4 from Lehigh Valley share personal stories from January trips to Israel

Since the days right after the October 7 Hamas attacks on Israel, the Lehigh Valley Jewish community has jumped in to help. Donations to the Jewish Federation’s Israel Emergency Campaign are nearing the goal of $1 million. 
Community members have also visited Israel to see family and friends and help wherever help was needed. In January, four different community members were in Israel on different trips on overlapping days. We asked them to write a bit for us about their personal experiences there. Here’s what they had to say:
From January 15 to 18, I joined a group of 40 JCC executives and board members on a four-day solidarity mission to Israel organized by the Jewish Community Centers Association of North America. The purpose of this trip was threefold: 1) to show support for our friends in Israel, 2) to bear witness to the atrocities of October 7 and the ensuing national trauma, and 3) to return home to share this experience in our home communities.
We witnessed firsthand the devastation of places like Sderot, Kibbutz Nir Oz, and the site of the Nova musical festival. We heard from political leaders, including President Isaac Herzog and former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. We learned about how community centers are working to provide critical services to displaced families and those who have been impacted by the war. Most of all, we met with the brave family members of those who lost their lives and whose loved ones are still being held hostage in Gaza, and with the dedicated soldiers and reservists who have been deployed for over 100 days to defend the State of Israel and Jewish people around the world.
I was told by an Israeli we met that a picture is worth a thousand words but an experience is worth a thousand pictures. After walking through the burned, ransacked homes of Kibbutz Nir Oz, where 25% of the population was either murdered or taken hostage, I looked at the pictures that I had just taken. Indeed, they did not even begin to tell the story of what I experienced. Israelis are experiencing a level of pain, anger, and fear that is hard to capture or comprehend. But they are also demonstrating unshakeable resilience, unity, and perseverance.
While most of the world has flattened the political issues of the Middle East to the conflict between Israel and Palestine, the reality is a much deeper regional agenda of Jewish hate, of which Iran is the proverbial “head of the octopus.” As Diaspora Jews, we must stand side by side with our friends in Israel in the fight against terrorism and antisemitism.   The lessons of history have taught us that a strong State of Israel is necessary to ensure the safety of all Jewish people. Israelis are fighting not only for their own freedom and security, but for ours as well. Am Yisrael chai!     
When you listen to a witness, you become a witness. —Elie Wiesel
I landed in Israel on January 12. The hostage posters lining the halls of Ben Gurion Airport mar my usual elation. I am reminded that my Israel is wounded. Can I soothe her? 
I spend my first four days wrapping arms around my Israeli family. I reunite with Sapir Lev, a shlicha who stayed at my home 10 summers ago. I look all of them in the eyes. I touch their arms. “I am with you. You are not alone.” 
My first Shabbat dinner is with family. We eat, we talk, we laugh. I can’t stop thinking about Carmel, the 18-year-old nephew of my sister and brother in law who isn’t at the Shabbat table. He’s fighting in Gaza. The 100th day after the Hamas attack arrives. There is a ceremony at the kibbutz. I hear tender words of Tsafra Kipnis, sister of Evyatar, and his wife, Lilach, who along with Evyatar’s aide Paul were brutally murdered by Hamas at their home on Kibbutz Be’eri. Nine members of Lilach’s’s family were kidnapped and eight have since been released. Tal Shoham is still captive in Gaza. I bear witness to the pain. 
On January 16, I join Momentum’s Unity Mission. I start this journey by myself and strangers become family. The Israelis traveling with us are so strong. It’s a gift to learn with and from them. I meet Adi. She talks to us about her brother Chen Avigdori, whose wife and daughter Sharon and Noam were kidnapped. She shares her agony from the time they were in captivity and her family’s heartache that family member Tal Shoham is still held hostage. Adi and Tsafra don’t know each other. They are on different sides of the same family. I hear about Adi’s courageous presence at rallies and all of her advocacy efforts. I bear witness to her pain.
