the Six Day War. In 2015, I visited my 95-year-old uncle, Samuel, and aunt Juliette in their nursing home in France. The nursing home was guarded by French soldiers, as were all Jewish facilities at that time which were under attack. Samuel’s entire family was killed in the Holocaust. During World War II, as a Jewish soldier in France, he fled to Morocco. In Casablanca he joined the Resistance, was captured and tortured but survived. And so this war hero, some 70 years later, required armed guards in order to survive, and all because … he is a Jew. Today, we see young Israeli soldiers, with M-16 rifles slung over their shoulders, the dust still visible on their boots, who should be going to parties, planning their lives and instead, are forced to defend against Hamas’ threats of Oct. 7th genocide, to be repeated again and again.
In 2014, after Gaza’s Operation Protective Edge, I heard the chants of “Jews to the gas; Hitler should have finished the job.” I told myself I had to do something. So I went, by myself, on HonestReporting’s 2015 Mission to Israel, to learn techniques to combat media bias. And while there, at a dinner, I sat next to a young soldier. His best friend was killed because they went house-to-house vs. larger scale operations in Gaza to avoid civilian casualties, despite the greater risk to themselves. And for that they were still blamed. He asked me, his voice cracking with anguish, why the media blames Israel for defending itself? I had no words for him, other than to gently take his arm, and say, “If they sent all the Jews to Mars, they’d still be blaming us for the world’s woes.” Nothing changes. Today Israel is once again blamed for defending itself from Hamas’ genocidal butchery.
We see acts of courage replaced by the Brown Shirt thuggery of attacks on Jews in synagogues, at pro-Israel rallies, while seated in restaurants. We have been scattered to the ends of the earth but Israel is our only home.
In my Op-Ed, 1/27/2023, “We Are All Jews Here – Int’l Holocaust Remembrance Day”
We need to pay homage to a soldier who defined bravery for all of us. In “We Are All Jews Here”, Lee Habeeb, writes, “Courage, Aristotle wrote, is the first of human qualities because it is the quality which guarantees the others. And courage is precisely what was on display in a German prison camp over seven decades ago, when one brave American soldier did the unthinkable: Staring down the barrel of his Nazi captor’s pistol, he refused to identify which of his fellow prisoners of war were Jewish. His act of defiance would save nearly 200 Jews and earn him, posthumously, the Righteous Among Nations Award. Only five Americans have earned the distinction. Only one was a soldier. His name was Master Sergeant Roderick “Roddie” Edmonds. “
It is time for everyone to stand up and say “We Are All Jews Here.” Every town hall, Congress, the Senate, every mayor, governor, every house of worship, every mosque, every church, in every nation, it is time for all to stand up and say “We are all Jews here.”
Every Jew, everywhere, should take one action, each week, make one phone call, write one letter to combat the Big Lies echoed by mainstream media and hold their representatives,and their Jewish leaders accountable.
How many dead Jews will it take for the world to stand up and say “We are all Jews here.”
I was met with applause, hugs, and was told how “inspiring” my talk was. Each person in turn, told how moving it was to meet so many people who didn’t know each other, but instantly felt their commonality of purpose, making us feel like family.
Why you should go: I brought with me an exquisite silver Mezuzah, thinking I would simply give it to a needy Israeli family who has suffered loss. A Volunteer said she knew a soldier who was shot, still in the hospital recuperating, and how much this would mean to him. I try and imagine his face when receiving this random act of kindness and only hope it helped to make his burdens a little lighter for that moment. We are all feeling, at times, hopeless and helpless. Volunteering is one deeply symbiotic, meaningful way to do something concrete to help. Israelis need to see you, hear you, share with you, your support, your appreciation, your willingness to travel to Israel, and give of yourself. Become a Volunteer to celebrate the truth and beauty of Israel with Israelis from all walks of life, from the soldiers, to store clerks, to your fellow Volunteers from all over the world.
Our hearts which are broken post Hamas’ Islamic Jihad barbaric genocide will never be entirely healed. Nothing will ever be the same. But your heart will be made warm again, your resolve fortified with a renewed sense of purpose and meaning. Go. You will have the journey of a lifetime you will take home with you in your heart. A part of me is still in Israel. And will always be.