My now-husband Tim and I were in college 50 years ago when the Yom Kippur war broke out. We didn’t know one another then, but we both called home asking our parents if we could go to Israel and support the war effort. Unfortunately, we couldn’t. However, five decades later, the minute Jewish National Fund-USA offered us a chance to volunteer, we signed up for the first mission.
We had already been planning to go to Israel on Oct. 16 with the organization’s Arava Task Force, an initiative I’ve been involved with since its inception in 2010. I also participated in the dedication of the only fortified indoor playground in Sderot, which also serves as a bomb shelter (how about that for an oxymoron?) in 2008, the same playground that suffered a direct hit on Oct. 7.
So, a little more than two weeks ago, Tim and I found ourselves heading out to a farming community in Israel’s south located close to the border with Egypt and Gaza to help tend to their fields. The farm is on the 3% of the land that former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat refused to take in 2000 as part of the Camp David Peace Accords, thus scuttling one of the many peace deals offered because he said nothing would ever grow there. Well, after we cleared tons of weeds, there are plenty of green onions sprouting there now.
The next day, we had the privilege of farming in Sderot, a town on the border with Gaza. During the five short days of the volunteer mission, we packed and delivered gifts to patients and soldiers at Seroka Hospital, spent a day on an army base packing snacks for the soldiers in Gaza, met with lone soldiers and evacuees from the border town of Shlomit talked to victims of the Oct. 7 border invasion, and prayed at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
The experiences were life-changing and too many to share in this brief reflection. But I want to note my feelings and the feelings expressed by the Israelis because every Diaspora Jew, whether you have been to Israel or not, deserves to do what we did. And the Israelis deserve your presence, too.
Visiting the south on this volunteer mission meant I could check on the communities that I had watched Jewish National Fund-USA build, that I could hear directly from the city leaders, see the people whom I had met so many years before and hug them, just to hug them.
Osi, the incredible chef from Ofakim who is still too shell-shocked to talk about it; Yael, a new friend and mother of five who is trying to take it a day at a time; the rabbi from Shlomit, where I pulled the sweetest carrots in the world from the ground more than a decade ago, again on land that Arafat refused. To see them, to hear their faith and to believe they were going to be OK is what this trip was about.
In the past, I would leave Israel buoyed by the joy, the love of life, the confidence and the pride in what Israel was. This time, however, that joy had been replaced with anxiety and trepidation. Yet what we heard over and over from the farmers, from the widow of Uriel Bibi—a hero who had left Shlomit to report for duty but was murdered on the way—from the mayor of Ramat HaNegev regional council, is that on Oct. 7, Israelis lost their trust in humanity. Now, through acts of solidarity and as volunteers by the busloads come together to save each other, they are trusting again, telling us that we are all part of their tomorrow—and we will rebuild trust.
Picking fruit and getting scratched by thorns while rockets were intercepted overhead was part of that process.
On my flight home, I sat beside Ericka, a young mother from Jerusalem. She spoke about her life and one story in particular that went viral in Israel.
When the army finally arrived, a 12-year-old boy from a secular community asked that they go back to his house and find the tefillin that he had from his grandfather because his bar mitzvah was coming up. The soldier went to the home, found it and delivered it to the child. The soldier had hardened himself to the atrocities of the day. Yet his tears flowed freely when he returned the tefillin to the boy, recognizing that this is the soul of Judaism and that we are a people who will continue to survive.
So, as I return to my days of going down the rabbit hole of social media—sharing, commenting, and liking—I long to return to Israel like our ancestors did, to help the farmers and ultimately to rebuild those beautiful communities in the south.
Thank you, Jewish National Fund-USA, for letting me take part. Thank you to the incredible 69 other volunteers. And thank you to Israel and everyone who gave us their time and their trust on this mission.
Am Yisrael Chai, “the people of Israel Live!”