Life during wartime
OpinionGuest Columnist

Life during wartime

"And I thought: As history turns, here I am. I had come 6,000 miles, to make meals, tie tzitzit, dance with soldiers."

Israeli flag (Photo via Pexels)
Israeli flag (Photo via Pexels)

Everyone thanked me for coming, for caring, for helping. Volunteer organizers. Shopkeepers. Clerks. Baristas. Friends. Family. Soldiers. Everyone.

No, I answered. To the contrary. It’s an honor to serve the Jewish people, in Israel, during this terrible time.

To be part of history.

Flying out of Pittsburgh, I traveled to Israel to volunteer — no touring, no visiting, just helping. Putting my hands on things.

I had wanted to go right away, but the calendar was full of family simchas. There were things I could – and could not – do. And I had to find the right place to stay.

Language, too, was a concern. While I have some Hebrew, I read far better than I speak, and did not want to be somewhere with few skills – and a war raging.

Finally, I was told that I needed an iPhone. One of world’s last holdouts, I didn’t have one – I’ve felt they are intrusive and distracting. When pointedly told I would not be coming to a nation at war without one, I bit the Apple.

Bunking with a generous cousin and his gracious wife in the Kiryat Shmuel neighborhood of Jerusalem, I found English-speaking opportunities within walking distance – hand work, standing and sitting.

Saturday nights and four mornings a week I walked 20 minutes to the Chabad of Katamon. Standing in a large, sunlight room, I joined dozens of other volunteers from all over the world, Hewlett to Honolulu, Sydney to Seattle, Melbourne to Manhattan, Gibraltar to Great Neck. When I asked a man from Hong Kong why he was there, he looked at me quizzically. “Because there’s a war,” he said.

Cutting large rolls, we filled them with hummus, white/yellow cheese, chocolate spread (an Israeli staple), or tuna; wrapped; sealed; placed in color-coded bins; bagged for delivery. Repeated until our 2,600 daily sandwiches were out the door.

With great energy and spirit, we were positive, joyful, hopeful. Proud of our mission, filling each sandwich with nutrients and love, we saw our task as both holy and necessary. It was a privilege to be a part of it.

Yet we knew we were filling but a fraction of Israel’s growing need. With some 300,000 people pulled off the borders, north and south, Chabad Katamon’s efforts for the displaced – the word they prefer – barely begins to help the families stuffed into vacant hotel rooms, schools, anywhere they can find temporary shelter.

Morning shift over, and coffee and croissant in the pre-spring Jerusalem sun, it was off to my afternoon gig, top floor of the Eretz Chemdah Yeshiva, a 40-minute walk away, tying tzitzit for soldiers.

For observant Jews, wearing the traditional four-cornered fringed undershirt was a given. But for others, it was something new – and the desire for them swept through the IDF with unexpected fervor. Suddenly, young men who had never donned the garment wanted one.

By the time I arrived, the group had already tied 65,000 sets – with a mere 100,000 to go. Never having previously tied tzitzit, I found the task daunting. Four strings doubled over into eight; knots and wraps – 7, 8, 11, 13, numerology for G-d’s Name is One. Making eight strings and 10 fingers function as a single unit, I refused to leave until I had tied my daily quota. Like the children who needed their lunches, the soldiers wanted something Jewish next to their skins as they went to war.

It was the least I could do.

One day, Chabad took some of us south, first to the site of the Nova Music Festival, now a memorial, and the Shuva Junction, a 24-7 pop-up hospitality stop, free meals for anyone – troops, aid workers, support personnel — rotating in and out of Gaza.

Then to a makeshift army base, so close to the border that we could hear IDF artillery, to serve dinner – burgers and BBQ. Afterward, soldiers and civilians, arms around each other, we sang and danced. Am Yisroel Chai!

And I thought: As history turns, here I am. I had come 6,000 miles, to make meals, tie tzitzit, dance with soldiers. To marvel at how young they are, how much we ask of them. To pray for their safe return, for all those in uniform, for all those stolen from their homes on Oct. 7.

The last morning I made sandwiches I was asked to speak to the group, an unexpected accolade. I did, saying that we were together during the weeks the last four Torah portions of Exodus are read, much of the text instructions for building the traveling tabernacle and its service vessels. While we, in our time, had not been given the opportunity to perform such work, to fabricate or forge such holy implements, we had been given the equivalent, addressing a clear and present need: feeding Jewish children. There’s no greater or more holy service than that.

There’s an odd coda to my visit, one that encapsulates the enormous gratitude we are all feeling toward one another. Walking one morning, I was stopped on a busy street by a blue-jacketed security guard and asked if I was carrying a weapon. Startled, I said no, apparently with such honesty that I was allowed to continue unchecked.

Returning later, I was again stopped, this time by a young man in a military-looking green jacket. “Mr. Mendelson?” he asked. Shocked, I immediately thought this must be Israeli security, high-tech facial recognition from passport control. What could they want from me?

Turned out, he was not Shin Bet but instead an American whose family had spent Shabbos with us some five years ago. This young man had graduated high school, emigrated to Israel, enrolled in a hesder yeshiva – a program that combines traditional Jewish studies with IDF service – and was headed for the army.

I asked if I could shake his hand. “It’s rare,” I said, “that I get to meet a true hero.”
Then, considering the shooting at the Tree of Life building, appalling attacks on students from Berkeley to Cooper Union, and worldwide calls to murder Jews, I added, “Thank you. You’re protecting all of us.” PJC

Abby Mendelson is the author of many books about Pittsburgh.

read more: