My Volunteer Story

By Ella Toczek


On October 7th, 2023, Hamas terrorists entered Israel and massacred 1200 innocent civilians, and took roughly 240 hostages. At a music festival that celebrated peace and life, over 300 innocent Israelis and others were murdered. Despite living across the world, I was shocked, heartbroken, and unable to find any words to express my feelings. In the days following October 7, I did not personally know anyone who died or lost a loved one during this traumatic event, but I did have many friends living in Israel whose lives changed instantly on that day. My heart was with them.


Ella Toczek

A few weeks later, things changed. News emerged that a young mother who worked at Maimonides Academy, the grade school I attended in LA 10 years ago, was sadly murdered at the Nova Festival. My heart literally dropped. Here in America, especially on college campuses, people don’t get what is going on in that area of the world— people are posting things like “Free Palestine” and “freedom fighters” even though they lack an understanding of the long and complicated history of Israel. There is so much misinformation being shared online, and we have all clearly witnessed antisemitism on the rise around the world. Sometimes, I find it hard living my life, carrying on with day-to-day things in college when I know many people my age in Israel are fighting for peace and for our homeland. In the months following the attacks in October, I felt helpless and lost and I didn’t know what to do with those feelings, but I did know that I wanted to go to Israel.

In late February, I finally got the opportunity to go. My dad and I volunteered for a five-day Jewish National Fund-USA mission. When I first walked off the plane, I immediately noted that it didn’t “feel” like a war zone. However, seeing all the “Bring Them Home” posters made it very real. In America, those same posters get torn down every day. The grief surrounding their captivity seems to evoke anger in people concerned about innocent Palestinians. In Israel, the posters are everywhere. A real-time reminder of those who were stolen that is only a few miles away, hidden underground. Do they know how much they are missed? How hard Israel is trying to rescue them?

After spending a relaxing Shabbat in Jerusalem, my dad and I headed down south on Sunday where we had planned to join a Jewish National Fund-USA volunteer mission. We met over 100 people from all over the world who had the same desire we did—to be a part of something good and positive in the aftermath of something so dark. On Monday and Tuesday, we worked at a farm where they had lost all their employees and desperately needed hands to weed the crops. We also painted an indoor playground in Sderot in preparation for the safe return of the community’s children and families. We visited the Alexander Muss High School in Israel and saw the Revivim cemetery, where victims of the Be’eri kibbutz are temporarily buried until it is safe to move them back to Be’eri for a permanent burial (let that sink in).

Ella Toczek volunteering on a farm in Israel


Wednesday brought a whole different eye-opening experience. It began like the other volunteer days working on a kibbutz. Our group helped organize, paint, and clean the kibbutz up so that its residents could move back a week later. After that, we went back to the indoor playground in Sderot for opening day and saw all the kids playing and smiles on the parents’ faces. That was amazing!

After that, we headed to the site of the Nova festival. There are no words to describe the experience of being in that place, but I will try. As we entered the site, I looked out the window, and it was so beautiful. Full of sprouting grass and wildflowers. But then, I began to imagine all the atrocities that occurred on this land just a few months before. All the horrible and unimaginable stories from the news and social media happened right in the very spot where my group was standing. It was hard to compute in my brain. When I stepped off the bus, my heart sank. I became speechless. As we started walking, our tour guide explained how the festival was set up and the events that occurred in chronological order. When he was done, we had some time to walk around the site by ourselves to take it all in. A memorial site for all the innocent victims with photographs of those who had fallen. So many young people my age. As I walked around, all of the faces somehow looked familiar, and they all felt like family. Although I did not personally know them, something felt different being there. All of a sudden, they were a part of me.

After some time, I came across the photo of the woman I knew from school. Her name is Hadar Hoshen. Seeing her name, along with the photo of her beautiful smiling face in the exact place she lost her life, completely changed everything for me. This young mother was always so happy, friendly, and filled with a passion for helping Americans love Israel. How could she be murdered? I just stood there. I could not move as the thoughts and memories of her began racing through my mind. It was so surreal. How can this be true?


Ella Toczek helping to repaint a building in southern Israel


Eventually, I joined the rest of the Jewish National Fund-USA mission, and we had the honor to participate in writing a Torah as part of their Be Inscribed initiative. To be writing a sacred Torah in a place where our very own brothers and sisters were killed just for being Jews felt very powerful. We Jews are not giving up. We will continue to unite and stay strong. We have no other choice. The Torah reminded me of this…

As everyone was getting back on the bus to leave, I felt a strong pull back towards Hadar’s memorial, and my dad joined me. We stood there in silence, and I was thinking about her and the lessons she shared with me and my community. As the tears streamed down my face, it all hit me. Although I had not seen her in 9 years, she was one of the many Israelis who taught me to love Israel and to feel as though it was my home. Even though I didn’t personally know anyone else who had been murdered in this place, I felt as though I somehow had a connection to everyone.

Our last stop on the mission was a visit to a pop-up BBQ close to the border WITH Gaza, set up for soldiers to come to eat and get respite from their challenging and heartbreaking work. Special in Uniform, a unique organization where people with disabilities are able to be active participants in the Israel Defense Forces, were present and their amazing band sang songs while we sat with the soldiers and shared a meal. I was so touched to see the incredible and meaningful ways Israelis care for their people and want to help in any way they can. Not everyone can protect the land, but there are so many other ways people can participate during this difficult time. Sharing a meal, having conversation, seeing each other’s pain and grief.

This trip changed me. As a Jewish American, I am aware of how privileged I am to live the life I live and go to college. Although I am currently not living in Israel, my heart is there, and I would do anything to support our land and the people. I recognize Israel is a gift given to me, and I plan to never take it for granted. I am a young Jewish-American woman who proudly loves and supports Israel. Thank you Hadar for being part of my journey to love my homeland.

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