July 15, 2024
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How Five Days in Israel With Bnei Akiva Changed My Life

I recently returned from Bnei Akiva of the U.S. and Canada’s five-day volunteer Yad Achim youth mission to Israel, where I had the privilege of helping with the war efforts. We packed meals and necessities for soldiers, picked fields for farmers who are serving on the front lines, and most importantly we witnessed the resilience and unity of the Jewish people. It was an experience that changed my perspective on Oct. 7 and shaped my views on being part of something bigger than myself.

On Oct. 7, I was at my friend’s house in Teaneck celebrating Simchat Torah like many other teenagers. I wasn’t exactly sure what was going on, but heard various horrifying rumors about an attack in Israel. As soon as Simchat Torah ended, I saw brutal images circulating on social media of people running for shelter; men, women, and children being kidnapped; homes and villages being destroyed; and endless rockets falling on Israel. I was overwhelmed with emotions. I felt small and helpless with so many thoughts going through my mind. I also wanted to do anything and everything I could to help, but the tragedy was so big I didn’t even know where to start. I felt so far away, so disconnected and so useless, but I knew I couldn’t stand idly by.

I was overcome with feelings of hope and purpose when I received a text containing a screenshot of a flyer for a 12th grade and college-age student mission to Israel run by Bnei Akiva of the U.S. and Canada. Without hesitation, my parents signed me up for the mission aimed at giving and receiving chizuk while helping Am Yisrael in Eretz Yisrael. Three weeks later I found myself boarding a plane heading to Israel.

I had been to Israel a few times prior to this mission; however, this time, getting off the plane felt different. Walking through the airport seeing signs with the faces of hostages, driving on streets lined with “Am Yisrael Chai” billboards and light posts adorned with Israeli flags made it all feel even more real. Not only did I know I was home, but for the first time in my life I experienced the power of our nation in a whole new light — the strength and unity was palpable.

Immediately upon landing we were off on our first mission: strawberry picking. Next, we met chayalim who inspired us with their stories and their spirit even after spending weeks fighting in the treacherous conditions of Gaza. We went to Har Herzl where we met with the family of a chayal who fell in battle just a few weeks ago fighting for Am Yisrael in Gaza. We saw people going through real times of distress, but somehow finding a way to look happy and upbeat. Rather than seeking their own comfort, they ran to provide for others. Rather than sitting at home grieving, they are going out and speaking to the public and volunteering their time. The unity of Am Yisrael really is incredible to see and experience!

As the mission continued, we went on to pack 10,000 sandwiches for soldiers at an Aroma Espresso Bar in Beit Shemesh. This specific Aroma location has been converted from a restaurant to a packaging facility since Oct. 8 and is run by dedicated volunteers. These volunteers are regular Israeli citizens who use the little free time they have, either during their lunch break or right after work, to generously donate every moment they can to help others. While packing sandwiches, a chayal walked into Aroma and upon seeing what was going on in there, broke down in tears. He told us that the soldiers really appreciate when they can get fresh sandwiches and that this sense of unity is what keeps them going on the battlefield every day. Seeing the difference that our efforts were making for the people and soldiers of Israel was motivation to do more. Seeing people going to work every day, and the second they leave work, going straight to volunteer and contribute everything they can to Am Yisrael has been inspiring, to say the least. Whether it means digging their arms into a bucket of tuna or getting poked by thorns while picking fruit, they are always there, positive and smiling. They have shown me what it really means to be a part of the Jewish nation.

Later in the mission, we were interacting with the children from displaced communities near the Gaza Strip. These children have suffered tremendously from the war; losing their homes, their schools and their sense of security. On top of that, many of their fathers are now serving in IDF reserves. We had the privilege of bringing joy and hope to these children and showing them that they are not alone. We ran a carnival for them, which included a massive drum circle, popcorn machine, cotton candy, and danced with hopes of bringing happiness into their lives. On Friday night we ran a Snif (Bnei Akiva-led activities) followed by a kumzitz. We got to know the community and hear their stories. We tried giving them a glimpse of the lives they had just a few short weeks before.

Lastly, a very emotional part of our mission was paying a shiva call to a family whose son fell in battle. Their son sacrificed his life for the defense of Israel. We went to their house filled with hundreds of people who came to offer their condolences and support. We saw the influx of people who were there and once again we felt the sense of unity known as Am Yisrael. We heard the family speak about their son, his life, his dreams, his values. They did not ask for anything, except for us to be happy. They said that their son loved Israel and that he would want us to continue living in and loving the state of Israel. They showed us that despite their grief, they continue to be contributing members of Am Yisrael.

My mission to Israel was more than a trip. It shaped my views on being part of the greater Am Yisrael. I realized that I am not just a Jew in America, but a Jew in the world. I am part of Am Yisrael, a global family that is here to stay forever. It taught me that I really can make a difference for Klal Yisrael. This mission showed me the true purpose of our existence and what sets us apart from the other nations of the world.

I am grateful for the opportunity to make a small difference for our brothers and sisters in Israel and I hope to return soon. I encourage everyone who can to join a mission or to support Israel in any way possible to do so without hesitation. It will enrich your life and it will transform your soul.


Netanel Kalman, from Westchester County, is a senior at The Frisch School.

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