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The Colors of Volunteering

Children eager to return

It seems there are several ways Israelis are coping with the incredible stress of fighting a war on three fronts: smoking more, laughing more, and volunteering more. While I definitely wasn’t interested in the first coping mechanism, I was completely onboard for the second and third ones. Israelis can, if they are young enough, volunteer directly to serve in the army which they did in the thousands flying in from all over the world to do whatever was needed to fight the enemy.

As a grandmother, I wanted to do whatever was needed as well. So I was excited to be accepted last month to a program sponsored by Livnot U’lehibanot, (To Build and Be Built) that would give me the opportunity to help restore the buildings in the South, near the Gaza Strip.

Admittedly, painting a few pre-schools, which the Israelis call gans, and army barracks hardly qualifies as making a significant contribution to repairing the massive devastation of October 7. However, that assessment didn’t take into account the psychic benefit of what we were doing. While, yes, the kids in the places we painted could easily play in unpainted rooms without decoration, they and their parents could feel a bit more hopeful if the rooms were painted cheerful shades of blue, green, pink and yellow. We also had the opportunity to provide, with the help of our resident painters and artists, Marina and Avi, the fun element: murals of trees, giraffes, children petting dogs, birds.

Day One: Sky Blue, Pine Green

As we were working in Yishuv Naveh,a religious moshav just a few kilometers from the southern Gaza border, we could hear the missiles in the distance. We chatted with the women who worked here and were determined to continue living here and growing their very child-oriented community. This despite the dangers of living near the border in a rather barren, hot environment. Many of the members of this community are former residents of an Israeli settlement in Gaza who were forced to leave as a result of the 2005 disengagement decision.

The process of painting can be therapeutic: covering over the dirty, sometimes pockmarked walls with a fresh, clean, hopeful coat. The added bonus was working together with others who also cared deeply about Israel and did so with a sense of humor. When I accidentally dripped green paint intended for a leaf on the “sky”, Marina easily brushed it off saying, “no problem, I’ll just make a falling leaf.” When we took a break, a few of the residents brought us food they had prepared themselves for us: pasta and several salads. This we ate in one of the many playgrounds that alleviated the dreariness of their surroundings.

Day Two: White

The next day, we worked at a decidedly more cheerful community, Kibbutz Magen, which fit the description of what you might imagine a kibbutz to look like. Eucalyptus and carob trees, wildflowers of yellow, purple, red, storks flying about chattering loudly and modest, but well maintained homes with bikes and toys littering their front yards.The reason this kibbutz looked so beautifully intact, unlike its neighbors that were partially or totally destroyed by Hamas was due to a few key decisions its members had made.

After arriving we were greeted by “Issi” a member of the kibbutz, who was toting the same reconfigured M-16 he used on October 7. Issi, a rugged older man in his 50s or 60s recounted what that day was like. Unlike others who hid in their bomb shelters that morning when the alarms went off, members of the kibbutz’ emergency team decided to gather at the lookout point facing Gaza. What they saw was shocking: dozens of Arab terrorists trying to invade their kibbutz via pickup trucks and motorcycles. The terrorists managed to break down their outer gate where they were greeted by bullets from the squad’s rifles. The dozen Magen men fired at them, killing a number and fending off their penetration. Two of their members later died of wounds sustained during the 3 1/2 hour conflict. But they saved their entire kibbutz from from what he estimated were 50 to 60 attackers and averted certain destruction.

Issi said that two factors were paramount to their success. One was that when the community council told them to return their guns to the government earlier that year, they refused. He explained that due to a suicide and a gun accident, the local council thought they would be better off without these weapons. The kibbutz members disagreed. The second factor that saved them was Magen’s longstanding policy of not employing Palestinians on their farm and factory. Only their own members work on the premises. Later, it was discovered that the Palestinians had been gathering intelligence about all the places they worked at, so that when they invaded they’d know exactly where to go and who was most vulnerable. The nearby kibbutz of Nir Oz was completely destroyed and lost about one-quarter of their community.

In early April, most members of Magen were filtering back to their homes. And we were doing our small bit to make their return warmer.

Day 3: Light Grey

The third place we worked was the Re’im Army Base headquarters of the Gaza Division not far from Sderot. It houses mainly those who work in intelligence.

Today we painted the outside of their barracks which have a finish they call “shpritz.” (Love when they adopt Yiddish into the Hebrew language! Gives me a leg up on my Hebrew).Shpritz is a pebbly rough finish, kind of like what I imagine you’d get if you added clumps of tiny pebbles to a paint spray can and “shpritzed it at the wall. We also had to scrape the paint off the doors which would later be painted with an oil-based paint. When we finished a couple of barracks, we were treated to a restaurant-quality lunch at the cafeteria. Lots of choices and ample amounts. It’s a wonder the soldiers don’t put on weight.

Under the small world banner of coincidences that occurred throughout my trip, was running into Hagit who organized the Sword of Iron facebook site that lists all the volunteer opportunities in Israel. It’s a great source of information for those looking to volunteer. Just another in the long list of people I ran into in Israel who took the initiative to set up very useful and important operations by themselves, just because it needed to be done.

Hagit and her friend joined us when we listened to an officer explain what happened here on October 7. On that day like everyone else they were taken by surprise and undermanned. There were only 120 soldiers on base out of a full complement of 1200. Some were on vacation for Simchat Torah, others on other assignments. He said that 90 of the Nova concert goers came to the army base to escape their attackers and they were able to hide them in their bomb shelter. He explained that because Re’im is an intelligence division and not a combat center, the soldiers were not highly trained in combat. So when the terrorists entered their base, they did not possess the skills to effectively fend them off. Approximately 20 soldiers were killed during the confrontation before they managed to corner their enemies into the army gym (which had been constructed with funds from the Friends of the IDF). Then the commander of the unit called the air force and asked for reinforcements. A helicopter was sent and a bomb was dropped on the gym killing all the remaining terrorists hiding inside.

After the talk he walked us over to the gym. The base looked more like a small college campus than what I had envisioned an army base looked like.The remains of the gym are still there and only one corner was destroyed. I can only surmise that the air force had used high-tech radar detection to determine exactly where in the building they were hiding. A copious amount of bird shit marks the areas where their remains most likely were found.

After our stint at Re’im we went to Shuva Junction, an operation that supplies food, meals and toiletries and other necessities to soldiers returning from Gaza. All free. There were groups of tourists visiting and I met the organizer of the Nova exhibit now open in New York City. It was a bit chaotic, but in an organized way. I was asked to work in the kitchen where I peeled potatoes for about 45 minutes.

Later we met one of the “Shuva” brothers whose last name isn’t really Shuva. Dror, who is one of the founders, lives in a nearby moshav. He along with family members noticed that they soldiers had nowhere to purchase groceries between stints at the front and so he organized a canteen for them. “It needed to be done,” he explained simply.

This was shortly after the war began. Today more and more volunteers stop by to contribute both goods and sweat equity.

That evening we assembled a BBQ for soldiers in the area. For those who have volunteered in Israel, this is the most fun activity you can do. We all got together and prepared hot dogs, hamburgers, kofka kabobs and even veggie patties. (A growing number of Israelis are vegetarian). But the most fun was when the locals started to arrive. A group of four Israeli teens came to lend a hand. They had just returned to Sderot and all said they were happy to be back. I got to practice my Hebrew and also help test them for an upcoming English vocabulary test. Then a Moroccan woman arrived and immediately took charge. Stating clearly with a smile, “no Ashkenazi food,” she assembled a buffet of cabbage salads, Israeli salads and beet salad and transformed our ordinary hummus and tehini into an appetizing spread by adding tomato paste and a dribble of olive oil. A local family drove by and sent their young son out to deliver desserts.

Later, over cigarettes and tea, we got to talk with several soldiers and one of them, with Hollywood looks and sporting a man bun, said he was currently living in Los Angeles but rushed back to serve in the reserves. He had previously served as a Lone Soldier. They even let us pose for a photo opp with their machine guns.

Last Day: Multi-Colored

We return to Kibbutz Magen. While we are painting a mural of children and dogs inspired by an Israeli children’s story, we can see more and more families with children returning to the village.

The children are delighted with our mural. One girl offers me a piece of a Challah role. A dog traumatized by the rocket fire sheltering inside the gan starts to timidly venture outside.

For more information about the Livnot U’lehibanot program go to: livnot.org

Facebook: Sword of Iron

About the Author
Gina Friedlander is obsessed with all things Israeli. She served as editor of several trade magazines in the health and supplement industries before switching careers and becoming a high school English teacher and tutor of English and SAT prep. Currently she spends her time visiting Israel, writing, playing tennis, doing Israeli folk dancing, and trying to stay positive.
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