June 25, 2024
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Reflections on a Week in Israel

As I sit down on Erev Shabbat to reflect on my incredible experience of volunteering this past week in Israel, there are so many mixed emotions that come to the surface. The ceasefire started six hours ago and so far has held, and the first hostages are to be released in three hours. From the people I have spoken to and the op-ed pieces in the papers I have read, there are diametrically opposing feelings in the country. The mind knows we are making a deal with the most horrific devil, which will exploit this agreement to the fullest in their psychological and sadistic warfare. Yet the heart, the amazing compassionate Jewish heart, feels sorrow and empathy for the victims and their families because we are all family and everyone feels the pain. Israeli society has been down this road before and unfortunately, it has not always worked out well, yet Israelis persevere. We shall see how it works out this time and Hashem should grant the decision makers the wisdom and understanding to make the right decisions.

Four weeks ago during the third week of the war, my wife and I were zoche to come to Israel for a week and celebrate the bar mitzvah of our nephew Gil and to be here for the unveiling of our father and father-in-law, Robert Friedbauer, z”l. We brought with us 27 duffel bags for chayalim. We brought sniper helmets, thermal garments, special warm socks, medical equipment and supplies, tape, a bullet-proof vest and even a drone, just to name several of the items. It took almost four hours to get through customs, with two air raid sirens in the middle where everyone in the airport had to go to the safe room in the basement of Ben Gurion Airport.

Finally, we got through customs to meet the 12 different family members and friends who arranged to have the duffels we brought, which were prepared by the outstanding, dedicated group of volunteers from Bergen County for their children, nephews and nieces, as well as friends in units at the frontlines. They were so tense but super appreciative to have the supplies, which were immediately driven to the front line near Gaza. (This was all before our troops entered Gaza.) The only exception was the drone, which we brought with us to Jerusalem, and a paratrooper group came down from the North on a three-hour trip to personally pick it up. Once they secured the drone, they immediately turned around to get back to their unit. They did not even want to stop to be treated to dinner before their three-hour drive back. These were reservists who dropped everything going on in their lives, from London and Maryland, in order to come back to Israel and defend our homeland. Such mesirat nefesh!

The next day the commander called to thank us because the drone was incredibly helpful in their reconnaissance. We made a date once things would return to normal to have the dinner we promised them.

Last Thursday night I once again boarded a flight to Israel but this time I came with only three duffels packed to the gills with 50 survival blankets since I was landing so close to Shabbat. On the flight I met a gentile young man from North Carolina. He is a farmer who heard of the worker shortage the farmers in Israel are experiencing, so he decided to leave his wife and two young children to help gather the crops in Israel for a few weeks. I was blown away by this selfless act of kindness.

Tomer, the brother and cousin of the soldiers in the units in Gaza that were to receive the blankets, picked me up and brought me to my family in Chashmonaim. Tomer was released from the army in March and was itching to get back to his unit. Unfortunately, he was injured and could not return for combat but was doing everything he could to support the army. Confident in purpose, thankful for the support and totally positive in his outlook, Tomer kept repeating אנחנו ננצח –we will be victorious – which has become Israel’s slogan.

I had the privilege to volunteer at Dental Volunteers for Israel (DVI), a free dental clinic in Jerusalem that has been in existence for over 50 years. They serve underprivileged families, the elderly, Holocaust survivors and now the displaced families from the North and the South of Israel. The professional staff is wonderfully compassionate and dedicated, and they treat everyone with tremendous care. The patients are so thankful. I highly recommend volunteering for any dentist whois able to go. They will even give you an apartment for the week in the heart of Rechavia or Ramat Eshkol.

On two evenings, I joined the organization “Grilling for IDF” to supply a delicious barbecue for the chayalim at an air force base and a Duvdevan base, which they told me operates as real-life Fauda characters. Before we got to the air force base we had to meet in Reut, a beautiful suburb of Modiin. On the drive we had a deeply moving and emotional moment. Along the side of the road, stretching to what seemed to be over a mile, there were empty chairs, high chairs and cribs with pictures of all the captives. The lineup seemed endless. Tears swelled in my eyes when I saw a high chair with a stuffed elephant sitting in it and the placard of Kfir Bibas. Kfir was taken into captivity at the age of 9 months, so his placard had a cross through the 9 months and was updated to 10 months. I and some others couldn’t keep it together at that point.

