Joel Neuman

Why I Volunteered in Israel, and What I Learned

Picking Oranges at Moshav Tlamim
Picking Oranges at Moshav Tlamim (image courtesy of author)

On October 7 we all stood in shock as we started to hear details of the atrocities committed by Hamas on that day. Once that initial paralysis started to wear off, the questions for many of us became: What  can I do to help? What role can I play to help Israel and the Jewish people recover? After all, I am not a soldier in the IDF; I don’t have the ability, at least by myself, to impact US policy toward Israel: and while I immediately saw the potential for antisemitic activity on the streets and on our campuses, I wasn’t sure what I could do to stop this inevitable wave of hate.

So, like many others, I did what I could. I attended solidarity rallies at City Springs and Ahavath Achim, I wrote letters to my congressman and senators, I posted in support of Israel and the hostages on my social media platforms, my wife Amy and I donated money to a variety of charities rushing relief to the families of the hostages and evacuees in Israel, I marched in support of our college students at Emory and other schools in Georgia, and I went to shul to say Kaddish for those we lost and to pray for the hostages. But despite all these efforts, I still felt a yearning to do more, to have a direct impact on Israel’s efforts to respond to the terror attacks on October 7.

Enter Cheri Levitan, the quiet hero who, in her role with Kenes Tours, pulled a rabbit out of the hat by getting safe passage back to the US for all kids studying at Alexander Muss High School in Israel this Fall. From Cheri I heard about a series of Jewish National Fund – USA Volunteer missions to Israel that would be starting on December 10. The missions would be short, but would pack in four days of volunteer work in Israel. As soon as I heard about this opportunity I knew I wanted to be on the very first mission and, after getting immediate encouragement from my wife, I jumped at the chance to add my name to the roster of 60 participants for the mission. I hoped that this would be the answer to the question of how I could do more to help Israel at this critical time. At a minimum, I knew that spending my money in Israel would help an economy crushed by the absence of tourist dollars.

And, having just returned from my mission with JNF – USA, I am happy to share that the mission was everything I had hoped for and more. For the volunteer component, my group weeded green onion fields on a farm immediately adjacent to the border with Egypt, picked oranges and lemons at a grove 6 miles from the border with Gaza, fashioned Hanukkah gift boxes that we later delivered to injured soldiers at Siroka hospital in Beersheba, filled energy snack bags at an IDF air force base for delivery to the soldiers in Gaza, and assisted for part of a morning at Adi Negev, an amazing center for the developmentally disabled in Okafim.

Beyond the volunteering, we had the opportunity to pay our respects at the temporary graves for members of Kibbutz Be’eri. There was not a dry eye when the caretaker of these graves explained to us that just that morning he had reopened the grave of a nine-year old girl to add small body part that had just been recovered in the continuing search of the kibbutz. We also heard about the lived experiences of Israelis on 10/7 and the days following from soldiers, mayors, community leaders, evacuees and, tragically, family members who lost loved ones to Hamas’ brutality.

So what were my takeaways from my short time in Israel? Among the many things that left a lasting impression on me was the diversity of the Israelis I met on the trip. There was Naftali, an Ethiopian Jew who escaped to Israel in 1980, even ahead of many of his fellow Ethiopian Jews.  And Erez, a citrus farmer in the south of Israel whose family was evicted from Tunisia in the early 1950s with just the clothes on their backs. Erez’ family knew nothing of farming when they arrived in Israel but they helped make the desert bloom in the Negev through their grit and determination. And Yoel, with whom I share my Hebrew name, who has dedicated his working life to helping develop the Israeli frontiers in the North and South through his work with the Jewish National Fund-USA. And finally, there was Sahai, another Ethiopian Jew who compassionately runs the art therapy program at Adi Hanegev.

I was also impressed with the determination of everyone I met to see the struggle against Hamas through to its end and to return to the areas that have been evacuated. Israelis famously disagree about virtually everything. But I sensed no quarrel with the idea that whatever the end of this looks like, Hamas must never again be permitted to threaten Israel. And those that have been displaced are unified in saying that they will return and rebuild, for to fail to do so means the effective redefinition of the borders of Israel. As one person whom we met so touchingly put it: “We will bind our wounds, move forward, and get to an even better place.”

Contrary to those who suggest that Israel is engaged in “genocide,” I never once heard anyone say that they were interested in harming Palestinians. While there’s no doubt that Palestinians are tragically bearing the costs of Hamas’ decision to break the ceasefire and commit wanton violence, the focus of Israel is solely on defeating Hamas and ensuring that there will never be an encore to 10/7.

Finally, our small gesture of coming to Israel to volunteer for a few days was received with incredible gratitude by the people of Israel. For one, the work on the farms is critical for small farmers. On 10/6, there were over 24,000 Thai workers and many additional Arab workers helping to bring in the harvest at farms all over the country. The Arab workers were not permitted back after Hamas’s atrocities and, after their compatriots were killed or kidnapped by Hamas, the number of Thais were reduced to zero within just a week of Hamas’ attack. And as I suspected, Israelis also appreciated the small infusion of money we were able to add to the economy.

But more than any of that, at a time when Israelis feel very alone in the world, our visit reminded them that they have family and friends and allies who are behind them in this struggle and who are willing to travel to do their small part to see this crisis through.


(Image courtesy of author)
(Image courtesy of author)
(Image courtesy of author)
(Image courtesy of author)
About the Author
Joel Neuman retired after a 23-year career with The Coca-Cola Company. He spent most of his career in the Legal Division but later moved to the business side serving as a General Manager in the Company’s Global Ventures business. Joel currently serves of as Adjunct Professor of Law at Emory University Law, an Instructor at the Robinson School of Business at Georgia State University and as an arbitrator with the American Arbitration Association. Joel is also the part-time General Counsel at The Georgia Justice Project. Joel received his JD with Honors from the University of Chicago Law School and his BA with Honors from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Following law school, Joel was a judicial law clerk for the Honorable Judge Joel M. Flaum on the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. Joel is the current Board President of ADL Southeast and also serves on the Boards of The Atlanta Jewish Film Festival and the Atlanta Bar Foundation. Joel resides in Brookhaven Georgia with his wife, Amy.
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