July 25, 2024
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Midreshet Lindenbaum Overseas Students Take Chesed Experiences Home With Them

As Maya Ohrenstein gets ready for her freshman year of college at Washington University in St. Louis, she knows she will take her experiences from this past year at Midreshet Lindenbaum in Jerusalem with her. But aside from experiences in the beit midrash and with her peers and teachers there, she is taking with her all the days and hours she spent in local homes, helping the families of reserve soldiers. She babysat, washed dishes and did many other things to help mothers left alone with their children on the homefront.

“It was just truly about helping people with what they need,” said Ohrenstein, an SAR High School alumna from Riverdale, New York, who recently returned from Midreshet Lindenbaum, part of the Israel-based Ohr Torah Stone network of 32 educational and social action programs. “It could be something really simple. But I realized how such a small amount of help from me can make such an impact on people.”

Ohrenstein is not alone. Her classmates say they were equally changed by this year, and the impact their volunteer efforts during the war had on them and on others.

Beginning from the moment the war started, when hundreds of thousands of Israelis left home for reserve duty, and thousands of evacuees from the north and south poured into Jerusalem hotels, the women started volunteering. They opened day camps for children when schools were closed, then continued to run them in the afternoons when schools eventually opened again; they babysat, helped local children with homework after school, cooked and delivered hundreds of dinners, often including pizza for children and salads for mothers so everyone would be happy. They sent out craft kits for kids and organized carnivals around holidays and on days off of school.

“Starting October 8, it was all hands on deck,” said Ellie Weisberg, a graduate of Yeshiva Frisch from Teaneck, who will be a freshman at Stern College this fall after spending a year at Lindenbaum. “After we were given the information that Israel was at war, instead of freaking out and thinking about ourselves, the first thing everyone said was ‘OK, how do we help?’ That’s something truly special.”

In addition to the student-led midrasha-wide efforts, individuals like Weisberg started their own projects. “We decided one evening that we should open a soup kitchen,” she recalled. “We used our plug-in burners and toaster ovens,” and prepared meals for about 50 families. They delivered them, mostly to mothers whose husbands were away on reserve military duty, along with thank you notes expressing their gratitude to these families for the sacrifices they were making for the country. “It wasn’t just a war in Gaza; it’s a war on the homefront, too.”

The efforts had a huge impact on the local community. “I am so thankful for the incredible activities and boundless positive energy,” said Samantha Robinson, a local mother who took her children to a Chanukah crafting event at Midreshet Lindenbaum while her husband was away on reserve duty. “Families of reservists and evacuees are feeling the love, big time.”

Some mothers said they came to rely on the volunteers not just for practical help with food, laundry and babysitting, but also for their mental health.

After taking her four young children to the midrasha for activities on a Friday, another local mother, Ariel Markose, said it was “the best oxygen of my week. I’m home with four little kids, and most of the time I forget to eat or have coffee.”

Lindenbaum students also organized barbecues for soldiers and helped farmers with agricultural work, constantly updating their efforts as the needs on the homefront changed.

These efforts truly “are a part of defending Israel,” said Akiva Harris, who lives near Lindenbaum, after women from the midrasha stepped in to help his wife and kids at home when he was on reserve duty.

For the students, it was also moving to see how much Israelis do for their country.

“I got to know the community around me, saw the contributions and sacrifices that people were making,” Ohrenstein said. “It’s a difficult time for so many people, so really seeing their sacrifices was incredible.”

Weisberg said another realization she had during the year, especially as she did a lot of volunteer babysitting, was how much of an impact the war is having on kids. She recalls how one little boy, the son of a reserve soldier, showed her a book he made at school, and on which he had written, “For my abba. I love you so much, I can’t wait for you to come home.”

“A part of me was so sad,” Weisberg remembered. “And also so proud. It helped me realize really what we are fighting for.”

Weisberg and Ohrenstein said these memories and experiences will always stay with them, and they hope to spread the values they learned in Israel on their campuses and in their communities.

“This year has really inspired me to look at how you can help other people no matter what the circumstances, and no matter what’s going on in your life,” Ohrenstein said. “I really want to take this attitude with me into college and hopefully into the rest of my life.”

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