Jan 21, 2024  By Ellen Spira Hattenbach  Category: Travel,

Find Your Voice In Israel

Jewish National Fund-USA is proud to be “Your Voice in Israel”. As a National Campaign Director in the organization, and having just returned from one of our Volunteer Missions, I find that my own voice is struggling to accurately put into words what we did, what we witnessed and what we now know.

Painful yet Purposeful. Somber yet Surreal. Dismal yet Determined. Broken yet Building. Harmed yet Healing. Life-changing yet Levitating. Raw yet Real. No matter the words, we experienced an Israel like never before…a dual reality. A simultaneous juxtaposition.

Over the course of four days on the ground, our cohort of 160 volunteers split into two groups to cover a plethora of necessary rehabilitation, repair and renewal activities. What a contrast to wake up to a bountiful Israeli breakfast, sip a cappuccino, watch the surfers in the Mediterranean Sea with a rainbow overhead, followed by boarding busses to our first volunteer task. For our first day, we picked tons of clementines and grapefruit at Tlamin, a farm only a few kilometers from the Gaza border. Had we not, the crops would rot and waste in the fields due to a shortage of workers. What’s more, had we not picked the fruit, the soil could not be primed for future years. And so, we harvested for hours.  Laborious work but surrounded by the fragrant scent of the citrus, their bursting colors and every once in a while, a taste-test had to be conducted. Delicious! All the while, the thunderous sounds of war in the distance.

Other days included cooking at a Druze-owned restaurant in northern Israel, a member of our small business consortium, and preparing (and I mean chopping, grilling, mixing and packing) 450 gourmet meals with personalized hand-written notes for the soldiers guarding the communities bordering Lebanon. Meanwhile, other volunteers painted playgrounds and repaired fences in badly harmed Kibbutz Erez.

For nearly an entire day on Hatzerim army base, we stood on an assembly line packing food for the IDF including an array of shelf-stable international Kosher cuisine and condiments…imagine sushi and soy sauce in a box.

We also spent a day playing games and singing with displaced young children from Sderot who have been living in a hotel for more than 100 days—each family cramped in one room. Many of these families have lost loved ones on October 7 or are worrying over family members serving in the IDF. Many have lost their jobs. But dancing with the children, seeing their smiles and receiving lasting hugs brought such joy. And then the jolt, no one can let these families know when they will safely return home.

Non-volunteering activities were every bit as important and impressionable. Visiting Hostage Square in Tel Aviv with its renowned long empty Shabbat table, each seat reserved for a hostage. Their families gathering to tell their stories and plead for the hostages’ release. On another day, our feet stood on the very grounds of Re’im’s Nova festival—even the word “festival” is hard to say. Nearly 400 were killed, kidnapped or wounded at that site on October 7. We chanted Kaddish, the prayer to remember the deceased, and placed lit candles on the memorial site where faces and signs of the victims were erected. We also visited the Kotel, devoured a much yearned for falafel at Machne Yehuda and danced with Israeli soldiers while Jewish National Fund-USA-supported band made up of young Israelis with disabilities beat the drums, played the keyboard and used their beautiful voices to sing for peace.

Our last stop brought all 160 volunteers together for a dinner where we heard from our Jewish National Fund-USA Team in Israel and dined with lone soldiers. Sipping wine, eating our last bites of Israeli cuisine, recounting highlights of our trip. Then the dreaded announcement to head to Ben-Gurion Airport was heard. No one wanted to leave. No one could say goodbye. Everyone wants to return.

If I take away one memory, one lasting impression, it is the profound gratitude the Israeli people have for our “showing up” and “helping out”. They feel so isolated; so alone. Thank you was said over and over to us, making us feel uncomfortable and so we said “No, the thank you’s go to you, to every Israeli, for protecting our homeland.” We assured them Jewish National Fund-USA has already started creating and implementing a plan to rebuild…together.

I left a more informed, prouder Zionist and Jew than I ever imagined possible. I thank Jewish National Fund-USA for being our voice in Israel. Now we must be Israel’s voice in our homes, communities, and around the world.

  JNF-USA Volunteer Mission to Israel