“For I desire chesed, not sacrifice; devotion to G-d,
rather than burnt offerings” (Hoshea 6:6).
Shabbat/Simchat Torah | October 7, 2023
At 6:30 am a siren goes off. I’ve heard only one siren in my seven years in Jerusalem. Another siren at 8:30. I am alone. I knock on a neighbor’s door. She who knows everything. She has tears in her eyes. Hamas has infiltrated the South. Billion-dollar fences to protect our fifty communities on the Gaza border are in smithereens.
Mutilations, Be’eri, Nachal Oz, rave, ashen homes, Alumim, decapitations, government, murders, Hamas. Words and sirens swirling in my head as I hide in the mamad, the secure room. Another siren. Another. Another. Twelve in all.
By Motzaei Shabbat we are facing another Jewish catastrophe. 300,000 are mobilized, and we are at war.
Sunday, October 8 | Day 1:
It’s an effort to absorb the shock.
I tell my best friend that I want to do something. I like to focus on the living. The IDF is mobilizing soldiers. My best friend and I are mobilizing chesed!
We decide to pack essentials to start the soldiers off. We go to a pharmacy warehouse and think fifty soaps, shampoos, toothbrushes and toothpaste, wet wipes and protein bars will do the trick. “Let’s get a hundred and see how it goes,” my friend says.
We unload everything into my sukkah that I bid farewell to just the day before, and I tell a couple of online groups that I am collecting essentials for our soldiers. If they want to help, they should come. Within an hour, I receive contributions worth $1,200 from people who want to be part of our “Packages of Love.”
8 pm: We have over 1,000 Packages of Love. One hundred bags have turned into 1,000, with hundreds of volunteers coming in and out of my house, my garden, the sukkah. Coming together to help in any capacity. People spend over $5,000 replenishing supplies. Toilet paper, Band-Aids, hairbands and more wet wipes.
A new idea: Rami Levi, the large chain store, has bright pink shopping bags. We are going to use them for packages for the women soldiers. Israel is the only country that conscripts women. They need special items, and they’re going to have them in pink.
People tell me I “saved them” today; they were in crisis looking at the terrible footage, and I provided them with something positive. We deliver the packages to the lone soldier stations for them to distribute.
Monday, October 9 | Day 2:
Supplies arrive at my doorstep late at night and early morning. Volunteers come and contribute their time and money; people I haven’t seen in a decade are here to help. Some of them bring their children, who have no school; so we give them paper and colored pens, and they write notes to our men and women in uniform.
We are more organized; we have a system going. And then it starts raining. So we move to the building foyer. In this building, they’re always making a fuss about respecting public places; no one complains this time.
We crank up the music. The volunteers are having a great time—men, women and children happy to be helping, doing, feeling like they have a purpose.
Two volunteers ask if I want my sukkah taken down; well, they don’t have to ask twice!
Someone sends me a picture of soldiers holding my packages. My heart sings.
I consider taking a day off the following day, but morale is low so I’m redoubling efforts to continue making volunteers and soldiers happy.
Just when I thought not an extra person could fit in my home, more people come to volunteer. People feel good doing good.
I am in Rami Levi again; Arabs are joking around with Jews, workers and customers alike. This is one of the few Rami Levis with enough workers, because at this location most of the workers are Arabs. I tell everyone my shopping cart is for the soldiers. Even the Arabs bless me. “My son is fighting for Israel in Gaza now, pray for him too.” I show the Arab cashier the packages we made, and she tears up. “Your son will get a package too,” I tell her. She gives me a hug. 1,000 Packages of Love.
Tuesday, October 10 | Day 3:
We are setting up tables, preparing for the volunteers to begin. Even when it’s quiet, our thoughts are with our soldiers. British “blokes” come with thirty bagels for lunch—coincidentally, Holy Bagel arrives with meals for all of us from a volunteer who came yesterday and wants to treat us!
I go outside to see how things are doing and find men of all ages bagging items—some are doctors and lawyers visiting for the yamim tovim from New York, “stuck” here till they can get a flight out. A neighbor from an adjacent building arrives. She sees what is happening from her porch and wants to volunteer. Amazed at my production line, two women who were visiting their grandmother upstairs make donations. An old crotchety neighbor also donates to the cause; her aide comes along.
Volunteers come and go between funerals and shivah houses and blood drives. One is going to an “emergency” wedding. The couple was supposed to get married next month, but the groom was told he has to draft unless he gets married now. So he is. His wedding was supposed to be celebrated with more than 300 people in a fabulous venue. Instead there were fifty people who were served challah rolls and dips.
We have a steady flow of shoppers going out to stores and spending profusely on supplies; people from all over the world are donating. But what makes me happiest is pictures of soldiers with our packages. May they all come home safely.
Wednesday, October 11 | Day 4:
Just when I thought not an extra person could fit in my home, more people come to volunteer. People feel good doing good. We are having a debriefing with my volunteer leaders about why this was such a huge success, but I think I’ve had enough for now. I want my house back! A day of over 2,000 packages.
The exhaustion I feel is unlike any I have experienced. This project was for the soldiers, for their families, for our people and for the world. It was as much about the 500+ volunteers who came with tears and left with joy as it was about our soldiers who needed things. Whether people came with toiletries or a huge donation, whether they stayed for half an hour or came every day, this project grew wings.
Over 5,000 Packages of Love, over $25,000 donated, over 500 volunteers in my house.
On Thursday, October 12, I reclaim my house and tidy and clean while listening to music. On Friday, I allow myself to cry. I go shopping on my local street. I go to every shop and spend money there because I want to support my local businesses. I go to my newspaper shop, and the proprietor’s son who helps him on Fridays is there, and I tear up. He might be drafted next week, but for now he gets another Shabbat with his family. What a gift.
Shabbat shalom to all of Jerusalem. We will light another candle for the precious kidnapped souls in Gaza. We are at war, but these first five days on the front lines of chesed fill me with a bit of peace. 1,400 dead, more than 5,000 wounded, more than 200 hostages in Gaza.
“Be strong and resolute; do not be terrified or dismayed, for Hashem, your G-d, is with you wherever you go” (Yehoshua 1:9).
Tania Hammer became a community activist in New York. When she made aliyah seven years ago, she got involved in helping olimchadashim, as evidenced by her extra-large Shabbat tables filled with single men and women from all over the world.