Israel needs us. Visit and volunteer if you can.
OpinionGuest Columnist

Israel needs us. Visit and volunteer if you can.

"We all felt like we were making a difference."

Flag of Israel close up. (Photo by cottonbro studio, courtesy of Pexels)
Flag of Israel close up. (Photo by cottonbro studio, courtesy of Pexels)

I recently returned from a trip to Israel, along with my wife, mother, brother and sister-in-law. I had traveled to Israel shortly after the Oct. 7 Hamas attack to volunteer as a physician, and when I came home, my wife and I decided to return to the Jewish state to help out any way we could.

I invited my mother, an orphaned Holocaust survivor and the kindest, strongest, most resilient person we know. ( She is still working at 88!) She immediately said, “I’m in.” My brother and sister-in-law were equally enthusiastic. We began to explore options and ultimately settled on a Jewish National Fund mission.

We arrived in Israel on April 12, two days before our mission began. April 13 was my mother’s 88th birthday, so we went out for dinner and had a great evening. Unfortunately, the Iranians had other plans that day. Around 11 p.m., we were told about the impending Iranian attack. We were told to be prepared to go to the stairwell of the hotel if there were sirens.

I saw the fear in my mother’s eyes. She laid down in her hotel room, fully dressed, and would not close her door. She only slept for an hour or two before the sun came up.

We were informed that, like most other activities in Israel, our mission was canceled.

We deliberated over breakfast about what to do. One of our group asked my mother what the previous night was like for her. She answered, “It was the single worst night I have experienced since being rescued as a child from a concentration camp.” Then she said — as she has always told us when talking about the Holocaust —”I am now over that episode. I will put that memory of last night in a little box and never reopen it again.”

JNF staff said that while our original mission was canceled because 70 participants were unable to fly to Israel, the organization would do its best to provide a meaningful experience. And boy did they come through.

Our activities included processing cabbage at a kibbutz. Yuval, a farmer there, told us that, after Oct. 7, all his foreign workers left, and the workers from the West Bank were no longer able to work in Israel. He also shared with us an interesting observation: On Oct. 6, his West Bank workers asked for their pay in advance, something they never did in the past.

Helping Yuval and his family was an amazing experience. Our six hours of labor flew by. We left physically tired but emotionally charged. We all felt like we were making a difference.

We also visited a kibbutz where there had been a catering service pre-Oct. 7. Since then, catering for events ground to a halt, so it pivoted to become a catering service for soldiers. We processed hundreds of meals for soldiers stationed on the Green Line, whose mission was to prevent unauthorized crossings. The day we were there, 22 people attempted unauthorized crossings; those people were apprehended by the soldiers in this unit.

We ate with the soldiers and spoke with them. They were so thankful we were there. But our group agreed they had no need to thank to us; we were thankful to them for protecting us and our way of life. Talking with 19- and 20-year-old men and women was inspiring. We saw them as heroes.

We visited a kibbutz in the Gaza envelope that was spared on Oct. 7. It was somewhat in disrepair from being neglected. We were tasked with many jobs that day. We built the deck for the community, we built picnic tables, we repainted the community room, we gardened, we repainted roads, we did anything we could to beautify the kibbutz.

That afternoon, we were joined by a soldier who on Oct. 7 was engaged in gun battles with Hamas. He couldn’t stop thanking us for what we were doing. When he heard that my mother was a Holocaust survivor, he spoke with her for a half-hour, held her hand and connected with her in a way that I’ve seen a few others do.

We headed to the Nova Festival site. Nothing could prepare us for what we felt or saw there. There were photographs, ribbons, placards, all paying tribute to the people who were murdered that day. There are no words to describe the emotions one feels when walking through a modern killing field.

After the Nova Festival site, we went to an army base. We were all at an emotional low. But what came next gave us hope. We met with a group of IDF special forces, had dinner with them and danced with them. The strength that these soldiers had was indescribable. They uplifted us, but they also told us how we uplifted them.

Our time in Israel was marked by many highs and lows. It was probably the most meaningful week in my life, and I believe those sentiments were shared by all who took part in the mission.

We in the Diaspora always wonder what we can do to help Israel. Volunteering and visiting Israel is attainable for many and is absolutely necessary.

My brother recently said he felt like the Grinch because, while in Israel, his heart grew three times the size it was before. I can’t think of a more apt way of describing the experience.

Eretz Israel needs us, and we need Eretz Israel. Am Israel Chai. PJC

Dr. Allan Tissenbaum is an orthopedic surgeon living in Mt. Lebanon.

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