After Hamas’ brutal massacre on October 7, 2023, all of us at the ZOA have redoubled our efforts to defend Israel’s safety and security and the safety and security of the Jewish people, wherever they live. Several valued members of the ZOA team have gone above and beyond, traveling to Israel during this time of war, to help, comfort and support the people of Israel and their communities.
We are proud to recognize these special people and to share the stories behind their journeys.
My family has an annual tradition of visiting Israel over Sukkot, one of our favorite holidays to be there. There are so many tourists, everyone is off from school and work, and there are celebrations all over the country.
What was supposed to be one of the happiest days on the Jewish calendar, Simchat Torah, turned into a nightmare.
On Saturday, October 7th, I woke up to my first rocket siren attack in central Israel. You only have about 30 seconds to make it to a bomb shelter, depending on where you are in the country. Grabbing our two- and three-year-olds from their beds, my husband and I ran to the bomb shelter. At that time, we didn’t realize how terrible things were going to get and how serious this attack was.
We turned on the Israeli news to see if there were any updates regarding the rockets (it’s rare for central Israel to be attacked by rockets), and we soon understood that the entire country was being targeted and that HUNDREDS of terrorists from Gaza had infiltrated the border of Israel.
It wasn’t too long before people from kibbutz communities in the south were calling in live to the news stations. They were hiding under their beds, or in their closets, whispering that they needed help. One 12-year-old girl called screaming hysterically that her father was being kidnapped. Israelis couldn’t get through to the police station, first responders, or the army. Hamas took all of them out before they moved on to private homes. As a last resort and in a desperate plea for help, innocent civilians who were awakened by absolute terror, called into the news stations as the country – and my family – listened. It felt like living in a horror movie, but it was real. All too real.
It took me two days to work up the courage to leave the home we were staying in with my children and go downstairs to the playground. After about 10 minutes on the playground, there was a rocket attack. I had just over 30 seconds to get one child off of a slide and to get my other child, who was running around, to a building and run to a staircase; we had no time to get into a bomb shelter. We waited there until we heard the explosion and knew it was safe to leave. A week later, remnants from a rocket fell exactly where I had been with my children. It was big enough to have seriously injured or killed anyone who was in its way.
The urge to volunteer and do something surged in everyone. There were opportunities to volunteer EVERYWHERE – from visiting the injured in the hospital, to buying groceries for displaced families, donating items, helping soldiers get the tactical gear they needed, etc. It felt so good to see the country united and come together. The slogan “together we will win” was plastered all over the place and it brought me so much strength to see how strong and optimistic Israelis were, even during the hardest times.
The most moving part of my trip took place a couple of nights after Hamas’ massacre against Israel. Hamas told everyone in the Tel Aviv area that there would be a rocket attack at 8:00 p.m. At 8:00 p.m., I went to the balcony, waiting to hear the siren. At 8:02, I saw every balcony fill up with people around me from neighboring buildings. At 8:05, with no planning at all, we all started singing “Hatikvah,” Israel’s national anthem, waving Israeli flags, and turning the buildings’ lights on and off. It was the embodiment of the anthem. We, the Jewish people, have eternal hope and an unbreakable spirit. We, the Jewish people, and the sovereign land of Israel, will not be robbed of our faith in our country, in our people, or our faith in our future.
During a conversation with some locals on my first trip to Israel, I said, “Oh my god, I love your country.” They replied, “No – it’s your country too! We are Am Yisrael. Family. You are home.”
This same message was conveyed to me each time I returned to Israel, about once a year. Thirteen years later after my first trip, when all the locals greeted me with shock and asked why I had decided to come back to Israel after the Hamas massacre, my answer was simple: “When something happens to family, you go home and help.”
Last month I went to Israel on a 10-day volunteer mission with an organized group that’s sending Jews from all across the Diaspora to work on farms and in distribution centers, which are badly in need of laborers. We would work in the mornings and later were free to go off on our own.
I had the opportunity to visit Kibbutz Be’eri, 40 kilometers from Gaza. One of the residents, who showed me and my two friends around, took us to her parents’ house, where her mother was murdered by a terrorist but successfully saved her husband and grandson. She brought us to many houses and community centers. It looked like a tornado had gone through the kibbutz; some of the houses were completely destroyed while others were in perfect condition. Bicycles and chairs were toppled over throughout the kibbutz.
The resident who accompanied us told us stories of many of her friends, family, and neighbors and what happened to them that day, including her sister who had four children on October 6th but only two children on October 8th. At the end of our visit, we tried to donate money to the kibbutz but our guide refused to take it, saying they now have all the items they need. When we asked what we could do to help, the guide came up with one answer: “Please tell at least 10 people what you saw. Because many people are already claiming it didn’t happen.”
I met Daniel and Neria Sharabi, brothers who were at the Nova music festival when Hamas attacked. They immediately jumped into action, with medic training under their belts, and not only survived the attack, but saved about 100 people. These young men have started a non-profit to help other survivors, most urgently with mental health care. There are many people who survived the attack, but the Sharabi brothers have seen that this does not guarantee that they will stay alive for very long; the brothers shared with us that there are survivors who have attempted or committed suicide. I arranged for them to come speak to my group to share their story and how we can help. The feedback I received from my group members was overwhelming, some saying that hearing from the Sharabis was the most meaningful part of their trip.
All of us in the volunteer group were in our 20’s or 30’s, almost 100 people total. We talked about what it’s like at home, and mostly everyone had the same stories. The world is very bad right now for Jews. We did not feel safe in the various countries we came from and we shocked many Israelis when they learned that we felt much safer in Israel. Israelis used to seem so tough in a way that I thought Americans just can’t understand. But I understand it now. It’s the result of knowing that you are surrounded by people who hate seeing you alive.
Going back to Israel and being with all these other Jews from all over the world made it even clearer what Am Yisrael is. To me, it means the Nation is the People and the People are the Nation. We’re the same, we’re not different. The more hate crimes there are against Jewish people around the world, the stronger the Nation of Israel becomes. This is what I have seen with my own eyes.
Israel is still in need of volunteers on the ground for various assignments. These trips will be running at least through April. If you are interested, please contact us at email@example.com to inquire about volunteer opportunities.
From January 9th to 29th, my husband and I volunteered in Israel, driven by a heartfelt desire to actively engage in the Jewish narrative of resilience and unity after the challenging events of October 7. Our time at the moshav Bnei Netzarim became a meaningful endeavor, where we focused on tasks like planting tomatoes and harvesting broccoli. Volunteers from diverse corners of the world, ranging from South Africa to the Czech Republic and Hungary, joined us in this collective effort.
The moshav, still bearing the marks of a missile strike on one of its greenhouses, showcased the enduring spirit of the community. Despite the rebuilding progress, the insects and the lingering smell of rot served as stark reminders of the challenges the community faced. Our primary responsibility became not just about agricultural work but also the act of contributing to the community’s recovery.
Planting tomatoes and securing strings to guide vines upward represented more than a practical approach; it was a quiet determination to be a positive part of the ongoing Jewish story of resilience. Working alongside Thai workers in some greenhouses added layers of cultural exchange and camaraderie.
In addition to our agricultural endeavors, we seized the opportunity to uplift soldiers’ spirits. My husband’s guitar music and his family’s barbecue provided moments of joy for soldiers on leave. The trip, marked by its necessity, carried with it the hope that our next visit would be in a time of victory and peacetime. Am Israel Chai.
My recent visit to Israel was a whirlwind of emotions. As soon as I landed at Ben Gurion Airport and swiped my Israeli passport through the automated border control machine, I had a quick look down at the atrium below, which normally would be filled with travelers, but was now practically empty. I could already sense within moments that this would be a very different visit than usual.
Individual cut-out signs of the over 130 Israeli hostages still being held in captivity by Hamas in Gaza were displayed as I made my way down the walkway and out to the arrival hall. Before stepping onto the platform for the train to Jerusalem, I passed a large blue and white sign above the tracks that read B’yachad Nenatzeach – “Together we will win.” Beside me, two female soldiers in uniform chatted, each alternating back and forth between their phones, weapons slung over their shoulders. On the opposite end of the platform, a young man in civilian clothes sat, looking deep in contemplation, an M4 under his arm. Despite the immediate signs that I had arrived in an Israel that was at war, my overriding emotion was that at least I was finally back home.
My family and I had initially booked our tickets before October 7th. Ultimately, I decided to make the trip solo and felt that now more than ever it was important to see family and friends and show my own personal solidarity. Upon ascending the hills of Jerusalem and stepping out into the cool January air, any signs of fatigue from my travels immediately dissipated.
I spent the majority of my trip between Jerusalem and Holon, where my in-laws and most of my family are based. I also had the chance to make it to Tel Aviv to visit with friends. I caught up with old friends from the army and work, including those who have been serving in Miluim (army reserve duty) and had only recently and temporarily returned to their families. Having updated my status with the IDF pertaining to my own reserve service, we reminisced and shared updates about our lives, the unprecedented times we’re living through, and everything in between.
While in Tel Aviv, I had a chance to also meet up with Karen Amouyal, my colleague at ZOA Campus, who is our Social Media and Digital Content Coordinator, based in Israel. We caught up in Sarona Market where Karen shared with me about daily life in Israel over the past three months and the range of emotions felt every day. I was inspired by the volunteer work Karen had been doing in the community as well as with soldiers across the country. As I left a cafe in Tel Aviv to head back to Jerusalem and was on my way to one of the newly built light rail stations in the city, I spotted a large, illuminated sign which beamed Kulanu Am Echad – “We are all one people.” Despite the turbulent year, it resonated deeply with me as a reminder of what is truly binding us all together.
My trip wasn’t just a needed reunion with loved ones and friends, but a profound experience that left me in awe of the strength and resilience of the people of Israel and a reminder that we have no other Land and that united we will always persevere.
Sitting on an El Al plane waiting to take off, I realized that, for the first time on my many flights to Israel, I was happy to see not even one empty seat on the plane. Despite the fact that Israel is considered a war zone – in fact, because of it – the Jewish people are more motivated to travel to our beloved land than ever before.
I traveled to Israel to volunteer in patrol units around Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria and to visit several of the Jewish communities ZOA has provided with protective gear and equipment. After the October 7th massacre, volunteer community patrol units were established or expanded as Israelis realized the pressing need to be able to defend their own neighborhoods from attacks.
While visiting some of the communities ZOA has supported, I was humbled by the sheer number of volunteers who took it upon themselves to protect their neighborhoods, even late into the night. I watched some of these incredible citizens finish their patrol shift at 6:00 a.m. and head straight to work.
I had the honor, as sad as it was, to visit a shiva in the city of Efrat for a fallen IDF hero who was killed while fighting in Gaza. Efrat is over the “green line” and is typically considered a religious community, yet it brought me strength to see Israelis from all walks of life, secular and religious, politically on the right and left, come pay their respects to our fallen soldier and comfort the bereaved family.
The message I heard over and over during the course of my travels – from community members, soldiers and families in mourning – was a plea to continue, despite our differences, to find unity and persevere until a complete victory over Hamas.
I returned from my trip encouraged and inspired by the strength of the people of Israel. I am confident that despite the hard challenges the Jewish people currently face, with the help of God and the spirit of all those who represent the good in the world, we will win.