As we watch events unfold in Israel, we often sit in the U.S. with worry and a sense of loss. I decided to take that in hand and go to volunteer instead.
I need not have worried about volunteer opportunities. It is easy! Simply hook up with a volunteer WhatsApp group, Leket, Chabad, Matan and many other organizations, and easily schedule multiple volunteer activities every single day you are in Israel. Renting a car helps but is not necessary.
Over my first two weeks in a country that is at war, I made three trips with Leket to Moshav Mivtachim and to Leket’s own farm in Rishon L’Tzion where I picked tomatoes, pruned tomato plants and picked sweet potatoes. Who knew that three middle-aged women in a vast field can pick a half-ton of sweet potatoes in just two to three hours? Who knew that I would be picking with a Jewish woman from Bahrain? Who knew that I would be pruning with a rabbanit who is ordained by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin and actually gives and writes responsa? Who knew that I would be comfortable picking while hearing booms and would smile as I was reassured that that was “from our side” and not freeze in place nor cry? Who knew?
I also worked with Operation Embrace. The organization, spearheaded by Aviva Tessler from Potomac, Md., to care for victims of terror, has now broadened its reach to as many of the 600,000 people in Israel who are displaced into hotel rooms and other temporary accommodations as it possibly can. Who knew that I could reach out to people who have been totally traumatized, who have fled with none of their possessions and who are still determined and proud, and be able to cry with them, hold them in my arms and feel strength and energy flowing from them to me – not the other way around? Though I came laden with gifts from Operation Embrace, they wished for nothing from me other than a smile, hug and a listening ear.
Who knew that I would be skipping with joy as I picked pomelos in a field right outside of Kibbutz Be’eri where horrible atrocities happened on Oct. 7? Who knew that I would be privileged to hug Yarden Tzemach of Kibbutz Be’eri and listen to his story of loss and his story of determination to rebuild? Who knew that I would stand on the spot where Shahar Tzemach died together with the wounded men he tried to save by pulling them into a dental clinic in Kibbutz Be’eri and feel a volcano of grief, sadness and loss overcome me, but continue to stand, hide my tears, pray and think only of “how can we help this kibbutz and many others rebuild”? Who knew that instead of dropping to the floor and running back home I would be ever more determined? Who knew?
I also worked with Pantry Packers, with Aroma in Beit Shemesh, at the laundry in Yad Sarah in Jerusalem. Who knew that a small group of people can feed entire communities of underserved families of Ethiopian and diverse dissent? Who knew that sandwiches of tuna, eggs and cheese would be messengers of love and protein for the soldiers? Who knew that a feminist who hates to fold laundry would proudly fold hundreds of towels and bedding, hoping that they would provide warmth and comfort for the ill? Who knew?
On Dec. 10, the ultimate eye-opener began. I was off on my JNF-USA mission. As I waved goodbye to my daughter, I felt pangs of doubt. Would I be better off serving if I continued to volunteer on my own? Would this mission be for coddled Americans who would only pretend to work? I really questioned my decision to give up my independence and get on a bus with 70 strangers. I need not have done so.
The four-day JNF-USA volunteer mission to Israel was completely amazing. It was filled with purpose, action and information, and each day began at 7:00 a.m. and ended at 9:00 p.m. Who knew they could exhaust me more than my previous profession of pediatric oncology, which was quite all-consuming? Who knew that I would draw spiritual nourishment from each day as I prayed and then lit Chanukah candles with such a diverse group?
We worked in various fields in the Negev weeding scallions, picking oranges and lemons. More importantly, we talked with the farmers who established these farms literally in sand, coming from lands like Tunisia and ultimately making the land green and productive. These farmers have been abandoned by their workers who fled back to Thailand after Oct. 7 and are now being aided by HaShomer HaChadash, which is supplying them with Israeli and foreign volunteers to save their crops. We were visited in the fields by representatives of units of heroes in Gaza who have seen the worst and yet were patient and forthcoming in answering our questions. Who knew that we were able to tell a weed apart from an onion and pick over four tons of citrus while our arms ached and were scratched by the branches? Who knew that we would all be proud of every scab?
In the evenings we heard from various mayors of the Negev and from Sami, a Muslim hotel owner in the Negev who is housing displaced individuals without payment from the government or the families. We heard from Naftali Aklum, the brother of Ferede Aklum, upon whom the movie “Red Sea Diving Resort” is based. He began his talk with “you must be wondering why a Jew in Israel with dreadlocks is standing in front of you.” The Ethiopian community of the Negev really needs us.
We heard from a lone soldier from Texas named Bradshaw who talked about the challenges of lone soldiering and his pride in now being a member of a kibbutz in the Negev and finding his “bashert” there.
Who knew that we would learn so much from such a diverse group of presenters?
We went to visit wounded soldiers in Soroka Medical Center and presented them with gift boxes containing gourmet goodies from the Galil which we personally and lovingly packed.
Dr. Shlomi Codish gave a terrific presentation of how Soroka handled close to 700 wounded persons within the first 24 hours of the Oct. 7 attacks and how it has not stopped since being a nimble, expert, efficient deliverer of unbelievable care. Who knew that I would be envious of how much can be done in health care in Israel when my entire professional life was centered around medical care in the U.S. being the best? Who knew that many of the health professionals at Soroka are from communities also affected or displaced in the Negev and they continue to come every day to care for the ill and the soldiers, sublimating their own trauma and smiling with compassion through it all? Who knew that one can do the job of two as hundreds of the staff are mobilized and others have to step up? Who knew that every single person we would hand a box to or just shake hands with would have a smile and awe in their eyes for the small moment of empathy we gave them? Who knew?
We visited Ben Gurion’s grave in Sde Boker. Who knew that I, the daughter-in-law of Eliezer Horn, z”l, who jumped off the Altalena before it was blown up and who suffered at the discrimination shown in the subsequent years to all who followed Begin and Etzel, would stand in awe at this site which in its utter simplicity conveys the grandeur of the Negev? Who knew?
Then we toured and played with, drew with and sang with residents at the most awesome place on Earth – ADI Negev-Nahalat Eran – a haven for special needs persons of diverse backgrounds cared for by a diverse staff. To hear about the expansion of this rehabilitation village in the Negev, which by a miracle was saved on Oct. 7 as the terrorists passed right over it on their way to killing and pillaging in the surrounding towns and kibbutzim, is to truly understand that in the midst of horror and darkness there is still some private safeguarding from above. Who knew that there was a green, fragrant, joy-filled, place on this Earth for special needs individuals from birth to age 120? Who knew that a talented young man, Eli Stein, and his beautiful wife could spearhead the donations that could develop this extraordinary village? Who knew that a hero of Israel, Doron Almog, would shake my hand and with total transparency talk about his life and his family as if he was an ordinary man who had not saved the hostages of Entebbe and who had not killed the terrorists who murdered the Munich Olympic athletes? Who knew?
We paid a tearful visit to the Cramim Hotel. There we met with the displaced families of Shlomit, a settlement near the Egyptian border and southern Gaza developed at the recommendation of the government for the displaced families of Gush Katif. Who knew that a young woman widowed just eight weeks ago would recount the bravery of her husband, Uriel Bibi, with two toddlers sitting beside her? Who knew that she would do this without anger or blame, only with the wish to return to her newly built home soon?
At the final dinner in the Nefesh B’Nefesh building in Jerusalem, JNF CEO Russell Robinson shared his vision of JNF’s ongoing support for the land of Israel which is ambitious and far-reaching, from building new fire and safety centers, to providing whatever is needed for the displaced to be able to return home, to continuing the development of the Negev and the north.
Who knew that we could possibly be 70 people of completely diverse geographical backgrounds, observance, denomination and age, and be so utterly united in a focused mission of volunteering? Who knew we would form lifelong bonds from these four action-packed exhilarating electrifying days? Who would bet most of us will be back and will participate with JNF in the rebuilding process?
Am Yisrael Chai! Beyachad Nenatzeach – Together, and only together, we will win!
Dr. Marianna Horn is a retired pediatric hematologist/oncologist living in Silver Spring, Md.