Home inSight Volunteering in Israel: Part II

Volunteering in Israel: Part II

Jewish Policy Center
Israeli volunteers collect, cook and deliver BBQ sandwiches for the thousands of reserve soldiers stationed in the Golan Heights, Oct. 10, 2023. (Photo by Michael Giladi)

Editor's Note: Among the volunteers in Israel are members of the JPC who followed their instincts in the wake of October 7 and Israel’s subsequent defense. They are sharing some of their experiences with those of us at home. As in the previous report, we find that if you are looking to make a meaningful contribution that will go directly to helping save lives in Israel, please consider giving to Hatzolah Air Israel, https://hatzolair.org/donate and mark your contribution for “Project Eli/Israel.”

We’re running these out of order because Yoni’s story is one that EVERYONE in the US should see.

Saturday 11/11: Yoni’s Story

I’m not writing about my experience now, but about Yoni’s. He gave me permission to broadcast this and to ask that you spread this far and wide (Yoni is not his real name.)

This morning was a quiet Shabbat, and I was reading.  Yoni, who is also on the base, passed by and I asked him how he “smoked.”  (The Hebrew words for to smoke and to sleep are similar.) This started our conversation. 

Yoni told me he had been up all night throwing up. I asked if he was sick, but he said no, he had been to a funeral the day before and it had brought back bad memories.  He looked shaky, so I asked him to sit down and offered to get him coffee or tea. He said no, but that he was thinking of calling a mental health hotline later. 

Then he started to talk. 

A few days after October 7, Yoni was part of the team that went into the towns near Gaza to find bodies.  Many of the houses had been hit with RPGs or other explosives, but that was not Yoni’s recurring memory.  It was too abstract. 

What Yoni couldn’t get out of his head was walking into homes that had not been destroyed and seeing the evidence of the victims’ lives. He mentioned groceries still unpacked on counters, kids’ toys, and most of all the pictures of the people who lived in those houses still on the walls. 

He mentioned one house in particular.  The house wasn’t really damaged, but it smelled terrible. Upstairs there were signs of a fight – he remembers especially books all over the place.  And there was the skeleton and burnt remains of a cat that the attackers had lit on fire. There was no other fire damage.  At one point, Yoni pointed out the irony: if Hamas hadn’t been so vicious, they would probably have killed more people. 

He knew the faces of the couple that lived in that particular house from the photos on the first floor.  He also knew that they were dead behind a door on the second floor.  He didn’t have to retrieve the bodies – that wasn’t his job- and that wasn’t the issue, because he’d seen dead bodies before.  But he can’t get the scenes of people’s homes, and especially that home, out of his mind. 

Yoni made a montage of the photos he took that day and I have his permission for you to publicize this:  https://www.instagram.com/reel/Czd1Dpqodd1/ 

Wednesday 11/8: On the Road

As usual, nothing today went as expected.  Eli picked me up at about noon for what was supposed to be a few hours near Jerusalem. It’s now 8:30 pm and we just stopped for a bite on our way back from the Gaza border.

When he picked me up, we headed into Judea to a farm near Efrat that’s situated between Arab villages and a couple of small Israeli settlements. This is all just a few miles from Jerusalem.  

The mood in the West Bank is kind of grim.  Everyone is hunkered down and on high alert.  A month ago, where the Jewish-Arab relations in this part of Judea were very good, Arabs worked in Jewish factories and also sold their goods to the Jews. Now there are known Hamas insurgents in the region and security is very tight.  No more interaction, which means that the economies on both sides have stopped working. This will radicalize everyone, and you could get a downward spiral.  Regular army and local security personnel (mostly volunteers, or reservists who haven’t been assigned yet) are on high alert. 

Eli and I then went to what we would call a firing range/ gun shop. Eli had to pick up the ceramic plates for my flak jacket, even though I already had them, but Eli gave them away. A word about plates:  As you may know, Israel had a 150% response rate to the call up, meaning that 1/3 of the reserves who reported were not called or expected.  A lot of them did not have plates for their vests, so plates are passed around. I bought a set in Israel before I got here, but I actually used some that Eli already had.  He gave those away and then today we picked up the ones I bought. (Eli wants me to emphasize that I was never without plates. I would point out that I only put on the jacket for protective purposes once, and that was out of a real abundance of caution.)

Back to the range, it has a civilian side and a military side.  The civilian side they now call the minyan because religious Jews have applied for gun licenses in droves. So, they line up to do their training and license qualification.  Except for the noise, looking in on the range you’d think they were at prayer. 

The back of the range is for tactical training. There is an urban set up for house-to-house training. Army units go to Gaza, then get a couple days off, they come here to train again, then go back to Gaza.  There was a unit of about 50 guys training in the back. 

When we left the range, we were heading back to Jerusalem so Eli could drop me off.  That was at about 5:00.  He got a call from his brother-in-law who was in a medic unit near the Gaza border. (Remember when I wrote about being on the phone with a guy on the first day and there was outgoing artillery in the background? That was him).  He left his unit down south this morning on a few days’ leave, got a ride to Tel Aviv, and then took a train to Jerusalem.  As soon as he walked into his parents’ house, he was called back to his unit ASAP, but he had no way to get there.  Could Eli drive him?  Eli swerved the car toward a neighborhood farther west, near Hadassah Hospital, to pick him up.  

We drove south toward Gaza and stopped at a roadblock near a shopping mall a few kilometers from the border. That’s as far as civilian traffic can go, so everyone in the towns farther south (to the extent they still exist after 10/7) has been relocated.  The mall is closed and empty except for a group of shirtless soldiers hanging out playing soccer.  It was like a scene out of Apocalypse Now or Platoon.  The brother-in-law’s commander came to pick him up and he went with them to whatever it was that called him back. 

[Writing interrupted by drive back to Jerusalem.]

One of our stops tomorrow will be at Ad Kan, which is essentially Hebrew for “enough is enough.”  They collect info on BDS and antisemitic activities around the world. Here’s a link – https://www.adkan.org.il/about-en  If you know anything about them, please pass it along.  I will report tomorrow on what they’re doing and how we can work with them more in the US.  We have several other stops as well.

Love to all, 

One Last Thing:

From the head of Just One Chesed:  Please pass along.  Bet Shemesh is the Boca Raton of Israel.  Everyone is from NYC and speaks English.  

🍅 Volunteers are needed to pick tomatoes, zucchini and eggplants at Moshav Tirosh, 15min from Beit Shemesh.

Every day this week (including Friday), from early morning until 5pm (whenever you come and for however long is helpful and appreciated!)

Please bring gloves if you have any.

Contact 052-700-0029

They provide water, snacks and breakfast for anyone who can come.

Come to the entrance of Tirosh. After entering the yellow gate, continue straight and then there is a right, right after that there is a left. Continue down and then on the side of the road on the right there is a dirt path.