April 8, 2024
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Luggage4Israel Meets the Needs of Displaced Families and Chayalim

Sol Itzkowitz and Fran Berg at the Luggage4Israel dropoff and processing center in Hackensack.

“In the wake of the harrowing October 7 atrocity, many people in the community were compelled to act in any way they could,” related Fran Berg, coordinator of ‘Luggage4Israel.’ But it’s not just about luggage. Berg shared that initially the project had its roots at the Care One nursing facility, packing donated essential items into boxes destined for hotels in Israel where thousands of displaced families were temporarily living. “As an Israeli with my roots and family deeply entrenched in Israel, the events of October 7 struck a particularly urgent chord within me.”

“At first,” she said, “[at] Care One the operation quickly grew, with more volunteers offering their time and resources.” But soon the airlines began to crack down on the volume of freight being shipped via pallets, and the process morphed into packing duffle bags to be taken by travelers to Israel as additional baggage. Despite the $110 extra baggage fee, some covered it themselves unless it was approved at the airport as a “donation bag,” reducing the fee to $50. Berg noted amazingly but not surprisingly that the fees for those unable to pay are covered by other donors. Each traveler gets a clearance letter for customs at the airport in Israel as a backup, should the need arise.

Berg’s friend Yael Schwartz lives near the hotel strip in Jerusalem. “She shared stories about the tough and uncomfortable living conditions of the displaced families. Despite living in hotels, they were in dire need of basic essential items, clothing and shoes. We began sending duffle bags equally to chayalim and to the displaced families, and ‘Luggage4Israel’ was born,” continuing to dispense supplies to the chayalim and to the hotels.

“The bags-to-hotels operation soon faced challenges in coordination due to the diverse requirements of each hotel…and the needs of families residing in these hotels. I devised a strategy to establish specific routes tailored for each hotel. This entailed an open line of communication with representatives at each of the hotels to ensure airport pickup and delivery of the duffle bags to their destinations.”

Miri Lavie, a friend and volunteer in Jerusalem, employed her extensive and invaluable network among local hotel representatives, facilitating introductions and establishing the vital connections that could ensure that all hotel sources were legitimate.

By the beginning of December, said Berg, they outgrew the space at Care One. They were fortunate to find a generous businessman who allowed them to use some of his commercial space in Hackensack free of charge, as a donation drop-off and packing center for Luggage4Israel.

Berg explained, “We developed a WhatsApp group of 600, a dynamic hub where we articulate our needs, from specific items to logistical support; and potential volunteers message us in private. We’ve been blown away by how quickly and how generously people in the community responded and pledged to help with whatever we asked for. In one instance following a request from a specific unit, we asked for 300 pairs of socks and it was covered in under an hour. In another case, we requested 100 head lamps for the chayalim; it was covered within minutes. The efficiency and eagerness to help are such that we often find ourselves in the unique position of having to politely decline offers.”

To further assist the volunteers, they established an online registry. “This platform is a real-time reflection of our current needs, allowing volunteers to stay informed with what is required at any given moment.” Berg said they are also working on a basic website which will include a comprehensive FAQ page.

Berg noted that countless volunteers offer their time with packing duffle bags daily. However, the center is open for donation drop-offs on Mondays and Thursdays from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. to ensure that she will be there during drop-offs.

Luggage4Israel requires a huge network of volunteers to cover every aspect of the operation.

“We receive calls and texts daily from people traveling to Israel who are happy to take a bag or multiple bags. Sometimes, they pick them up from our service center, and sometimes our amazing volunteer drivers deliver the bags to their home or meet them at the airport to hand off the bags, while other volunteers drive donated items to our service center. More than once, we were close to giving up hope for the day as we couldn’t find anyone traveling to Israel and willing to take bags with them. Then out of the blue, someone contacted us that they knew someone who was traveling. In these moments, in every turn of events and every timely intervention, we can’t help but feel the guiding hand of Hashem in our endeavors. It is a reminder that in our mission, we are not alone; that there is a greater force at work, aligning stars and orchestrating events to ensure that our efforts bear fruit. This sense of divine presence and support is what keeps us moving forward, fueling our commitment with renewed faith and purpose.”

Some volunteers help by contacting local store owners for overstock of clothing and shoes inventory, which are gladly accepted. One volunteer took upon herself to reach out to stores in the tristate area by calling, emailing or even walking into stores and asking them if they could donate clearance or sale items. She has been getting very positive feedback, and they are in the process of reaching out to wholesale and retail stores to grow this avenue of supply.

For a while there were mixed reports about what was needed and which IDF units needed certain items. Plus, people want transparency and assurance that their “shaliach” for tzedaka or donations actually delivers to the recipients in need.

Berg continued, “As soon as the items reach their destination in Israel, we update our inventory lists and address further requests from the hotels. In some cases, we already have the requested items in inventory, while in other cases, we send out the requests on our WhatsApp group and on our social media channels. On the chayalim side, we communicate with Nechama Laurie, our representative in Israel who ensures the accuracy and legitimacy of the requests, and oversees and confirms the delivery of the bags to their targeted destinations. We receive daily pictures and videos from those chayalim holding the donated items and thanking us for our work.

On the hotels end, we are in contact with the representatives of each of the hotels to ensure accurate and complete delivery of the bags. We consistently receive heartwarming pictures and videos from those family members holding the donated items and thanking us for our work and support, bearing testament to the impact of our efforts. The smiles, the joy and the appreciation evident in these visual thank you notes serve as a powerful reminder of the difference we make, and fuel our passion to continue our journey of support and generosity.

“A notable aspect of our operation is the collaboration between hotels. If one hotel finds itself unable to utilize certain items, it can conveniently exchange or swap them with other hotels in our network, significantly enhancing the efficiency and impact of the operation.

“I’d like to extend a heartfelt thank you to Mr. Sol Itzkowitz, the leader of the local Bergen County Chaverim. His contribution has been pivotal to the success of this operation,” Berg shared, as Chaverim was instrumental in launching the organization. “He has been, and continues to be, a reliable pillar of expertise and support.

“Thank you to Sarit Hirshkorn for helping us set up our packing and drop-off center in Hackensack, and to Doron Hait for connecting us with Sarit Hirshkorn! Last but not least, thank you to Jack Forgash at ‘Just One Life’ for helping with the supply of packages for new moms.”

Luggage4Israel is in the process of becoming a registered non-profit organization with tax exempt status so that people can donate safely and effectively, with the option of tax exemption status.

To find out how you can volunteer or donate funds or goods, email [email protected]

The location to drop off donations is 1 University Plaza, Suite 117 in Hackensack.

To donate, please Venmo  @Luggage4israel

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