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Volunteers in Sderot prepare food packages for residents evacuating the city, Oct. 15, 2023. Photo by Eitan Elhadez-Barak/TPS.
Volunteers in Sderot prepare food packages for residents evacuating the city, Oct. 15, 2023. Photo by Eitan Elhadez-Barak/TPS.
featureIsrael at War

Look who’s stepping up to fill the gaps

Facing almost unfathomable economic and social needs, while some government programs have kicked in, it is Israel's civil society that is really making the difference. 

What happens when more than 350,000 people suddenly disappear from the workforce? That’s the number of men and women who were called up to the IDF reserves in the days right after Oct. 7.

Jobs, studies and families are disrupted. Companies, universities and families need to adjust. Normal society is disrupted—that’s what happens during a war. And who steps in to fill the breach? Government or civil society? 

Six weeks into “Operation Swords of Iron,” there are mixed reviews regarding the government’s response. Even before the war, there were serious concerns about the functioning of the government, which was embroiled in a divisive fight over judicial reform. 

Today, with almost unfathomable economic and social needs facing a population suffering from what is arguably the most profound trauma it has ever experienced, some government programs have kicked in. 

“Independent occupancy grants” have begun to be paid to some of the thousands of displaced residents of northern and southern border communities who found their own accommodation. Tens of thousands of others are spending their seventh week in hotel rooms designed for brief vacation stays, paid for by the government. 

I’m on the board of a prominent NGO where three senior employees are serving in the reserves and have not shown up to work for six weeks. By law, employers must pay reserve service benefits equal to the salary and then submit a claim in order to get reimbursed by Bituach Leumi, Israel’s Social Security system. In our case, Bituach Leumi has already paid out the funds into the organization for all three reservists. Impressive efficiency for any government body. 

Many farmers and small businesses have not been so fortunate. The promised loans and grants have been slow in coming, due to overwhelming numbers of applicants and reduced staff, again, due to the military call-up.

Enter civil society—hundreds of groups have come forward to fill the gaps left by the government. In a massive effort to keep the food supply intact, help farmers whose workers left the country pick fruit and vegetables and sow new plants, tens of thousands of volunteers spread out all over the country to help on a daily basis. 

Thousands more have stepped in to organize and cater to the needs of the evacuees, bringing clothes, toys, homemade food and arranging activities for those ripped away from their normal lives.

Dozens of groups of volunteers in every Israeli community come together to either pack everyday meals for the soldiers or cook and bake treats that get sent to bases that are not so far away from most cities.

In one indication of how this war is changing Israeli society, many in the haredi community are volunteering too.  Not only in their own communities as they have always done—with the approval of their rabbinic leaders, they’re contributing to the war effort. 

Whether it’s the 2,000 who have volunteered for the Israel Defense Forces, or the dozens of young men in white shirts and black pants who show up with trucks filled with meat and fixings to prepare barbecues for soldiers and end up dancing with them, it’s a sight that would have raised eyebrows before Oct. 7.

Shortly after the start of the war, three haredi women in Jerusalem founded a group called Iron Sisters after being approached by a non-haredi business acquaintance who suggested that haredi women whose husbands were not being called up had the opportunity to step up and help. 

The initiative has grown into a powerhouse of 1,400 volunteers. Their war room is donated space in a wig store in the Har Hotzvim industrial zone that is owned by one of the women. The Iron Sisters help displaced families with any number of needs, from helping with childcare to preparing Shabbat meals to finding clothing and heaters. 

Even though most of their husbands are not serving in the IDF, delivering food to soldiers is an integral part of their work. Another part of their activity is supporting women whose husbands are at the front and their families, bringing them together with a sector of society with whom they may not have had much interaction prior to the war.

Haredi men run the Achvat Torah war room with the approval of Rabbi David Leibel, 69, a non-Hassidic leader who heads 10 kollels and has been a longtime advocate of integrating haredim into the workforce. 

Achvat Torah volunteers are replacing workers who were drafted, in hospitals, homes for the elderly and factories. They run a program for teen volunteers and make sure that funerals and shiva houses are never without a minyan. 

In a statement issued to mark the opening of the war room 10 days after the start of the war, Leibel wrote, “In these difficult days, when war clouds hover over us, we all understand that national unity is the key to success. Ultra-Orthodox society is now issuing a clear call: We are an inseparable part of the State of Israel, and we are ready to help and contribute as much as we can in times of need. Accordingly, these days, we see that a considerable and significant part of ultra-Orthodox society feels the strong desire to act practically as part of the whole people living in Zion. We will continue to work vigorously to strengthen the Israeli home front.”

Many in Israel speculate about how things will look in Gaza, “the day after,” but perhaps equally significant shifts may be expected in Israeli society, too, once Hamas and Hezbollah are out of the way.

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