Sounding like a disciple of Hillel, Dr. Allan Tissenbaum said his decision to go to Israel was made some time ago.
“It was made over many, many years of being a Zionist living in the U.S.,” he said. “We’ve got to stand up for ourselves because no one else is going to stand up for us. This is the way I stand up. I’m not going to carry a gun, because I can’t, but this is what I can do to help the cause.”
After the Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attack during which 1,400 people were murdered and more than 230 kidnapped, Tissenbaum, an orthopedic surgeon, called Scott Goldstein, the Emergency Volunteer’s Project representative in America, to say he was ready to leave for Israel.
EVP’s mission is to train and send doctors, nurses, paramedics, firefighters and other community members to volunteer in Israel when needed.
Tissenbaum joined the program several years ago and was one of the first doctors deployed to Israel after the Oct. 7 attack. When he arrived, the ground invasion hadn’t started and there wasn’t much to do. But the medical part of the journey is only part of the reason he, and the other doctors, made the journey.
“Being here, we’re helping the war in a spiritual way,” he said. “Ruach, spirit, we’re here for that. We’re here for everybody. We are all prepared for what we have to do.”
Emergency room doctor Mark Doyal said that when he learned of the Hamas attack, he wasn’t sure what he could do to help. Then he received an email from the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s Debbie Swartz. The organization’s board had approved $20,000 to help send volunteers through EVP to Israel and was looking for doctors interested in participating.
Doyal contacted Goldstein and was on his way to Israel a little more than a week after the attack.
As he boarded the plane, Doyal said he was filled with mixed emotions. As an ER doctor in both Shadyside and McKeesport, he is used to seeing “very injured people.”
“That’s part of my professional rhythm,” he said. “Going into a war zone, that takes things to a different level, so there’s a mix of apprehension and anticipation.”
Part of the calculus of Doyal’s decision is that what’s happening in Israel could come “knocking on our door.”
“This has been this growing, for me, since 2015, that the world is progressively becoming a more dangerous place,” he said.
Not everyone, of course, can help with Israel’s medical needs, but there are other ways to volunteer.
Shaare Torah Rabbi Yitzi Genack said that several Jewish community members left Pittsburgh as soon as possible to help in Israel. The volunteers, he said, are doing everything from working in the IDF to serving as EMTs to driving ambulances.
Those volunteers, he explained, leave behind families that the community has coalesced behind, offering support.
As an example, Genack said, a woman whose husband is in Israel received a phone call from a concerned community member.
“They said, ‘Can I take out your garbage?’ She said, ‘I can take out my garbage.’ And they said, ‘No, if your husband is serving in a unit on the front line, we want to take your garbage down,’” Genack recalled.
Laurie Wasser Klitsner moved from Israel to Pittsburgh with her husband Yisrael and four children a year ago for a fellowship with UPMC’s Vision Institute.
Klitsner’s husband is in the IDF, serving as part of the reserves. When the attack happened, he wasn’t immediately called up to serve but decided to return to Israel anyway.
She said that she’s proud and happy that her family has been able to contribute to the response, especially considering the rising wave of antisemitism and anti-Zionism, particularly since Israel responded to Hamas’ attack.
She’s been touched by the community’s support.
“There has been incredible support from the community — Orthodox, Conservative, not religious, affiliated but not practicing, everyone across the board,” she said. “We feel very supported.”
She noted a meal train that has been created for families with a parent in Israel, as well as playdates and babysitting.
“I find myself leaning in because it’s better not to be alone,” she said. “We are so grateful.”
Rabbi Oren Levy, an assistant principal at Hillel Academy, said that the support started with the community providing meals.
“You know a hot meal on Shabbat, inviting them for Friday night dinner or Shabbat lunch,” he said. “Then it extended. A lot of people have been sending care packages.”
Others have taken kids to the park and helped with homework, he said.
When the Hamas terrorist attack happened, he said, people were numb. After processing the information, they wanted to help.
“I think people needed to put something more into action,” he said. “Some people were called to the frontlines, and here in Pittsburgh we’ve been called up to help out.”
For others, a financial contribution made more sense.
One local community member who asked not to be identified said he heard that Kibbutz Ein Hashlosha, which was attacked by Hamas, was seeking donations.
He reached out to members of Poale Zedeck’s kiddush club, which raised $1,666 to be donated to a JGive page set up for the kibbutz in honor of two volunteers from Pittsburgh.
The amount raised, $1,666, “is the numerical values, the gematria, of the word l’chaim, or life, times the word tov, or good,” he explained.
Former Mt. Lebanon resident and graduate of Temple Emanuel’s Hebrew school Ezra Gershanok also wanted to find a way to help.
Gershanok is one of the founders of Ohana, a startup that assists landlords with subleasing apartments. When he heard that IDF soldiers were leaving the U.S. to serve in Israel, he set up a GoFundMe page to pay the rent of 20 Israelis for a month, many of whom are students and food service workers.
So far, the site has raised more than $18,000 of its $36,000 goal.
The fund, he said, helps fight the helplessness he feels.
“This feeling of Jewish continuity,” he said, “and making sure there’s a safe place for Jews to live forever is something I feel very strong about and you feel kind of powerless here in the United States, watching from the sidelines and posting on social media.”
Like other Jewish Pittsburghers, Gershanok has found a way to help from the States.
“This was an opportunity,” he said, “a way that I could feel useful.” PJC
David Rullo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.