During the last two weeks, many have emerged from the comfort and relative safety of their own homes to volunteer for various causes throughout Israel. From emptying their pantries to feed hungry soldiers on the front, gathering supplies for those displaced from their homes, or tying tzitzit (Jewish ritual four-cornered garment typically worn as an undershirt): so many Israelis are contributing to their country in their own way.
At the heart of this movement are the young Bnot Sherut (National Service Volunteers) who chose to serve their country through a year of citizen service even before the war broke out. Due to the unexpected nature of the October 7th attack, many service volunteers that work in social services, such as in schools or with special needs populations, have suddenly found themselves without employment to fill their necessary service hours. Others, serving in hospitals or in emergency services like MDA, have had to change expectations at the drop of a dime; working long and exhausting hours just to support the medical teams in Israel overwhelmed with short staffing and longer patient lists. Especially prominent are the struggles of lone Bnot Sherut, young women from abroad that made Aliyah specifically for the purpose of serving their homeland, and have now found themselves in the middle of a war.
One such MDA service volunteer, Esther Rabinowitz from Baltimore, Maryland, describes her experience arriving to her Sherut job on October 8th:
“The first day after Sukkot, I worked at the blood bank. It was amazing to see all the people showing up to donate,” she says. “However, because the war was so sudden, there was little organization. I felt that everyone just chose a job to do and went with it. I didn’t know who to go to with issues or what needed to be done. Eventually, I chose what I saw was lacking- making sure everyone was hydrated. I walked around from 9am until 3pm hanging out water. My feet hurt and I was exhausted. More importantly though, I felt I had helped others and contributed to the war efforts.” Mere days after October 7th, thousands of people showed up to donate blood, keeping her and many other volunteers like her in constant motion.
Another MDA Bat Sherut, Yael Carlsen from Chicago, talks about her experience serving as a lone Bat Sherut during Operation Iron Swords:
“It makes me extremely proud [to be a part] of the organization MDA; we don’t let anything bother us and we even work under fire, under rockets! I feel incredibly proud that I am Jewish and that I am really able to make a difference in this country…I’m really impacting people’s lives!”
Devora Ruderman works in another sector of Sherut Leumi: at the Michael Levin Base in Jerusalem, supporting lone soldiers through social media work for the organization. However, with war bringing in hundreds more lone soldiers from abroad, her workload has increased dramatically:
“I was already sure I wanted to do some kind of national service as a part of my Aliyah, because I feel a responsibility to serve my country,” says Ruderman. “For me, it wasn’t a question of whether or not to serve, but where and how.
“Since October 8th, the day after the attack, we have been busy collecting donations and supplies for our soldiers. We packed personal ‘care packages’ with all the basics they would need, and sent them out to military bases throughout the country. Even now, we are gathering supplies and sending them out to our soldiers. Whether it’s giving money, organizing supplies, and driving hours to a military base, everyone is eager to do their part to support our soldiers.”
California-native Shoshana Dardik, is a Bat Sherut serving in Misrad HaAliyah V’Klita (the immigrant absorption office) at Ben Gurion Airport. Normally, Shoshana and her fellow Bnot Sherut process incoming new Olim, helping them get to where they need to go and making sure the Aliyah process runs smoothly. With the sudden October 7th massacre, there were days when it was unsafe for her to travel back to the center of the country, effectively shutting her off from her ability to complete Sherut hours in her role. However, she found a resourceful and local solution. Through raising funds for supplies for soldiers and helping with local childcare, Shoshana made the best of an unstable situation and supported her community.
Life goes on in Israel even in spite of the war, and Olim (new immigrants) still arrive at Ben Gurion, though in smaller numbers. Still, their determination and spirit is inspiring. “With the people coming,” says Dardik, “they’ve said they’d rather be [in Israel] than anywhere else in the world.”
Shoshana recounts one such story of a man she helped make aliyah.
“There was a man making aliyah here a couple days ago. He was 15 during the Six Day War and he’s been living abroad ever since. He has been waiting so many years, and now he is finally able to come back home.”
Lone Bnot Sherut are National Service volunteers who have sacrificed the relative comfort of their birth countries and their families to serve Israel. When asked how the outbreak of war affected their expectations for their year of service, their answers varied.
“My work schedule is exhausting. Some days I work 5 hours, other days 9,” says MDA volunteer Esther Rabinowitz. “Knowing the war is going on right now, and knowing how many people were hurt just sits on my chest. It doesn’t leave my mind, but I do get moments where it doesn’t pain me as much. I know I’m not the only one who feels a responsibility to the fallen, the mourning, and the soldiers to use the life they’ve given me to be my best self.”
“I’m very grateful for where I am, for my job,” Yael adds. “I think I want to go down south and help more, because that is what is needed…I would be very lucky to be able to say that I helped in such a crazy situation, such as I have been, and such as I will be doing.”
The courage and inner strength, resilience and perseverance of these young women in the face of so much uncertainty is a shining light for us all during these dark days. May they go from strength to strength, and may we all follow the shining standard of our Bnot Sherut!