Our Ramah Solidarity and Service Mission to Israel

Adam Leibowitz1.25.24
It is hard to put into words the experience my family and I had on the Ramah Solidarity and Service Mission to Israel from January 11–15. But I will try and recap as much as possible to give you a sense of what is happening on the ground.

On Thursday, January 11, we arrived in Israel at 10:40 am, just in time to meet up with our Mission group and hop on the bus to Tel Aviv. We went straight to an organization called Eran’s Angels that takes donations to help displaced and bereaved families with their needs. Our job was to work on preparing packages for these families. While this isn’t exciting work, it would be the first of many opportunities for us to physically help in the overall effort that is happening across Israel.

After preparing packages, we went to an exhibit that was a re-creation of the Nova Festival called “Nova 6:29,” representing the minute before the attack. The exhibit gave us pause as we walked through a scene that appeared to have innocence still hanging in the air. But upon closer look, you would see reminders of pictures of those that had been murdered as well as a display of cars that had been burnt out by Hamas. This was just the start of the emotional roller coaster of this mission.

Upon leaving the Nova 6:29 exhibit, we went to Hostage Square in Tel Aviv. It was a sobering exhibit that once again reminded you of the tragedy and heaviness hanging over the country. At the same time, it was evident that while this sense of despair was present, people were also going about their day as normally as possible. People are still going out to cafes, working at their jobs (those that are not in Gaza fighting) and trying to maintain a normal schedule.

The day ended with us heading to Jerusalem, where we would be based for the duration of the trip. On Friday morning, we woke up early and headed to Moshav Achi Tuv. It is the largest producer of cucumbers in the country (nearly 80%), in addition to a large operation of growing cherry tomatoes. Because of the war, there is a lack of workers; therefore, volunteers are trying to help keep the crops going as best as possible. The time we spent trimming and pruning tomato plants for Shachar, the farm owner, was incredibly fulfilling. In many ways, I felt that what we were doing was exactly what the early pioneers of Zionism dreamed of… working the fields of the Jewish State.

After working the fields, we went back to Jerusalem for Shabbat. We had just enough time to make it to the Kotel for Kabbalat Shabbat and soak in the beauty of the Old City. At dinner that evening, we had time to reflect on the mission thus far and get to know our fellow Ramahniks from across the US and Canada, representing most of the Ramah camps. After Shabbat dinner, we spent some time with some of the other guests in the hotel. These guests are displaced families from the war and have been living in the hotel since October. They are still unable to return to their homes (if they even have a house still standing). With everything these victims are going through (and they will admit it is tough), they continue to stay positive and appreciate that they are being cared for. Again, the spirit of the Israeli people is unstoppable.

On Saturday, we had a Shabbat lunch and a walking tour around Jerusalem. It was a chance to learn a few new things and enjoy a slower-paced day. That evening, we met with a family that lost their daughter to Hamas on October 7 at Kibbutz Holit. The mother is also a Ramah Canada alum.

The story was beyond tragic, and the strength that the mother and father had to tell the story was powerful. It was again a grim reminder of the brutality of that day and the mission of Hamas – to kill Jews and destroy Israel.

On Sunday morning, we again woke up early and headed to Mt. Herzl, the military cemetery in Jerusalem. This was the start of a day filled with emotions ranging from despair and anger to euphoria and youthful energy. At Mt. Herzl, we visited the graves of those who have fallen since October 7. Some of the graves were so new that they were still in the form of mounds of dirt. One of the fallen soldiers, Dekel, was a friend of Shayna, and she was able to pay her respects during the visit. Unfortunately, too many of us know someone who has sacrificed in this bloody war.

After leaving Mt. Herzl, we drove to the town of Ofakim. Ofakim was the furthest town from Gaza that Hamas attacked. There were gun fights in the streets with some homes taken over and over 50 people killed in the attack. We spoke with survivors, including high school kids, as well as bereaved families. Each story is more heartbreaking than the prior one, but again, their appreciation of knowing that the Diaspora community cares and is showing up seemed to give them strength.

After pulling on our heartstrings that afternoon in Ofakim, we traveled to the actual site of the Nova Music Festival, where Hamas brutally attacked these innocent festivalgoers. A memorial has sprung up at the site which moved many of us to tears. As we walked around, we could also hear the Israeli Air Force flying sorties and bombs falling on Gaza as the war continues.

Leaving the Nova Music Festival, we went to an army base and had the absolute pleasure of preparing and serving a BBQ to over 400 soldiers. These soldiers were a mix of special forces and other specialized units that have been going in and out of Gaza fighting for the past many months. At this point, we had music playing, karaoke happening and smiles all around. Shayna even did karaoke in Hebrew with some of the soldiers. Daniel, Beny and Shayna handed out letters we collected for soldiers from our community. Seeing these soldiers happy gave us such joy and a feeling of euphoria. We met incredible people who couldn’t thank us enough for caring about them and doing something like this. No one wanted the night to end, and we danced, sang, ate and drank for hours. Ironically on the same base about 100 yards from the BBQ was a prison that was holding Hamas terrorists that they have captured. It’s a bit surreal, but that is reality in Israel.

On our last day, Monday, January 15, we again woke up early for a full day of service. We started by bringing the equipment and supplies that we brought from the States. As a family, we raised over $7,000 from our chavurah to purchase these items and donate in Israel. Thank Israeli Soldiers is an entirely volunteer-run organization where all donations, monetary and supplies, go directly to soldiers and bereaved families. In addition, we worked at the center to help package items to be sent to the front lines for the soldiers. While we were thrilled to help, it was another reminder that the war continues and that help is still needed.

Before heading to the next service project, we attended a rally marking the 100th day of the captivity of the hostages and the start of the war. It was in Jerusalem, and we were surrounded by hundreds of people in solidarity. It was a sober reminder that we must stand strong and do everything possible to bring the hostages home.

After the rally, we went to help at another division of Thank Israeli Soldiers that works on supplying a religious item requested by many of the soldiers…. Army-approved Tzitzit. We learned how to tie the specialized knot on the garment and prepared as many as possible for a shipment going to the front lines the next day. Another stop during the day was at a program run by the Chabad movement, where we prepared sandwiches, which were delivered in real-time, to help feed displaced families and soldiers.

While these are the trip’s highlights, other moments were just as special. Watching my children take part in the volunteer efforts without hesitation and “doing good” alongside them. Vanessa and I couldn’t be prouder of Shayna, Daniel and Beny. I am leaving Israel on a high but recognize the chaos that still surrounds it. I am not naive to think that things are great here, but I do truly believe that the Israeli people have a spirit that can never be broken, and we will prevail against this evil.

This experience was yet another example of why I am so proud to be a Ramah alum and parent of Ramah Darom kids.

This experience was yet another example of why I am so proud to be a Ramah alum and parent of Ramah Darom kids. My first time in Israel was in 1989 through Ramah Seminar, and I fell in love with the country. I have been going back ever since; this was by far the most meaningful time in Artzeinu. I encourage anyone thinking about going to Israel to look into the upcoming Ramah Solidarity and Service Missions. Israel needs us and Ramah can help get you there. Learn more and apply here.

Adam Leibowitz