Volunteering in Israel leads young adults to constructive conversation in Pittsburgh
Israel at WarFrom Pittsburgh with Purpose

Volunteering in Israel leads young adults to constructive conversation in Pittsburgh

'Just talking to people and having genuine conversations can make a really big difference'

Ariel Noorparvar sorts flowers while volunteering in Israel. (Photo courtesy of Ariel Noorparvar)
Ariel Noorparvar sorts flowers while volunteering in Israel. (Photo courtesy of Ariel Noorparvar)

Jonah Keller felt helpless.

As the Israel-Hamas war progressed, countless invectives crossed his social media feeds.

Keller, 19, decided to go to Israel.

“I felt powerless here,” the Case Western Reserve University student said. “I think the only thing I was able to do was piss off antisemites on Instagram.”

In late December, Keller boarded a plane to the Jewish state. Alongside fellow young Jewish adults, he spent two weeks volunteering. He picked grapefruits and flowers. He spoke with farmers and heard how Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack and the resulting war uprooted familiar life and presented new challenges. Keller spent most of his time in an orchard, 23 miles north of Tel Aviv.

Jonah Keller picks grapefruits while volunteering in Israel. (Photo courtesy of Jonah Keller)

“They had a whole section of plants that were rescued from farms around Gaza on Oct. 7,” he said.

The transplanted crops offered a symbol of hope, he continued: “It just shows the Israeli resilience — that these things happen and still being able to rebuild from all this destruction.”

Like Keller, Matthew Garber traveled to Israel with other young adults. Garber’s trip, which occurred in March, also centered around volunteering.

“I decided to go because I wanted to make an impact in Israel,” he said. “There is so much work that needs to be done.”

Garber, 21, couldn’t help thinking how different the country looked.

“I was there over the summer with [Birthright Israel] Onward,” he said. “It was so surreal to be there seven months later and to see all this change.”

Apart from assisting farmers, Garber spent a day traveling to the Nova Music Festival Memorial. Located near Kibbutz Re’im in southern Israel, the site has more than 300 saplings that were planted on Tu B’Shvat by Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund, survivors of the Oct. 7 attack and family members of those who were murdered.

“Everyone needs to see it,” Garber said. “Go to these sites, bring awareness and share that with your friends.”

Ariel Noorparvar hasn’t had much time to process her experiences in Israel. She returned to Pittsburgh last week from a two-month trip to the Jewish state. Noorparvar, 30, volunteered on farms, in schools, hospitals and anywhere she could.

During a week in Jerusalem, she packed mishloach manot before Purim, tied tzitzit for IDF soldiers, organized bags for people running in the Jerusalem Marathon and made sandwiches for students.

“The coolest thing that week was I went to a wedding,” she said.

Technically, it was 10 weddings.

Noorparvar saw a post on Facebook seeking volunteers for a “Marrying the Warrior” service. Organized by the Savyon Chabad Community, the event featured simultaneous ceremonies for 10 couples with at least one partner serving in the IDF.

Each of the couples’ wedding plans had been disrupted by the war, i24NEWS reported.

“I ended up volunteering as a bartender, which is hilarious because I have no experience,” Noorparvar said. “It was one of these random things — and I went, had no idea what I was going to — and it was one of the coolest things in my life.”

As part of the event, each bride concurrently walked down the aisle toward her own chuppah.

“Afterwards, it turned into a rager,” Noorparvar said.

With nearly 1,500 people in attendance, the weddings not only “went flawlessly,” but offered a testament to resilience, she said. “It’s obviously not an easy time in Israel. But everyone was joyous, and celebrating together, and holding each other up.”

Noorparvar, Garber and Keller had all previously traveled to Israel with Birthright Israel.

Their recent visits were supported by Onward, the Israeli government and the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, according to Adam Hertzman, the Federation’s associate vice president of marketing.

“Birthright Israel continues as always to connect young people to their Jewish heritage and to our ancestral homeland, but in many ways, this connection has become even more important in the aftermath of the Oct. 7 terrorist attack,” Hertzman said. “As so many Jews in their teens and 20s focus solely on the actions of the current Israeli government, we need to remind them that Israel has a right to exist as a democratic Jewish state.”

Since returning to Pittsburgh, Garber has tried telling friends and fellow students about his experiences in Israel.

“I think it’s definitely hard to have a constructive conversation with people right now, but I have,” he said. “It’s hard when a lot of people are ignorant and don’t know what’s happening. I’m not saying I know everything, but it’s shocking to me that people believe certain things.”

Keller has told as many people “who will listen,” about his trip, he said. “There is so much misinformation that goes around, and I feel like people don’t actually know what it’s like to be in Israel. There are all these misconceptions.”

The teen said his chats have occurred on Instagram and over cups of coffee.

“Each individual person has a lot of capability to do good. And you don’t need to get on a plane to do that,” Keller said. “You can, but just talking to people and having genuine conversations can make a really big difference.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

read more: