‘How could we not come?’ American Jews flock to Israel to help


OFAKIM, Israel — See that beige duplex? That is where a father sacrificed himself by drawing terrorists’ fire, allowing his wife and kids to escape from a second-story window.

That rooftop across the street, that is where a lone Jewish teenager took down terrorists who were dressed as IDF soldiers, ending their grenade attack against his neighbors.

On this corner is the bullet-riddled home of Rachel Edry, a 70-year-old woman who outwitted five terrorists by baking them cookies and chatting them up for 15 hours until a SWAT team could overtake them.

During her winter break, Sophie Katz, 15, of Atlanta, Ga., listened with awe and sadness as locals walked her through the small Israeli town of Ofakim, which Hamas terrorists besieged on Oct. 7, gunning down 56 people, most of them elderly, in a matter of hours.

“This could have been us. This could have been any of us,” said Sophie, who, on her first trip to Israel, was taking part in a Ramah Israel Solidarity Mission, a four-day opportunity for North American Jews to volunteer in the Jewish homeland as it mourns its dead and fights for its life.

The Ramah mission is one of hundreds of organized trips that are bringing thousands of Jewish volunteers to Israel to fill the needs of a society reeling from war.

Ramah Israel volunteers tour homes in Ofakim, a residential neighborhood attacked by Hamas terrorists on Oct. 7, 2023.

Following the Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attack, which left 1,200 dead and at least 240 people kidnapped, Israel responded with a military campaign to destroy Hamas, remove the Iranian-backed terror organization from power in Gaza and rescue the hostages.

To that end, 350,000 Israelis were immediately pressed into service in the Israel Defense Forces, creating gaping needs in the tiny nation that only volunteers could fill.

And so Sophie joined the ranks of Jews from all over the world who have come to Israel to help.

Volunteers flock to Ofakim to help people effected by the war in Israel.

New York financiers pack personal hygiene supplies for soldiers and reservists.

Canadian physicians make sandwiches for displaced families.

California attorneys work as farmhands.

With rockets exploding daily from Hamas in the south and Hezbollah in the north, these volunteer trips are not without risk.

Everywhere they went, the 24 Americans and Canadians on the Ramah trip were asked the same question: Why did you come?

Each time it was asked, participants, ranging from middle age to 10 years old, blinked back tears in reply.

“How could we not come?” said Jayde Grossman, 27, of Manhattan. “We are family.”

Sophie, Hannah and Stacey Katz pack sandwiches in Jerusalem.

A united Jewish family.

At a time when Judaism everywhere is under attack.

Among the debris uncovered in Gaza were copies of Hitler’s “Mein Kampf,” translated into Arabic, with lunatic underscoring and writing in the margins.

Synagogues in the US are vandalized.

Jews are stabbed in the streets of Europe.

Israel represents the right of self-determination for the Jewish people.

And so, for many foreign volunteers, the ancient homeland of the Jewish people — this war zone — is one of the few places on the planet that currently feel “safe.”

“I’ve felt abandoned in the US,” said mission participant Dan Vogel, 46, of Riverdale. “As a graduate of Columbia and Harvard, I’m embarrassed and horrified to see the hostile environment that has developed on campus for Jewish students and faculty. And as an executive at a large company where I’ve been a leader of diversity and inclusion initiatives, I’m disappointed by the deafening silence of colleagues on the subject of antisemitism in America.”

The sting of hatred is felt keenly among young Jews, as virulent strains of antisemitism infect social media through jaw-dropping lies and misinformation.

A modern take on the blood libel is repeated, unsubstantiated and unquestioned, in newspapers of record.

TikTok videos claim the Jews are colonialists in their own homeland.

Mobs gather on US college campuses to proudly announce support of terrorists who raped and mutilated Jewish women and girls.

For young Americans in particular, Jew-hate is having a “moment.”

“It is really scary how the younger generation is believing Hamas’ lies and propaganda,” Sophie said. “In the college environment, which is where I’m headed, there are people calling for the destruction of Israel. But Israel is the Jewish people. They are interchangeable. Calling for the destruction of Israel is an attack on me, and the Jewish people and my family.”

Several of the young participants on the mission said they leaped at the opportunity to support their Jewish family — and to bring the stories of Israel’s pain and heroism back to their peers at home.

“Coming to Israel was exactly what I needed to reinforce for myself that the Jewish people are strong and resilient,” said Eliana Apter, 15, of Englewood, NJ. “It was an incredibly powerful trip with a balance of hearing people’s accounts of Oct. 7 while also volunteering and doing our part to help Israelis who are suffering.”

Volunteers work as farmhands to help the ailing agricultural economy of Israel.

The Ramah volunteers weeded strawberry fields, lifting the burden off one farmer in Ge’ulim who saw an 80% reduction in his workforce since the war began.

They painted a school in Ofakim, preparing it for the return of students who had been out of school for more than two months.

They packed sandwiches and care packages for IDF soldiers, many of whom have not seen their families in months.

They cleaned the barracks of an elite IDF brigade, which have been abandoned — half-eaten, maggot-filled food and all — since the attacks.

Ramah Israel volunteers clean IDF barracks that have been empty since Oct. 7, 2023.
Ramah Israel volunteers pose after packing care packages for IDF soldiers in Tel Aviv.

Eliana and her family arrived a few days before the start of the mission to create an arts and crafts “carnival” for displaced children who have been living in the Dan Panorama Hotel in Jerusalem since the terrorist attacks.

According to the Israel Hotel Association, half of the nation’s 56,000 hotel rooms are being used to house evacuees from several towns like Sderot, from which nearly all 30,000 residents remain refugees in their own country, as rocket fire continues to rain down on their homes.

Sderot children at the Jerusalem hotel could be spotted each morning, silently packing lunches from the breakfast buffet before filling donated backpacks and heading to local schools that have absorbed them.

It is a stultifying and surreal existence.

Scorched cars recovered from the Nova Music Festival are seen inside the Expo Tel Aviv convention center.

At the arts and crafts fair, Eliana helped younger children apply glitter tattoos to their arms — which inspired one little Israeli girl to confess, “Finally, a fun activity.”

“I got the opportunity to talk to them in my slightly broken Hebrew and learn about their lives in a very honest way,” Eliana said. “The trip as a whole was very similar to that one carnival: Hearing from people and trying to help them in whatever way I can.”

With needs so great, it is difficult to imagine how glitter tattoos and picking weeds out of a strawberry field could actually help.

But as Sophie, Eliana and the rest of the Ramah group walked through Ofakim, Mayor Yitzhak Danino spotted the group and stopped to thank them.

The mayor acknowledged that Jews outside Israel need a strong homeland to ensure Jewish continuity and safety.

And Jews within Israel need the support of their brethren from outside the country — now more than ever.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re on the other side of the sea,” Danino said. “This co-existence that we have is really beautiful. And for that I just want to say thank you.”

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