A Trip of Solidarity and Volunteerism
I spent the last 6 days on a trip of a lifetime – I went to Israel less than 60 days into an ongoing war to show solidarity and volunteer.
Just 60 days into an ongoing conflict, my decision to go was not an easy one. As the President of Diaz Trade Law, a wife, and a mother, numerous considerations came into play. Yet, an innate yearning from within insisted that this wasn’t a mere possibility; it was an imperative.
On October 7, 2023, I was home in Miami, Florida, watching the horrifying news across my screen, crying in disbelief. As a proud Jewish woman, I had to do something after the brutal Hamas terrorist government sent thousands to brutally murder 1200 Jews (slaughtering even babies)! Hamas terrorized Israel – raping women and kidnapping 240 women, children, and even babies – Geneva Convention be dammed. Ever since that dreadful day, I was glued to my phone. The news was inundating my life. I was consumed by it. My life, work, and my entire being felt superfluous to what was going on in Israel. I’ve been to Israel 4 times prior, and it was and will always be my homeland.
A Call to Serve
One of those four trips was with JLI (Jewish Leadership Institute) while I was in law school – it was trip #3 to Israel for me. The minute the JLI director said he was putting together an alumni volunteer trip to Israel, my soul called out, and I knew I had to be there.
The minute I decided to go on this trip, I was consumed by making my participation in the trip as meaningful as possible. I asked my daughter’s school to ask all students to write letters to and make drawings for soldiers. I asked everyone I could think of what volunteer opportunities existed, and I started an excel spreadsheet of organizations in the US and an on-the-ground in Israel that needed volunteers. We found out the supplies needed that we could actually bring with us (my export control side was ensuring we stayed in EAR99 land). I sourced the supplies, shipped them to my home, packed them (with help from my group and husband), and helped ensure they got to Israel. I wanted to make sure every minute on the ground in Israel counted. When we weren’t volunteering, we were supporting the Israeli economy, which is currently at a complete standstill from the demise of tourism during the war. Businesses that were always booming were now clearly suffering.
Israel called up 360,000 reservists, and in the most amazing show of country pride, they showed up and put their lives on the line in the grave effort to defeat terror. That means 360,000 people put their lives and businesses on hold.
We were a total of 15. One armed security guard, one tour guide, the JLI director, the JLI on-the-ground organizer, and 11 more of us who left everything in the US for a week to do our part in Israel. Interestingly, 3/11 of us are Attorneys.
Day 1 – A Day of Purpose: Volunteering on an Israeli Citrus Farm
Harvesting Humanity: Picking Oranges with Purpose
The minute our plane landed (lucky for us, we had an 11-hour direct flight), we cleared Israeli customs (there was talk of getting the Israeli Health Ministry involved to approve the importation of our humanitarian aid, but, thankfully, we cleared) and headed straight to volunteer on a citrus farm Gan Shlomo, in Machsan Chaluka Hatov VeHametiv picking oranges. We filled two extra-large baskets worth. The most amazing part about the farm we were on is all the fruit is always donated to the Israeli people – even when it isn’t a time of war. We were fortunate to meet the patent attorney who owns a portion of the land; this is his way of giving back. Amazing humanity. Now, the dilemma was getting the volunteers to pick the fruit. There was a ton of fruit on the floor as it wasn’t being picked timely, so we were happy to be of help. We learned how to pick citrus – I had no clue you should twist and pull to not rip off the outer shell of the fruit, but after doing so incorrectly 20 times, I finally learned. I picked at least 10 buckets worth of fruit and put them into the huge baskets. I picked the fruit short people could get to – squatted and sat on the floor. Got dirty. Thought of nothing more than picking all the fruit diligently and trying not to waste it by breaking the outer shell. We know the fruit was delivered to both soldiers and families in need.
Moments of Reflection: The Empty Kotel and Desolate Ben Yehuda Street
We had a quick boxed lunch and set off for the Kotel (the Temple Mount, which is the holiest place in the world for the Jewish people) for some much-needed prayers. The Kotel was depressing and encouraging at the same time. It’s typically packed – it was empty, except for the encouraging school children there with a singer exhibiting country pride. They sang many songs together and brought life to the otherwise empty Kotel.
We then had a couple of hours before dinner and our evening program, so I set out with another participant to Ben Yehuda Street. From my last recollection (many, many years ago), this was the happening street, filled with stores, shops, restaurants, bars, etc. It was desolate. At each shop we went into, we spoke with the shop owners. They were discouraged, to say the least, and many of them were so grateful for our presence. The haggling I was used to was out the window. They were desperate for business, and I was there to help. I bought as many Israeli-made products as I could from each vendor and listened to their stories about their kids being called to war and not having help in their stores and no tourists to speak of. Tourism and agriculture are the two biggest drivers of economic activity in Israel, so this was heartbreaking to see while simultaneously being hopeful that more volunteers like us would step up to fill the void in this unprecedented time.
