Jan 17, 2024
Over winter break, I traveled to Israel through the Jewish National Fund to join the mass volunteer effort that has emerged since the October 7 massacre. Ahead of the trip, I raised more than $3,000 for JNF with the help of friends and family, both Jewish and non-Jewish.
On the trip, we spent five days bouncing around southern Israel. We played with children displaced from their kibbutzim, packed 9,200 meals for residents of Beersheva, pruned tomato plants normally handled by foreign laborers, and organized soldiers’ gear on an army base in Ramat Gan. We also visited hospitalized soldiers who had been wounded in Gaza and met survivors from kibbutzim and moshavim along the Gaza envelope.
The program consisted of about 30 of us aged 18-21 from across the U.S. who wanted to lend a hand to Eretz Yisrael.
While the entire trip was meaningful, there were a couple of days that really stuck out. On our first day, we met a mom from Shlomit who told us that on October 7, dozens of men from her moshav traveled to a neighboring kibbutz to fight off Hamas terrorists. They saved both Shlomit and the kibbutz. Since the majority of their husbands have been called back to the reserves, these women have been taking care of their children alone while putting on a brave face for three months since they were displaced from their homes. To help the moms, we spent the afternoon with their kids playing games, coloring, and face painting. For us, it was fun. But the moms told us what a relief it was to have a break for a few hours. That really touched my heart.
A few days later, we visited Adi Negev, which felt like heaven on Earth to me. Adi Negev is a rehabilitation center for people with disabilities that is unlike any other because it is actually a community that focuses on each individual reaching their potential. That can range from feeding themselves to working a job that accommodates their needs in a way that may not be possible outside of Adi Negev. This community is built on love — and on the most up-to-date technology designed to assist the residents. The long-term goal is to build a completely accessible city from scratch that can accommodate anyone. I think it is an amazing idea, and I would love to live there someday.
On the final day of our trip, we visited the Nova Music Festival memorial in Tel Aviv, which has multiple purposes. It is a place to honor the memory of those who were murdered and kidnapped. It is a site dedicated to the survivors, many of whom are struggling emotionally. It recreates the actual festival grounds, including the tents, the bar, the deejay booth, and the beautiful decorations. It also features the bullet-ridden port-a-potties, the burnt cars, and a lost and found where families of victims can identify their belongings, such as shoes, sunglasses, and backpacks. Along with all of this, the survivors and friends and family of the victims have covered the memorial area with notes to their loved ones, images of the people they lost, and intense artwork created since October 7. I felt devastated being there but also knew the importance of bearing witness. I will not forget the words I saw repeated throughout the memorial: “We will dance again.”
I was able to extend my trip to two weeks and got to visit friends and some of my favorite places in Israel, including the beach in Tel Aviv and the apartments that I lived in last year through Young Judaea Year Course. Before my winter break trip, my friends from Israel told me that I would not be returning to the same Israel that I left in May. They were right. The horrors of the last three months felt real in a way that I couldn’t understand in the U.S., but I also experienced the strength and resilience of the Israeli spirit. It felt like home.
Less than 2 weeks before the program start date, I came across an Onward program through Yael Adventures to travel to Israel for 2 weeks to volunteer on farms and orchards around the middle of the country. Since the beginning of the war, Palestinians have been unable to work in Israel, and Thais were called back to Thailand, so there is a need for farmers. One of the farms we worked at once had 120 farmers, and now only had 2. Another had lost about 1.4 million Shekels (~~$390,000) since October 7, 2023. We’ve harvested avocado, eggplant, and cauliflower, and in the next few days, we will pick oranges.
One of my friends knew a man from high school who’d made Aliyah in 2018. Howard Schwartz now runs an operation to barbecue for the soldiers at an IDF base near Gaza, which was attacked during the October 7 massacre, and I am so grateful to have been able to go there to both cook for and talk with the soldiers at the base who had all been called from reserves to leave their family and defend Israel.
While here, I have talked with so many people and seen many Israeli flags everywhere we go. Although deeply saddened, it seems like Israel is more unified than ever. It speaks volumes to me and should inspire Jews everywhere to know that Israel is strong and optimistic, even during these hard times.
If you would like to make a donation to the organization providing meals for IDF soldiers, please follow this link and select “BBQs and meals for soldiers” in the gift designation section.
As part of the CYJ community, we have one thing in common: our love for Israel. Whether it’s meeting new Israeli friends or counselors at camp every year, the first time we visited TLV and fell in love instantly, or sang the Hatikva with a bunch of strangers or friends.
We had the opportunity to go to Israel during these challenging times of war and grief – this place we all know and remember with love. A special place that has given us countless stories and joys, shaping us as individuals. It’s a place we all identify with and can proudly call home.
This love for Israel inspired us to join a volunteer program, where we worked on what the Israeli society needed after losing many workers due to the war. We went to the fields to harvest lettuce, grapefruits, oranges and even fought bees while collecting loquats. We worked with an organization made in memory of a soldier who died as a commander. Since he was little, he always asked for two sandwiches for lunch just to give them to the other classmates. We made sandwiches for soldiers and packed food boxes for displaced families.
We visited soldiers to provide emotional support at their base, their job, or even the hospital, showing them they are not alone and that people around the world are thinking of and praying for them, hoping they can return home soon safely.
The toughest part of the journey was talking to the relatives of the kidnapped, survivors of the Nova Festival, and soldiers who had to leave their entire lives to return to reserves on October 7.
From afar, the situation may seem dark and filled with war and tragedy, our social media is filled with heartbreaking news every day. Being there felt different. We had never seen a people so united and full of life. Despite the sadness, they radiate so much light and strength. It’s powerful to know that everyone in Israel has experienced the situation closely, knowing someone who was killed, kidnapped, or is in the military. Although they are trying to get back to their lives, this should not be the norm for anyone. But regardless of this sadness, they remain united and part of this great nation. We should all feel grateful for having this sense of belonging and pride in being Jewish. Let’s continue supporting because Israel still needs our help and energy.