The Jewish Observer
News from Middle Tennessee's Jewish Community | Thursday, May 30, 2024
The Jewish Observer

Volunteer Mission to Israel Provides New Experiences and Insights

During the first week of April, I had the opportunity to participate in a volunteer mission in Israel organized by our P2G (Partnership Together) Southeast Consortium, a group of eight southeast US communities, Prague, Czech Republic, and the Hadera-Eiron region of Israel. The group of 24 volunteers included three from Prague, two from Chattanooga (who now live in Nashville), Rabbi Lindsey Danziger and I from Nashville.   

Over the years I have been blessed to visit Israel well over 25 times. This trip was significantly different than any of my past visits. First, the plane was not packed. In my experience, there are no empty seats on direct flights from NYC to Israel. On this flight, the plane was barely full. I had an entire row to myself. Upon arriving at Ben Gurion airport, we were met with photos of hostages lining the corridors of the arrival hall, and there was no line at passport control.   

We stayed as a small hotel in Zichron Yaakov which is adjacent to our region. Most of the larger hotels are being used to house families who have been relocated from the northern part of the country. Most media and world attention are directed at those relocated from the south, but many, roughly 60,000, in northern communities near Lebanon have been similarly evacuated.   Our partners in the Eiron Region have not been evacuated but have been assisting these displaced families. These friends have been advised to keep all emergency supplies, water, batteries, transiter radios, nonperishable food, updated and ready in case the situation in the north deteriorates, which could affect these more central communities. Everyone is on constant high alert, and under unimaginable stress and uncertainty. 

Our trip was designed for true volunteer work, and we hit the ground running, working with students as a school which included children at risk who need to live at school because their parents are not able to care for them, and bringing food and supplies and gifts to soldiers in training at a base in the north. During the week we assisted in several other locations, including helping a second-generation farmer work his cucumber and cherry tomato fields. He is doing everything he can to maintain his crops and livelihood without many of his workers who returned to their home countries after the October 7 attack. With so many adults called back for military reserve duty, it is difficult to find enough labor for his needs and he is doing his best by allowing untrained volunteers to assist him for a few days at a time. He is exhausted and it is clear this ad hoc solution is not sustainable long term.   

We visited Ofakim, a settlement town near Beersheva, ranking three on a scale of 10 for Israeli economic security, that was brutally attacked on October 7. Ofakim is a diverse community with many immigrants and both Jewish and Arab residents, who valiantly defended themselves against the barbarism. We were guided on our tour of the area by Yahaloma, a friend and colleague of our volunteer coordinator, and she shared with us the terrifying text exchanges between them on the day of the attack. There are now memorials set up to those killed that day throughout the community with names, photos, and personal stories about their lives. These images are everywhere, and you cannot walk far without seeing another memorial site.  At one point we were walking by a school with children on the playground directly across from one of the memorials. There are constant reminders of the losses that day, and everyone remains traumatized. Yahaloma is an expert in resiliency, and she is sharing her generosity and skills with her entire community, working to care for each other in the very best spirit of community, klal Yisrael, we are all responsible for each other. 

Everywhere we went, people thanked us not only for our volunteer effort, but even more for simply being there. Restaurants and shops are mostly empty. We stopped for lunch one day at a well-known restaurant and we were the only ones there. After eating, I spoke with the owner’s wife to thank her for the wonderful meal, and I asked her how she is doing. She paused and looked and me, weighing how she was going to respond. She hesitated and then decided to share the bitter truth. She is not doing well, her children are not doing well, everyone is suffering. She feels uncertain, worried and feels a sense of dread. She then expressed her gratitude for our visit and asked me to tell others to come visit soon. We both wiped away tears as our group left the restaurant for our next activity. I promised to return as soon as possible.  

The psychological damage inflicted on Israeli society on October 7 and the resulting war against Hamas, is palpable. Israelis are still in shock and traumatized by the horror of the barbaric attack and continue to suffer from feeling isolated in the world. They are exhausted, with many being called for longer and longer reserve duty. Many are still not able to return to their homes, both in the south and the north. They are doing the best they can to return to some level of normal life, but nothing is normal. 

The entire trip felt somewhat surreal. Both a time of pain and trauma, while also being together with friends and family with laughter and joy. Our past Shlicha, Noam Harari, met me near where she lives in Tel Aviv before my return flight. I gave her a wedding gift I brought for her sister who was due to be married not long after my visit. Despite much uncertainty about whether the wedding would go as planned, thankfully it took place on schedule and we wish the family a hearty Mazel Tov!  

In another moment of joy, I was able to meet our incoming Shlicha, Ziv Shemer.  She met me at hostage square – an area devoted to maintaining focus on the remaining hostages which spans the entire plaza area in front of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. In some ways it reminded me of the informal temporary memorial set up near the site of the 9/11 shortly after the attack, in the way it feels both intentional and temporary, organic, and organized, a spontaneous and moving response to shock, trauma, grief and mourning. 

Ziv will arrive in Nashville in August, and she is aware of the challenge ahead. In her current work she in Israel she creates educational materials to inform and address the conversation about Israel on college campuses. She is aware of the challenge of supporting Israel in some circles. She is up to the challenge. We will host a welcoming reception for Ziv when she arrives here in August. Stay tuned for details. 

For those of you not able to travel to Israel right now, we are planning a community trip to Israel for early December 2024. We held the first informational session about the trip in early April and will have another in June. In the meantime, please let me know directly if you are interested in learning more about this trip: deborah@jewishnashville.org 

Another upcoming opportunity will come July 11-21 when we will host a group of seven Israeli high school students, and two adult chaperones, from our P2G region. Hosting these students is an incredible experience and the best way possible to build a personal connection with the people of Israel. To learn more about how you can host or assist, contact P2G Coordinator, Eitan Snyder, eitan@jewishnashville.org 

And please mark your calendar for two important upcoming events to support our local Israeli community in mourning and celebration. These events will have special significance and meaning this year and will be particularly poignant. Thank you to Liat Zilberman and her committee for their dedication and commitment to the planning and implementation of these programs: 

May 12: Community Yom HaZikaron (Israel Memorial Day) 6pm at the Gordon Jewish Community Center 

May 19: Community Yom HaAtzmaut (Israel Independence Day) Noon-4pm at the Gordon Jewish Community Center 

For details: jewishnashville.org 

Am Yisroel Chai!  The People of Israel Live! 

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