Feb 15, 2024  By Rachel Plafker  Category: Travel,

Helping our Heroes and Honoring our Fallen

Like so many connected Diaspora Jews the day after the Hamas attack, my husband Dave and I were desperate to go to Israel. We began to throw money at every plea for funds, every letter, every WhatsApp message, quickly maxing out our credit cards, reloading and donating again. But no amount of clicking on internet links seemed sufficient.

Dave and I were among the lucky ones; we devised a tangible way to help. Responding to multiple calls to bring duffle bags and necessary equipment to Israel, we bought Dave a ticket to Tel Aviv on October 29th, and enabled the transfer of protective gear, medical equipment and more in a manic 36-hour venture.

And even that didn’t feel like enough.

I decided that my 55th birthday gift would be participating in a volunteer program. I was heartened by the response: my supportive boss said to me, "just let me know how much time you need." So, we signed up to spend a week volunteering with Jewish National Fund-USA – an opportunity that would see us help Israeli farmers, support hospital workers, and most importantly, convey our support to the people of Israel.

Those of us who have witnessed and eagerly volunteered in these programs struggle to find the words that describe our experiences “‘Transformative,’ ‘depressing,’ ‘uplifting’ and ‘gratifying’” all seemed apt, but not sufficient.

On the first night, I found myself in a beautiful hotel in the Negev, living among evacuee families. Not the usual sight in a hotel lobby: strollers, pajamas, guns, and exhausted parents.

On our first day with Jewish National Fund-USA, we set out for Kibbutz Gvulot, 7 miles from Gaza, and thus particularly vulnerable. The kibbutz was so close to the border that victims from neighboring kibbutzim ran there during the attacks. Donning gardening gloves, we weeded neglected flower beds, laid water pipes for irrigation, and spruced up the school in anticipation of the return of students some three months after their evacuation. Cleaning and polishing toys only highlighted how suddenly these homes had been abandoned; they had been untouched for three months.

Each resident was quick to tell us their individual October 7 story. The entire country was, analogously, like the United States on the day after September 11, 2001.

Speaking slowly, with precise diction and obvious emotion, we witnessed Israelis in some yet unspecified stage of shock, but needing to share their experience as a step in their eventual healing.

We had meals with many friends and acquaintances during our week. They had all lost count of the many shivas they had attended. And again, each one needed to share in order to process. They needed us to know about their trauma: their murdered or kidnapped relatives, their newfound lack of trust given that they had believed relations with Gazans had rested on something akin to mutual respect and personal interactions. 

The other prevailing message was one of gratitude.  By just stepping on Israeli soil, we had already helped. They could not believe that middle-aged, “comfortable” Americans had taken time out of their daily lives and jobs to pick their weeds, irrigate fields, clean their children’s toys, but most of all: to listen. They felt seen, heard, and understood, to the best of our insufficient abilities. We felt like human sponges, absorbing all their sadness.

Perhaps the most harrowing site we visited was the beautiful grove of trees that housed the Nova festival, where hundreds of young people were mercilessly slaughtered or kidnapped. Jewish National Fund-USA organized the planting of trees; both as a remembrance of young lives and to honor the holiday of Tu BiShvat, that commemorates the New Year of the Trees. The field encased in a stunning grove of trees has now become hallowed ground, similar to Gettysburg or Ground Zero in New York City.  Each young victim of the October 7 massacre – those murdered and those kidnapped - has a picture on a stand with candles and personal tributes scattered at their base. 

I noticed a man with a white beard sobbing as he decorated a picture of a beautiful young woman with rhinestone stickers. I asked if he was a relative and he just shook his head no. Later, as he walked away still crying, a friend and I offered him hugs. With Indiana-accented English, this new citizen of Israel explained that he comes there to pay tribute to those he feels do not get as many visitors. "It's just evil that was done here," he said sobbing. "Pure Evil.

At the music festival site, we spoke to the soldiers responsible for collecting the bodies of our fallen. They spoke with reverence of the opportunity to perform the ultimate mitzvah, one that the recipient can never repay. The other site we visited was no less wrenching: the (temporary) graves of the Kibbutz Be'eri residents slaughtered in cold blood by Hamas. How can one describe seeing whole families buried together? In the North, we stood with the parents of a young victim by her graveside and heard stories of her beautiful, positive soul. We listened, cried and tried to comprehend the incomprehensible. 

And we hugged.  Because words were insufficient.

Earlier in the week we had packed care packages – treats, socks, and rations – for soldiers. The evening after the visit to the Nova site, we delivered the packages and danced with soldiers in a volunteer-run ‘staging area’ – complete with a band composed of disabled soldiers from Jewish National Fund-USA’s Special in Uniform initiative. Also in the tent was a lending library, a haircut station, massage opportunities and tables devoted to backgammon. I was introduced to “heavy metal” dancing there, that is, dancing a hora while avoiding bumping into a myriad of M16's slung over every soldier’s shoulder. We danced with such joy and resolve. “We will dance tonight, tomorrow we will fight.”

In the evenings, after our agricultural and other volunteer activities had ended for the day, we listened to a host of speakers. Professor Noah Ephron, from Bar Ilan University, shared a chilling story of a collective of computer experts helping to find and identify victims, including the suggestion to see if migration patterns of birds of prey had changed. We also heard of Professor Ephron’s new concept of Zionism that emanates from our newfound appreciation for each other as victims of reoccurring antisemitism and the recognition we cannot survive in this world without each other.  We heard from many survivors, some who performed incredible, heroic acts and now just want their lives back, and that the war no one asked for, to end.

At the end of the volunteer week, we were asked to summarize our experience in one word. The prevailing theme was one of gratitude and hope.  We were all reminded of the ability of Jews and Arabs to live together peacefully, as we saw in the halls of Seroka Medical Center in Beersheva and in the Bedouin town of Rafah. Israel will prevail, because she has no choice.  To paraphrase, Golda Meir, “We Jews have a secret weapon - we have nowhere else to go. And we choose life.”

Am Yisrael Chai.