Mar 12, 2024  By Caren Hammerman  Category: Travel,

Volunteering in Israel: Notes From Sde Boker

“Where we live - close to the Gaza border - is 95% heaven and 5% hell. October 7th was that hell, but trauma is not in our vocabulary; it has been replaced by resilience. We choose life.” That was the introduction and theme of our 4-day Jewish National Fund-USA Volunteer in Israel Mission Trip, as expressed by Michal Uziyahu, a dynamic and inspiring woman of Eshkol. October 7th was more than a physical assault, it was an assault on the citizens’ sense of security and an assault on their sense of trust.

Stops Along My Volunteering Journey

During my time volunteering, we went many places where there was much to be done. At Kibbutz Gvulot where a school is planned, we painted, weeded, and planted. At Alexander Muss High School, we filled care packages intended for Israeli soldiers with an assortment of small business products from the Galilee. At an army base, we helped empty out, clean, and organize the storage warehouse and ate lunch with the “chayalim” (soldiers).

From there we traveled to Be’er Sheva, a city that has been transformed by Jewish National Fund-USA initiatives. At Soroka hospital, we learned about the devastation of October 7 and how they received 650 patients in 48 hours. Unsurprisingly, the hospital’s blood bank was depleted, but in a show of remarkable “achdut” (brotherhood), 5,000 units of blood were donated that first day. Trauma and resilience. From there, we spent a day weeding fields near the Egyptian border.

A Glimpse of What Was Lost

We boarded the buses for a drive to Re’im, the ill-fated campgrounds of the Nova Festival, where 360 innocent people were mercilessly murdered. On the approach to the site, one can’t help but notice the black marks on the road where terrorists set cars on fire, burning them and everything and everyone inside. There were hundreds of people there paying tribute, including a man playing his guitar and singing softly. The crowd gathered around him represented the gamut of Jewish society -- religious and secular, Ashkenazi and Mizrachi. All were arm in arm, singing and swaying in somber unison. Our group was moved to witness the dedication of a Sefer Torah in memory of those murdered in this place.

After Re’im we didn’t think anything could lift our spirits, but a visit to Tzomet Gilat did just that. An outpost for rest and respite for soldiers organized by volunteers, every day some 25,000 – 30,000 come to eat, shower, wash their clothes, enjoy entertainment, gather strength. A rousing performance by the Special in Uniform Band cheered everyone enough to dance and sing along,

Sderot Indoor Recreation Center Volunteer Work

The next and final day, we spent about 4 hours at the Sderot Indoor Recreation Center removing thousands of crumbling foam cubes and plastic balls, power-washing, hosing, and scrubbing the lockers, mats, and play equipment.  Thousands were expected to return home to this city in the coming days, and we were tasked with making this safe haven ready.

It was with a heavy heart that I said goodbye to my first cohort, but I was excited to join a new group of volunteers for the second half of this experience. On our first morning, we were ready to roll up our sleeves in lemon groves of Shokeda, situated just 6 kilometers from the Gaza border. From there, we went to pack more care packages and made a new pilgrimage to the site of the Nova massacre. Being there for the second time was no less unsettling.

The following day we found ourselves at Kibbutz Or HaNer where we spent our day cleaning, weeding, planting, regrading the backyard of the kindergarten. It was a treat for us to eat lunch in the large dining hall and chat with several of the residents and neighbors of this kibbutz as they have recently returned after being evacuated for 4 months.  Another visit to Soroka and Tzomet Gilat the next day felt familiar and yet newly invigorating.

Wednesday was the only day that we traveled North. Basma Noor's restaurant in the Druze village of Julis was our destination. Basma has a unique and admirable story. After her husband died of a brain injury sustained during his IDF reserve duty, Basma opened a lovely, small café and restaurant with a bright patio room adjacent to the main seating area in Julis.  As soon as the war broke out, she was determined to resume her activity providing homemade meals to the soldiers of the IDF.  She even obtained kosher certification so that more soldiers could enjoy her food. We served a couple dozen soldiers who came while we were there, and packed up hundreds of to-go meals for others. 

Visiting Hostage Square in Tel Aviv

I also had the opportunity to spend some time at Hostage Square in Tel Aviv. The individual exhibits displayed around the square were visceral. Looking at a wall pasted with pieces of pita bread in various states of having been eaten, which represent the total daily food allocation for the hostages conjured the stark reality of the deprivation they suffer. This specific piece conjured up my additional sympathy for hostage Omer Shem Tov, who suffers from celiac disease and cannot eat any gluten products. What could possibly be his fate? The last message, which also appears on billboards throughout Tel Aviv, was the most hopeful – ביחד ננצח—Together we will win.  We saw those words on billboards everywhere.  Let’s pray for that.