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Boots for Israel: Protecting Soles

(l-r) Lara Szlamkowicz, Lisa Salamanov and Michal Wachstock at Boots Warehouse in Israel.

When details of the tragic Oct. 7 massacre came to light, people all over the world mobilized to find ways to help people in Israel. Lara Szlamkowicz noticed multiple missed calls from her sister Lisa Salamanov, who lives in Israel, on that day. She soon found out that Salamanov’s nephew was on the front lines.

It was quickly clear to Szlamkowicz that boots would be a critical necessity for IDF soldiers. Her grandfather, a veteran of World War II, had stressed the crucial role of quality boots for soldiers and this echoed in her mind. On the heels of adversity and with the fusion of other groups also sending boots to IDF soldiers, the sisters’ connection toward “Boots for Israel” was born. And 20,000 pairs of boots later, it has since grown tremendously.

Thinking this would be a one-and-done situation, Szlamkowicz immediately gathered boots, successfully connected with someone from El Al, and sent them off at JFK. “Since this worked so well, I knew we could do more,” Szlamkowicz recalled.

Committed to continuing this chesed, Szlamkowicz started by taking boot orders and reached out to a friend who generously donated funds. This enabled the purchase of boots for two full IDF units. The demand for boots was overwhelming and as orders outpaced raised funds, she connected and worked with distributors to offer affordable prices. Family members, friends and other like-minded individuals joined the cause, creating a network of support.

(l-r) Donny Knoll, Vered Fuegel (El Al station manager) and Lara Szlamkowicz with duffles full of boots.

 

What began as a personal effort to collect and send boots soon transformed into a full-fledged operation. Szlamkowicz started connecting with other “big-sending” groups also dedicated to sending boots to IDF soldiers. She, along with Salamonov, connected with siblings-in-law Yakir and Michal Wachstock, who had already been shipping and delivering boots to soldiers. Yakir’s community volunteers from the Young Israel of Holliswood in Queens Village had access to Avi Shakarov’s warehouse full of boots on Long Island, where they work daily to pack boots and send them on El Al flights.

The Boots for Israel team coordinates with various entities, including JFK, Newark and Ben Gurion airports, and local shuls. They have efficiently devised a system to transport the boots through volunteers. Morris Moving, led by Jacob Morris and dispatcher Frank Dammacco, now play a pivotal role in ensuring smooth operations and unwavering support. They ensure that hundreds of bags of boots are safely transported from warehouse to airport every week.

B’Lev Echad of Bergen County, represented by Donny Knoll, also sends hundreds of bags a week from Newark and has become a partner in sending. Knoll and Szlamkowicz can be found most mornings at Newark Airport with their various volunteers, unloading, tagging and getting bags onto the flights. Their collaboration with each other and fellow groups exemplifies the unity within the community, with volunteers who are going above and beyond to contribute their time and effort. Szlamkowicz is particularly comforted by the shared commitment of the diverse group of individuals involved, regardless of Jewish observance. “We must remember this moment. It doesn’t matter what our hashkafa is; we just need to be united. It’s a very special thing, and we must remember this unity.”

And it’s clear that it takes a full team from ordering boots to placing them on soldiers’ feet. The luxury of wearing shoes and going barefoot is something most people might take for granted and soldiers cannot. “Sometimes they don’t take their shoes off for weeks at a time, and you can see that their feet are bleeding and bloating,” noted Szlamkowicz. “Their boots are almost as important as their guns. If they can’t walk, they can’t win.”

The community is catching on in the form of packing events, a singles event organized by Yakir, and a bat mitzvah project all dedicated to the cause. Outreach efforts have extended to a local shul whose main chesed initiative is now devoted to helping Boots for Israel. Just last Sunday, volunteers at Great Neck Synagogue packed 6,000 pairs of boots.

People often notice moments that validate why they are doing what they do. Szlamkowicz was moved by a serendipitous moment of hashgacha pratit (divine providence). A lone soldier was leaving New York to head back to Israel and asked if she had an extra pair of boots. It just so happened that she had a bag labeled “extras” and the first pair that she pulled out was his size. Her neighbor happened to be driving through his town and was able to drop them off in time.

Lara Szlamkowicz

“I’m speechless sometimes,” said Szlamkowicz, “and just feel like we’re meant to be doing this. I feel very blessed to have this opportunity.”

The procurement of comfortable, protective boots prove to be invaluable for soldiers facing challenging conditions. The testimonies reflect deep appreciation for the collective effort behind Boots for Israel, emphasizing the importance of every contribution, from fundraising to logistics. The lone soldier sent Szlamkowicz a thank you, including that “The quality is fantastic! So much is needed — from vests to other gear — to keep us safe, and this could be the difference between life, serious injury or anything else.”

Szlamkowicz is personally inspired by family. “Through helping others, I can’t help but feel like I’m even more deeply connected to my grandparents, who survived the Holocaust.” Boots for Israel is not just about providing boots. It’s a symbol of unity, compassion and collective strength within the Jewish community. It stands as a testament to the transformative power of individuals coming together for a common purpose.

For more information or to get involved, contact [email protected] or thechesedfund.com/bootsontheground/bootsforisrael.


Chaya Glaser is a staff writer at The Jewish Link.

 

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