After composing ourselves we drove on to meet a dedicated group of volunteers to load up the trucks and travel to the base.

It was such a privilege meeting the chayalim and chayalot who are so courageous and dedicated to defeating the enemy. These warriors were so thankful and humble, yet fully confident in their purpose and mission. I felt proud to be among them and it gave me pause to think of my father, Benjamin Leben, z”l. Eighty years ago he watched as members of his family and community were murdered mercilessly, unable to do anything about it. What a contrast to today where we have our homeland and brave soldiers to defend it with strength, morality and dignity. Hashem should continue to give them the strength and conviction to finish the job.

One afternoon I traveled with my mother-in-law, Maddy Friedbauer, to Sheba Medical Center in Tel Hashomer, Ramat Gan. My daughter-in-law’s cousin Elia was badly wounded by shrapnel in Gaza.He has undergone several difficult surgeries and is in need of more. We met his incredible wife Hadar, who is a pillar of strength and an absolute delight, along with other family members at Elia’s bedside. They were so positive, upbeat and inspiring, and beyond thankful that we came. We were directed to the rehabilitation center where other wounded chayalim were recovering. My mother-in-law had prepared packages and brought fruit from her garden to distribute to them. Unfortunately, the ten goodie bags were not nearly enough. We met soldiers in crutches and wheelchairs who were missing limbs or otherwise scarred by deformities, to name a few of the injuries, yet they were all so thankful and appreciative of the visit and show of support. What they loved to tears were the handwritten cards from young children that were addressed as” dear chayal” and expressed love and support for them and Israel.

Our most difficult time was paying a shiva call to a close family friend. Their daughter Naama was engaged to be married in several months to Captain Kfir Yitchak Franco, a brave tank commander who was killed in Gaza. Oceans and oceans of tears were shed for this most wonderful human being, brother, son, grandson and fiancé. A special tribute was written in the Jerusalem Post on Friday November 24th to Kfir. Even at this shiva house the mood was positive and the families were extremely thankful for the support given.

The pain being sustained by our brothers and sisters is incomprehensible, yet they remain strong and resolute. I understand that not everyone is able to visit Israel now. If you unable to, then I can’t stress enough how important it is get involved in communal projects to support Israel, dig deeper into your pockets to donate if possible, spend on businesses for Israelis, sensitize your children to realize how much the people in Israel are sacrificing and continue to daven for all our nation.

For those that are able to, I can’t sufficiently emphasize how valuable a visit to Israel now would be. I asked a friend who has three children and a son-in-law in the army, “Why are you thanking me for coming when you and your family are on the front lines of the war, possibly making the ultimate sacrifice?” She answered, ”We live here and have to get the job done but when we see people come voluntarily to help, it gives us chizuk and the feeling that we are not alone. Yes, you will feel appreciated and thanked for coming but truth be told, you will walk away inspired and awe struck by the focus on doing good, pure kindness, all with a sense of achdut, caring for one another and overall pride in our beloved Tzahal. You will walk away humbled by our nation’s greatness and receive far more chizuk than you could possibly imagine.

There are a myriad of volunteer opportunities to help fill the gigantic voids this war has placed on Israeli society. Agricultural workers, babysitters to give overwhelmed mothers a break, hair cutters, food packers, visitors to hospitals, drivers, distributors of food, assistance for the elderly and the lists go on and on. Many organizations have set up command centers to guide a visitor that wants to volunteer. The OU Israel Center is a good place to start.

My final thoughts are that I have been so lucky and privileged to meet and see in action our most magnificent nation. מי כעמך ישראל. I would be remiss if I did not thank my aishet chayil for all the encouragement and support to make this life-altering trip. ביחד ננצח!


Murray Leben lives in Teaneck and practices Dentistry in Bergenfield. He can be reached at [email protected] for comments or information on volunteering
opportunities in Israel.

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