By Sarah Zelcer
I have spent the days and weeks since October 7th vacillating between a state of grief, sadness, fear, anger and helplessness. Like many of us in the Diaspora, I have been glued to the news and social media, neither of which are ideal in terms of supporting my mental health or my ability to hold space for the complexities of the reality of Israel’s trauma and the horrors of war for both Israelis and innocent civilians in Gaza.
I have made a few personal commitments since October 7th. One has been to find and support communities and movements focused on co-existence and recognition of our common humanity. I have found some comfort and hope in building connections with others who believe it is necessary to hold space for diverse and even divergent perspectives in the effort to identify and commit to pathways toward a shared future in the Diaspora and in Israel.
Another personal commitment was to travel to Israel to offer volunteer support. To this end, my sister Shayna and I committed to spending just over two weeks in Israel in early January (our third sister Robin lives in Jerusalem, which we chose as our “home base”). While there are many organized trips and missions one could choose to participate in, we decided to travel on our own and to plug into local volunteer opportunities. We prioritized helping out on Israeli farms, as we were aware that since October 7th, the majority of foreign workers left Israel and farmers are now in a crisis as they attempt to harvest in the midst of a labour crisis. This is exacerbated by the fact that some farmers are also reservists who are serving in Gaza or in the north, as well as by the fact that many farms, particularly in the south, were directly impacted by October 7th. Southern Israel provides roughly 75% of agricultural produce to all of Israel.
On Kibbutz Mivtachim, we harvested cherry tomatoes to support Menachem, a retired farmer whose son, Tal Maman, was murdered defending the kibbutz from terrorists who infiltrated the community on October 7th. Menachem had been retired for the past 7 years as Tal had taken over. Following Tal’s murder, he is now struggling with how to manage his fields while also navigating his own shock, trauma and grief. On our way to this kibbutz, we passed by many kibbutzim- Be’eri, Kfar Aza and others- which we now know were devastated on October 7th and suffered huge losses as well as the abduction of many of their members to Gaza. We passed by the site of the now infamous Nova music festival, driving the very roads which three months prior were littered with bodies and burned-out cars, and passed shelters where festival goers tried to seek refuge.
We harvested pomelos on Kibbutz Mefalsim and heard testimony from a Thai worker who had returned to the Kibbutz to work after October 7th. The worker in question was captured by Hamas terrorists on October 7th along with eleven of his fellow Thai co-workers. All were bound and placed on a tractor headed to Gaza. A miraculous combination of quick thinking of the Thai workers coinciding with the arrival of Israeli troops led to a firefight and thankfully, the attempted abduction of the twelve Thai workers was thwarted. The Thai worker who spoke to us had learned fluent Hebrew and felt so committed to the Kibbutz that he returned and spends his days now working and directing the teams of volunteers that come several times a week to support the harvest.
In Kibbutz Gevulot, we picked oranges. In Yehud, we planted fennel. In Kadimah, we picked strawberries. All of these experiences were exercises in contemplation, particularly in the communities close to the Gaza border where the sounds of war permeated our harvesting activities and where it was challenging to consider the vastly different realities of regions so close to each other yet so many worlds apart. We thought of the hostages, who were but a few kilometres away but so impossible to reach. We thought of the abundance of fruit and the hunger being experienced by innocent civilians devastated by war. We thought about the resilience of the communities we were serving and the astounding ability of Israelis to persevere.
In addition to farming, we found many other volunteer opportunities to support. We spent a morning working with Eran’s Angels, a volunteer-driven organization that is now working out of a makeshift warehouse in the parking lot beneath the Tel Aviv Expo building to sort through and distribute donations to evacuees and soldiers in need throughout Israel. In Jerusalem, we joined a beautiful group of volunteers who gather every Friday to cook Shabbat meals for those in need. Another day, we joined a throng of volunteers in Beit Shemesh who meet at “the Aroma in the BIG mall” to produce tens of thousands of sandwiches for Israeli soldiers six days a week.
Finally, we did some fundraising in advance of our trip which allowed us to purchase sleeping bags, thermal underwear, hats and socks for Israeli soldiers to help them keep warm as winter arrives. The handmade cards my son’s grade 4 class at the Toronto Heschel School made boosted the morale of the unit we distributed them to. We were also able to purchase grocery store vouchers for evacuees from the north and south.
In addition to volunteering, we were able to meet with Israelis who have set up a protest tent immediately opposite the Knesset and have pledged to remain there 24/7 until the current government accepts accountability for the events of October 7th and resign. We were able to attend an evening of prayer and song featuring a diverse crowd of religious and secular Israelis at what is now known as “Hostages Square” in Tel Aviv as well as the somber and moving and powerful 24-hour rally held a few days later to mark the 100 days of hostages being held in Gaza. We visited the Kotel and prayed for the safe return of the remaining hostages. We visited the devastating Nova Exhibit in Tel Aviv which recreated the scenes of October 7th, including porta potties riddled with bullet holes, burned-out cars, abandoned tents, tables and tables of the unclaimed belongings of festival goers, and an eerily silent dance floor. We were able to spend Shabbat with a family whose son had just returned home from Gaza and learn a little about the day-to-day sacrifices so many Israeli families are making as they send their children to war.
Finally, we were able to ride buses, trains, and walk the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, spend time with beloved family, experience the tranquillity of Shabbat, support the local economy and witness the diversity (and sometimes chaos) of day-to-day life in Israel. While it was difficult to leave, we were incredibly grateful for the opportunity to do some hands-on volunteering as a means of offering our tangible support during an incredibly challenging time for Israelis and for Jews around the world.