We had our evening program on Why Are We Here. No, Really, Why? We shared our individual feelings on why this trip was essential for us, and after an exhausting day – we went to our respective rooms. I haven’t had a roommate since college (not counting my husband). I now had a roommate and no AC. Thankfully, I was exhausted and passed out.
Day 2 – Packaging Hope for the Frontlines
This was, by far, my favorite and most impactful day. We started packaging food for soldiers and displaced people at a Chabad that has recently lost 5 members of the community.
Ten O’clock Breakfast Project: Honoring the Memory of Sergeant Liel Godani
They shared a story about one of their losses. Sergeant Liel Godani was always smiling, asking his mother to make 5 sandwiches a day when he was at school. After finally pressing him on it, his mother learned the extra food was really for his classmates who wouldn’t eat otherwise. He was tragically killed in the Oct 7 war, and his parents started the Ten O’clock Breakfast Project in memory of First Sergeant Liel Gidoni z”l to ensure students (and soldiers) are always fed. They gave as many as 35k sandwiches a day at the height of the war to soldiers in the assembly areas and remote outposts, the residents of the south who were evacuated and those still in shelters, to Magen David Adom and ZAKA volunteers who spent days and nights in the field, to the wounded still in hospitals and their families. The average cost of a sandwich is 4 NIS (=1$), and all donations received go entirely to purchase the ingredients, an incredibly worthwhile cause.
It was difficult to leave the sandwich-making and packing project, but we were going straight to an army base thereafter to hand deliver the cards and drawings from both my kiddos’ school and another participant kiddo school – and we were told how meaningful this would be for both of us so I was excited about that.
Bringing Joy to Army Bases: Filling Break Rooms with Love and Support
As soon as we got to the army base, we met up with a volunteer who coordinated the day. These are the people within Israel that just rock your world. This person owns a business and is putting that to the side to help. He’s met various commanders, finds out what they specifically need on their respective bases, gets the supplies along with amazing meals, and goes to army bases daily. And to top it off, he self-funds a lot of this, except for today – JLI proudly funded the meal today. I was unpacking the supplies and artwork and immediately met a soldier who showed me their break room. It had a few drawings and a lot of empty wall space. I asked if it was more meaningful for us to fill up the walls or individually provide each soldier a drawing – he insisted this particular break room was the perfect place for the drawings and letters as this is where they took much-needed pauses and really appreciated the support and encouragement. We spent the next 45 minutes covering all of the walls. We worked as a team and had just about 4 walls covered. It turned into such a beautiful, happy room filled with love and support. We told him all of the drawings and letters were from kids as young as 3 and as old as 12 and all from the USA wishing and praying for soldiers. Our hearts were all bonded with Israel, and we wanted the soldiers to feel it too.
We then took a tour of the base (which I can’t and won’t divulge anything about).
We got back to the hotel, had limited free time, and used it to shop for locally made goods and interact with locals. Specifically, I was happy my interaction with a Facebook group where volunteers seek specific opportunities panned out, and after our group discussion, we were going to meet Leah Zakh Aharoni, Executive Director of Our People (an organization that assists Russian people specifically in moving to Israel – making Aliab) to help her.
Where Israel is Now. What the Future Holds.
Our night program was led by Herb Keinon on Where Israel is Now. What the Future Holds. Unfortunately, in my perspective, it was a bleak one. We very much wanted to hear a specific plan of action while we were there. We wanted an end date to the war and to the return of the defenseless hostages. We discussed the state of Israeli politics prior to October 7 and further learned of the divisions inside of Israel that were leading to a civil war – which was, of course, the best time to attack – when our people were divided. We also discussed the resilience of the Israeli people. The attitude of the Israeli people is “First you deal with life; then you deal with quality of life”. We discussed the gut-wrenching anti-Semitism we’re seeing in the US – especially on college campuses. I wish we had more solutions – we discussed not letting it go and speaking up more in the face of anti-Semitism – although my personal belief is it runs deeper than this. My few words won’t impact or change someone’s mind who is a Hamas supporter or sympathizer. How do I specifically get someone to understand Hamas was VOTED into power and governs by using civilians – their own people as human shields? They operate military operations out of hospitals with no regard for human life. They brutally put a baby in an oven. They kidnapped and raped numerous women and beheaded and mutilated many just for being Jewish. This was as premeditated an attack as possible. If Hamas isn’t eliminated, this will recur. Israel wholly has the right to exist, and to do so, it MUST defend itself. Israel does not look to injure civilians – Hamas does. Who else provides a warning to leave an area PRIOR to attacking it? The fact that Hamas specifically stops civilians from leaving and wants to utilize them as shields should be repugnant to the world. I have zero understanding of why it isn’t. I don’t get why the world isn’t united to denounce Hamas as a terrorist organization and call the October 7th attack on Israel a brutal terrorist attack.
Spreading Chanukah Cheer: Gift-Giving for Displaced Children
After the discussion, we met with Leah at the Our People office and helped her put together Chanukah presents for displaced children living in hotels. I wanted to get something additional for each of them and was on a mission. I found dreidels that light up when they spin and was hopeful that kiddos would find them amusing and got them while on the earlier break in the day. We packaged presents with a nice toy for each and multiple dreidels and stickers, and each hand-wrote letters of support and encouragement to the children who would receive them. But for these presents, these children would likely not have anything to celebrate Chanukah.
It was a meaningful day. That evening, a few of us walked to Ben Yehuda and saw the emptiness of the stores that were typically open until midnight but were now closed at 9 pm. Bars that were packed had handfuls of people.
Day 3 – Stories of Loss and Resilience
Sleeping while in Israel wasn’t easy to do. So much weighed on my mind. In Israel, we got to see what life is really like for the Israeli people. We’re staying in a hotel with somewhere around 200 displaced family members from the Lebanon border. It’s chaos, and the hotel heavily subsidizes the rooms and food for families. Picture families with 3+ kiddos all running the hotel. Kids were everywhere. Rollerblading in the hotel. Running in the hallways. Screaming in the lobby. This was their home. I keep thinking – how long can this actually go on? Elevator buttons are consistently all pressed, elevators are broken routinely, and air conditioning isn’t turned on as the expense is too much to bear.
Life in Israel Post War
We started our day with a short talk led by the JLI staffer living in Israel. She hadn’t left her home since the war began and had a local community member assisting her disabled husband when a siren went off, and it took them longer than required to get to the bomb shelter. The woman assisting her husband died while her disabled husband (with the wife’s help) made it to the shelter on time. The JLI staffer was in an area with constant sirens and it wasn’t worth the risk to be outside to consistently have to seek shelter. She was surprised a JLI group was actually going to Israel at a time of war, and this motivated her to finally leave her house.
Serving the Community: Packaging Meals for Elder Ethiopian Families
We went to Pantry Packers where they feed so much of Israel. They provide both cards to purchase food and the food itself. We were there specifically packaging a customized meal for elder Ethiopian families. My group packaged their coffee. We had plastic bags with specific stickers advising what the bag contained, and on the other side, it said proudly packed by JLI, and we stamped the expiration date. I helped fill the machine with coffee beans and get additional beans from the stock room to fill the bin. We then filled the beans in the bag, sealed the bag, and checked our work along the way. It was an impressive operation with stations and multiple machines. They were able to get a lot done to feed their community.
We had a short lunch and went to the Friends of Zion museum, highlighting efforts the Christian community made in assisting the Jewish people during WW2 and the establishment of Israel.
Surviving Tragedy: The Harrowing Tale of Chen Kotler and the Attack on Kfar Azza Kibbutz
Perhaps one of the most insightful and heartbreaking stories we heard from was back at the hotel from Chen Kotler, who was from the Kfar Azza kibbutz, which sits on the Gaza border and was infiltrated on October 7. She was on vacation on October 7 while 62 of her kibbutz members were slaughtered and many kidnapped. In any kibbutz, the community is incredibly tight-knit; they were no exception. Her sisters, father, and friends all lived there. Her childhood was spent going to the beach in Gaza prior to access being shut off. She considered the children in Gaza her neighbors and friends. On Oct 7, the barbed wire electric gate that separated Gaza from her kibbutz was meticulously broken down, and hundreds of Hamas terrorists broke into her kibbutz with one mission – to kill and kidnap as many Jewish people as possible, women, men, children, elderly – there were no exceptions. Her vacation stopped, and for the next 48 hours, she was a virtual command center for her community. She coordinated with police, IDF, and her community to attempt to get help. She still hasn’t been able to process her loss. The community has about 1200 people in it. They lost about 5% of it in a day. Some of the hostages kidnapped have still not been returned (hence the vast efforts by Bring Them Home Now). One hostage kidnapped was a 40-year-old attorney; the video of her being kidnapped went viral. She was ferociously fighting 7 terrorists who beat her and carried her to Gaza. She was one of the few returned – alive, but in what condition and how will she have any semblance of a normal life after this?
