As soon as the war began, communities of young olim across the country began volunteering and supporting Israel in remarkable ways. This was their initial response.
Most young Anglo olim expect that moving to a country without close family will be hard. They realize contending with Israel’s bureaucracy will be challenging. But they likely do not anticipate having to scramble to a shelter in ninety seconds, watching dozens of their friends get called up suddenly for reserve duty, or being called up themselves.
“To think that the people we sit next to in shul, the people we take classes with, the people we work with, are suddenly not in those day-to-day situations but are now fighting for their lives and our lives—it’s unimaginable,” says Jordan Landes, a twenty-three-year-old professional originally from Boca Raton, Florida, who has lived in Herzliya for the past few years.
Being far from family during a time of war presents its own challenges. “All our families are nervous about us. They don’t exactly know what it looks like here, and they’re scared,” says Landes. “What’s affecting me, and most people like me who are home and safe and have shelter [in Israel], is the thought of our friends who are out there fighting; we don’t know when we will see them again.”
As of this writing in late October, the war is raging with no end in sight. “The biggest challenge right now is the uncertainty. There is no telling when this war will end. When there is a barrage of rockets, we don’t know if it’ll last for hours or for ten seconds. We’re scared. If you’ve been in Israel for a while, you unfortunately get used to things like this, although I will say that what’s going on right now is unparalleled by any other attack on Israel [in the past few decades],” says Landes, who remained in Israel after completing his gap year at Yeshivat Shaalvim. “This type of vicious attack—where terrorists openly came into the country and committed unspeakable acts—has never happened before.”
Incredibly, despite the fear and anxiety, the war has only strengthened the commitment of many young North American olim. Right after Sukkot, even with limited access to flights back to Israel, “quite a few of these olim who went back home to the States for the chag were eager to come back,” says Rabbi Ilan Haber, OU chief strategy officer and former international director of the OU’s Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (JLIC). “I think [war] sometimes activates something in people’s neshamot . . . if anything, it will make more people want to make aliyah.”
Many young olim who are not serving in the IDF have responded to the war by volunteering and supporting Israel in remarkable ways. Pivoting from its typical programming and activities, JLIC communities in Israel, in five major hubs—Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Herzliya, Haifa and Givat Shmuel—shifted to focus on supporting the war effort. “We’re trying to give people a sense that they’re not alone,” says Rabbi Jonathan Shulman, associate director of JLIC and director of JLIC Israel.
As soon as the war began, JLIC communities and young olim across the country began supporting soldiers as well as displaced families from the South. They delivered food and supplies to soldiers on dozens of bases across the country and set up children’s camps, offered free babysitting, ran clothing drives and cooked meals for displaced families. In a single day, JLIC Jerusalem packed 2,000 meals for families in Ashkelon, and Rabbi Shulman estimates that in the first week of the war, JLIC Tel Aviv (JLIC’s first community of young professionals) had at least 500 volunteers daily. During that first week, they received a request for sleeping bags for soldiers on a base near Jerusalem. The request was made one evening at 11:30 pm. By 1:30 am, thirty sleeping bags were delivered to the base.
One soldier from the Herzliya community, who was called up to serve in the Givati Brigade that protects Israel’s southern border, sent the following WhatsApp to his friends: “Herzliya—you guys are literally not normal. It’s normal to care about chayalim and daven for their safety. What’s not normal is that you guys make it your business to be thinking of us 24/7. . . . My unit is ecstatic right now; they can’t wrap their minds around the fact that not my family, but my community, came all the way here to make sure we are a bit more prepared and a bit happier. [I] cannot wait to thank each and every one of you in person!”
Young olim who have not been called up are being supported too. Psychologists have come to JLIC communities to help students cope, and activities such as support groups, challah bakes and community dinners provide daily emotional support.
Many students have found volunteering therapeutic. “You need to get up with a purpose so you don’t fall into the oceanic abyss of the war,” says Rabbi Shulman. Which is, essentially, what these young olim are doing. There has been, in Rabbi Shulman’s words, a “total mobilization of these communities.”
“It’s an amazing time to be here. It’s a scary time too, but I keep myself busy,” says Nili Fischer, originally from Denver, Colorado, who currently lives in Herzliya. “It helps me when my focus is our chayalim and the people in the South.”
While young olim are doing their best to cope with the challenges of war, their conviction to support and protect their nation seems stronger than ever. Many feel especially proud to be in Israel at a time where an inconceivable war is bringing a divided nation back together again. “Now more than ever, I am proud to be a Herzliyan,” says Fischer.
Batsheva Moskowitz is an associate editor at Jewish Action.