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Volunteer Experiences in Israel


Many Jews have always felt a strong connection toward Israel. The pull toward Israel has only become stronger since the attacks on October 7. We are here, but our hearts are there.

While there are plenty of opportunities to donate money or raise funds for those displaced, otherwise impacted, or serving in the military, many people are called to get on a plane and help on the ground.

To give you a better sense of the Israel volunteer experience, JLiving spoke with three individuals about their recent trips to Israel.

Steven Sax, a real estate broker with Keller Williams Commercial in Calabasas, is a member of HAMAKOM in West Hills (the merging of temples Aliyah and Shomrei Torah). Sax went with his synagogue — two rabbis and 15 other congregants, including a few who worship online with the shul — on a volunteer mission to Israel, and then stayed for an extra week.

What inspired your trip to Israel?

After October 7, at our monthly men’s group meeting, Rabbi Camras said, “We are planning a trip. We need to go. They need to know that we care about them. They need to know we support them.” And he said to me, “Steve, you’ve never been to Israel. You must go.” I said, “Absolutely.” I made the plan and committed to go.

I wanted to help. I wanted to make a difference. I went, and I had a really profound, life-altering experience.

In what way was it life-altering?

We live in the United States, and we like our country. We’re blessed to be living here, and we look at it as our home. When I went to Israel, I experienced all the people, the patriotism, the pride. They don’t look at their country as home, they look at their country as family.

It is like they protect their family more than they protect their home. And that was just an amazing experience to see how they feel and how they react toward everything coming at them.

Men and women doing yoga in Tel Aviv at hostage square. The prisoner got a message out that they wanted someone to do yoga to give him positive energy and positive light. So Israelis have been doing yoga in the hostage square every day all day long since October 7th. Photos courtesy of Steven Sax

What sort of work did you do?

We did everything from picking fruit in Shuva to feeding the soldiers on the front lines in Gaza, right on the border. We went to the Nova festival fairgrounds to bear witness to all the atrocities and all the tributes to the lost children and families. We went to Sheba Hospital, and we were there taking testimony of the soldiers who had lost their limbs and were fighting. They all have smiles on their faces. They all have positive experiences, and they all have such pride. They want to do whatever they can to protect their country and their country’s right to exist.

How do you think the experience changed you?

When you see something bad going on for somebody else, you have sympathy. When you see it firsthand, and you connect with those people, that sympathy turns to empathy. You start to really take it personally like it is happening to your family. After being there, I look at that entire country as my extended family. If you are not there, you don’t get it. But once you are there, you’ve got it forever.

Anything you want to add?

Before my trip, I went to the dollar store, and I bought 100 sympathy cards. I went to my real estate office, and I had everyone in my office fill out a different card for a total stranger. Some of the people took cards home to their family members, including their kids, and they all filled them out.

The cards said things like, “We are thinking about you. You are not alone. We care about you, and we believe in you. Stay strong, stay steadfast, and we will all get through this.”

When we were handing out those cards at the hospital and at the base camp, the soldiers would be reading them, and some of them started crying. They appreciate and they value so much the fact that we are thinking about them. Letting them know makes a huge difference in their lives, and in their strength and their courage to keep moving and fighting.

HAMAKOM is planning another trip in April. If you are considering going, reach out to Rabbi Vogel or Rabbi Camras.

Three brave IDF special forces soldiers at Base camp on the Gaza border where we were feeding them and giving them love and support. Photos courtesy of Steven Sax

Jana Gersten, owner and CEO of Pacific Real Estate and Management, went to Israel on a tour with Jewish National Fund. Arriving early, she spent 10 days in Israel. “Before the tour, I spent some time just wandering around and was completely blown away by how different the country feels,” she explains. “Then we spent four full working days helping locals. We picked fruit, we were packing boxes for the IDF, meeting with special forces, and visiting a rehabilitation hospital.”

What led to your decision to go to Israel to volunteer?

I have a strong connection to Israel; my father is Israeli. I first started going to Israel in 2012. I went for the first time when I was 34. I met my dad in Israel, as a surprise in 2022 — we had never been in Israel at the same time — and I really connected with the country.

When October 7th happened, aside from 1,400 of our people being murdered, killed, raped, pillaged, I went into complete shock. I happened to be up, because of the time difference, when it broke. So I did not sleep. I was watching [events unfold]. I felt really lost because something that has been part of my foundation for so long had been shaken. I, along with everybody else, was grieving. If I could have gotten on a plane on October 8th, I would have. I just felt like I needed to help.

The other thing that was really interesting is I am not one who very much practices Judaism. … until October 7th. The following Shabbat, for the first time in almost 30 years, I went and lit my Shabbat candles. And I felt connected once again to Judaism.