We got to hear Chen recounting the horrific stories of the days that followed, including what seemed like 100 pages of printed WhatsApp messages of her community begging for help before some were brutally slaughtered. She showed us images of her amazing community before and the destruction that followed after. Burnt houses and bullets everywhere. It will be a massive undertaking to rebuild her community. Ultimately – she wants to return to it. As you can imagine, many, including her own father, won’t return to the place where they lost so many friends and loved ones.
That evening after dinner, we heard from Arye ben David on A Mystical Approach to the Jewish People. We discussed the Jewish people’s deep love for Israel despite the internal turmoil that made it easier to attack. The war brought the Jewish community closer with a shared focus on survival. Throughout the week, we discussed what a post-war Israel would look like, and there is much speculation and much to be revealed in this regard.
A group of us decided to go to the Kotel one last time. We each prayed and enjoyed being able to be at the holiest place on earth for us. I called my daughter and showed her the Kotel. She asked me when she was going to Israel – such a smart 3-year-old. As a parent, that’s a gut-wrenching question. Of course, I want to show my daughter Israel. When is it ok for me to do so? When the war is over? There have unfortunately always been attacks on Israel – never of the Oct 7 magnitude, but when is it safe enough for me to bring my baby girl? I want to stress that we never heard a siren going off. We were fortunate, we never heard a rocket attack while in Jerusalem. But when will the tourists feel it’s safe to return to Israel? I hope soon.
We needed a pick me up and were on a quest for ice cream – but it was about 10pm at this time, and most of Israel was closed down. 8 stores later, we finally found one right before they were turning off the lights, and they helped us. It was a nice ending to the day.
Day 4 – Shining Light in Darkness
Ammunition Hill: Honoring Heroes and Remembering Sacrifices
We started the day on Ammunition Hill and were told we were only the 2nd group of visitors since the war began. The Hill was used for displaced persons post-war, and mostly Israelis were visiting. While we were there, there were two groups: one was a group of soldiers who were in a history unit of the army, and the second was a group of Israeli students studying for the year between high school and college.
Ammunition Hill was quite meaningful. We walked through the trenches; we stood where the war was fought, and we saw the incredible humanity Israeli soldiers showed the Jordanian soldiers who perished when the Israeli soldiers gave them the humanity I’ve never heard another military providing by giving them a graveside stating “buried here are 17 brave Jordanian soldiers”. We heard more about the individual soldiers who were a part of the 6-day war that led Israel to reclaim the Temple Mount/Kotel. We got to see the Israeli flag that was put on the Temple Mount and see the display of the paratrooper who made that happen.
Crafting Tzitzit: A Symbol of Protection for Brave Soldiers
We then learned how to make Tzitzit (literally means fringes, referring to the strings on a Jewish prayer shawl as well as a garment men wear under their shirts) for soldiers who were begging for their protective armor. A group of us separated the strings, short and long, grouped 3 short strings with one long string, and put a very specific tie on them to make them easy for the next group to open and place on the shirt in a very specific knot form. Each organization was magnificent. This one had a private donation of 1.5M and used it for gear, clothing, Tzitzit, anything the army needed and similar to most communities – it had brave soldiers lost in this horrific war.
Honoring First Class (res.) Ben Zussman: A Shiva Visit and Unforgettable Memorial
We then went to pay our respects at a shiva for First Class (res.) Ben Zussman. His mother gave an unforgettable memorial speech the Jerusalem Post published. Their home was warm and inviting despite their obviously grieving. The mother is an amazing artist with rainbows on everything, expressing joy and happiness. It looked like such a warm and loving house. We were so sorry for their tremendous loss and wanted to bring a sense of the world standing with them.
Exploring the Shuk: A Vibrant Visit During Chanukah Preparations
We then had a break and went to the Shuk – I didn’t realize this was the new happening location. This was vibrant. The stores were all open (it was daytime), and despite it being slower without tourists, the locals were definitely out and supporting the local businesses. It was just about the first night of Chanukah – many had to purchase their last-minute supplies for their family dinners.
Chanukah Amidst Silence
Our hotel-displaced community led a candle-lighting ceremony for the first night of Chanukah. It is customary to light candles by a window so the world can see their beauty. They lit the menorah outside, said the customary prayers, and sang songs.
We then walked around the local community, which was typically all outside and vibrant, but not tonight. Most stayed indoors. It was a quiet Chanukah. The beauty of the light menorahs was there, but the spirit and liveliness were missing. It was a Chanukah unlike others – the war was felt.
We finished packing and headed on our 17-hour journey home. What a week.
To those who want to support worthwhile organizations making a difference, please consider the following: