In the last four weeks, the Atlanta Jewish community has held rallies in support of Israel and to draw attention to the more than 200 hostages kidnapped into Gaza after the heinous Hamas attack on Israel on Oct. 7. Many in the community, however, now plan to show their support more actively.
Some have been feverishly packaging supplies to send to Israeli soldiers or creating cards to send to Israeli children who survived the attacks on their communities near the Gaza border or they are donating money to help Israelis rebuild their lives. Now, groups are going to Israel to volunteer in any way they can, whether it is to harvest crops, volunteer on army bases or cheer up children.
No one argues that the need is great. Even as rockets propelled from Gaza continue to set off sirens around Israel, the country is still shaken by the early October attack that killed 1,400 attending an outdoor music festival or sleeping in their beds in communities along the Gaza border. Families have not heard from those taken hostage in Gaza that Israel is now attacking to rid the territory of the Hamas leaders and infrastructure. Some 200,000 Israelis have been evacuated from areas near Gaza as well as from the north near Lebanon.
The country is clearly traumatized and American Jews want to help.
On Nov. 12, Cheri Scheff Levitan, the Atlanta-based CEO of Israeli company Kenes Tours, will join a group of a couple dozen American Jews for a very short trip to Israel in a new kind of solidarity mission focused on volunteering in Israel. Already, other Atlanta Jews are signing up for similar trips organized by the Jewish National Fund in the following months.
Levitan is actually joining a group of about 20 that will be led by her younger brother, Rabbi Craig Scheff, of Orangetown Jewish Center in Rockland County, N.Y. His synagogue has been taking short solidarity trips to Israel every year – except once during the COVID pandemic – since 2006. That year, Israel was at war with Lebanon. Scheff said he stood up on the High Holidays that year and announced his idea for a volunteerism trip and “immediately 15 people signed up. We spent four days spackling and painting over bullet holes” in buildings in Kiryat Shimona, he recalled.
Every year since, “we have found organizations to put us to work. Many of our congregants go year after year, some for 15 years,” Scheff said.
These are not tourism trips; no sightseeing is involved. Participants go to Israel to work. And right now, there’s a huge need in Israel, with some 300,000 soldiers called up for duty, meaning they leave their farms and other jobs to serve in the Israel Defense Forces.
“We had this mission already planned,” said Scheff, but when the war broke out, flights were canceled and “we had to pivot.” Now, he said, “if the gates are open, we’re going.” He emphasized that the group will not “be a burden to Israel, or get in the way, but will be put to work. We’re not going to see destroyed kibbutzim nor to witness, but to contribute to the country.” The group will be on the ground for only four days.
Kenes Tours, which is facilitating the solidarity missions, including Scheff’s, stated that its missions “will boost morale, help build resilience, increase understanding of what has and is taking place in Israel, and will further strengthen the ties that bind us together.”
According to Deena Shiff, chief of staff of JNF in New York, her organization plans to run two volunteer missions per month to Israel, starting Dec. 10, and through March.
Former Atlantans Lauren and Tim Mescon, now living in Savannah, are going on that first trip. Longtime JNF volunteer Lauren Mescon said that they “were supposed to be on a mission with JNF on Oct. 14. We were too shocked to insist on going then, but we are thrilled to be able to go now to help.”
Within hours of participating in an early November JNF update call, Atlantan Robyn Bernstein also jumped at the opportunity. “I spoke with my husband and said I need to do this. He said he understood, and I signed up.”
To be eligible for the JNF volunteer missions, applicants must be at least 18 years old and “must be able to perform four to six hours of physical work a day.” Participants will perform community service which could include cooking, doing laundry, cleaning, or assisting with daycare. The work might include picking crops or volunteering on army bases.
Security for the mission participants is, of course, included. Israel continues to be threatened by Hamas in the south, Hezbollah in the north and an occasional missile sent from the Houthis in the southwest. Scheff is well aware of the risks. “I don’t sleep a lot,” he admitted about a week before his group leaves for Israel. “It’s a responsibility I take very seriously, holding people’s lives in your hands.”