Fast forward to sitting here not knowing what to do, wanting to do more than write a check, I put a post on Facebook saying, “Anybody going to Israel on a tour? I need to help. I need to do something.” I was connected with JNF and three and a half weeks later, I was in Israel.

Tell me about your trip …

I do not want to say the trip of a lifetime, but I can tell you that every time I go away, and I travel a lot, I say, “I am going to come back different.” This particular tour and mission has transformed me as a person.

First of all, to bear witness is frankly a huge responsibility. And when you are doing this with a group or a tour, you become very quick friends with 50 people that you had no knowledge of prior to this existing. And we are doing all of this while bombs are going off in the background. We are hearing ammunition, bombs, machine gun fire because we are 500 feet from Gaza. So it was exhilarating. We were with security, so we felt safe.

What came out of this for me personally was whether I was meeting an IDF soldier or a farmer, every single person thanked us for coming. And we are looking at them going, “Of course. We are here to help. We want to help. We have the ability to help.” The Israeli people were just so grateful.

But what was interesting to me, and having spent time in Israel prior, is the shift in everybody’s demeanor and tone. If you have ever been to Israel, they are the most resilient group of people. And for the first time ever, I saw a profound amount of sadness in people’s faces, because their faith has been shaken. But they are already thinking about how they are going to flourish and how they are gonna succeed and keep making Israel home.

And I feel that I have a sense of responsibility as well, doing whatever I can to make sure we still have a Jewish state, to make sure that my nephews have some place to visit and some place that you know the Jewish population community feels like home.

Jana bearing witness and talking to a soldier at the site of the Nova Festival. Photos courtesy Jana Gersten

Do you have any advice for someone who is thinking about going to volunteer?

You want to go with either your temple or with one of the tours that is operating. First of all, they have all of the connections to help you get into the farms and the kibbutz, and you are also with private security.

Be prepared for the most amazing experience of your life, but you also need to be prepared to go to a country at war. I encourage everybody to go, and I think that they all should go to bear witness as to what you can see.

Go to JNF.org to learn about upcoming tours. February and March dates are already booked up.

Rabbi Bill Kaplan is the Chief Executive Officer of Shalom Institute in Malibu. Kaplan is on the board of the JCCs of North America. Prior to October 7, the board was supposed to go to Israel on a 10-day retreat. It got shifted to a solidarity mission, after which the rabbi stayed to volunteer for four days.

Praying at the Western Wall. Photos courtesy Jana Gersten

Tell me about your experience in Israel…

My best friend/my roommate from college, who lives in New York, came in after the mission and we volunteered together, so that was very meaningful. We have been friends for 40 years.

To be together, to be picking lemons and avocados, and barbecuing for soldiers for 3 or 4 days together, and driving every day down to the south from Tel Aviv in a car and just being there together was amazing.

Bill Kaplan picking avocados at Kibbutz Be'eri near Gaza. . Photos courtesy Bill Kaplan

What led you to volunteer?

I think it is probably the [same] answer as most people. Yes, I wanted to go bear witness, but I’m hands-on. I am a doer, and I needed to do something to help and be part of what is going on.

Everybody is helping out Israelis from all over the world. There is a great Facebook group called Sword of Iron – Volunteer Opportunities in Israel. It’s run by a 23-year-old woman from Baltimore, Yocheved Kim Ruttenberg, who is amazing. There are over 11,000 people in the group. Her brother was getting out of the army in November, and then October 7th hit. She was in Baltimore, and just left, and said, “I need to be with my brother during this time.” People were trying to figure out how to volunteer and how to help, and she, with someone else, helped create this Facebook group.

I was watching that [group] for a couple of months. I actually met with her when I was there because I just wanted to thank her for what she is doing. It is mainly for English speakers, people coming from all over the world to help out and volunteer.

Barbecuing for soldiers near Gaza. Photos courtesy Bill Kaplan

What advice do you have for people who are going over to Israel to volunteer?

It is very Israeli style. You do not need to pre-plan everything in advance. You could do it the day before. The things I set up that ended up being amazing, and some things were even better because I didn’t pre-plan.

We did not know till 3 or 4 o’clock in the afternoon the day before that we were going to Kibbutz Be’eri to pick avocados. We picked up this woman in Yavneh, who called me from the WhatsApp group and said, “Can you pick me up?” She was part of this group that is the Veterans of the Yom Kippur War (this was the agricultural division). So literally, we met [the members] outside of Be’eri, and we became honorary members of the Veterans of the Yom Kippur War; I have a T-shirt. And we went in and picked avocados with them.

Look at that Facebook group, look at opportunities. There is plenty of transportation available. You’re just gonna end up meeting people [on these buses], and they are gonna tell you about other opportunities. There is such a spirit of helping.

My advice is just go. Just do it. If you have no plans till you get there, you will figure it out.

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