For six days, our group shows up for the people of Israel. We harvest four tons of kohlrabi for evacuees who are living in hotels. We pack bags of necessities for soldiers and include handwritten letters from Jewish Day School children and Friendship Circle adults from the Lehigh Valley. We prepare hot meals that go straight to the army bases. We comfort parents of lone soldiers and hug moms with husbands and children in the Israel Defense Forces. We listen to Jacqui Vital tell the tragic story of the murder of her daughter Adi, a mother of two young boys. We bear witness to the pain. 
We share meals, conversations, and a bonfire with IDF units. We dance and sing together. We feel the ruach of the young soldiers. Their resolve to keep fighting for their country is strong. We say, “I am here. I see you. Tell me your story.” 
We see unimaginable horror. On October 7, terrorists stormed Kibbutz Kfar Aza. They went house to house for hours, murdering more than 60 people and abducting 19 others. We walk through the burned and bullet-ravaged neighborhood of young people. I see the homes of kidnapped 26-year-old twins Gali and Ziv Berman. I break down emotionally. Their older brother Liran Berman talked with our Lehigh Valley community about what wonderful uncles Gali and Ziv are to his little kids and how they did everything together. I bear witness to the pain.
At the sight of the Nova music festival, we walk through the makeshift memorial to the nearly 400 young beautiful souls who were killed, raped, and kidnapped at the best time of their life. I begin to panic. I can’t find the poster for 21-year-old hostage Omer Shem Tov, who was stolen from the festival. Omer, like my kids and me, has celiac disease. He has a special place in our hearts. We worry about him. Is his stomach hurting? A chair is reserved for Omer at my kitchen table at home. We lit Chanukah candles for him. I mention his name every day to U.S. Representative Susan Wild’s staffers when I call to urge her to fight for his release. I finally find Omer’s picture and I crumble. I bear witness to the pain.
We go to Hostage Square and the headquarters of the Hostages and Missing Families Forum. We see art exhibits there. In a tent set up for Nova festival families, I try to comfort the uncle of hostage Elkana Bohbot. I walk through a fabricated tunnel and feel the walls closing in. Families of hostages come to talk with our group. I sit in the front row of the auditorium. Shelly Shem Tov, Omer’s mom, walks on stage to tell the story of Omer. My heart breaks into a million pieces. I bear witness to Shelly’s pain.
As I write this reflection, I have been home for two days. Reentry is hard. I’m trying to make sense of the moments of intense grief and sadness contrasted with the glimmers of hope and joy. I remind myself that it is possible to hold both. Our humanity invites us to witness both the joy and the pain together, for ourselves and for others. The Israel I love is both broken and whole. I bear witness.
The intergenerational resilience of the Israeli and Jewish people is stronger than our intergenerational trauma. I am a witness. I now have a job to do. I will share. I will take action. I will not stop until the hostages are home. Am Yisrael chai.
I joined the Jewish National Fund’s fourth volunteer mission to Israel since the war broke out, January 14-18. We were based in Sde Boker in the south. We spent most of our days volunteering and listening to stories from survivors and heroes. 
Those Are Ours
As we drive from our hotel to our morning volunteer site, Kibbutz Erez, we are on Road 323, the main artery of this area. We pass some of the kibbutzim (communal settlements) where horrible massacres occurred, when the security teams were overrun. We passed the site of the Nova festival, which is dotted with trees and shrubs, looking so peaceful. It’s hard to imagine the horrors that occurred there. Burnt asphalt patches along the road are all that’s left of the many cars that were torched here. For weeks this road was closed to all but the military, essential workers, and forensic teams.
We pass an Iron Dome battery, a valiant protector of Israel. It is a solely defensive weapon used to shoot down incoming missiles, with a 90% success rate. A reassuring sight, but also a stark reminder of how long it took the army to arrive.
The Erez border crossing, at the northern end of the Gaza Strip, was the sole civilian crossing point from Hamas-run Gaza into Israel. Every day, thousands of Gazans with permits to work in Israel would proceed through the modern terminal complex; others came in for medical treatment; diplomats, U.N. officials, and others could drive through. It was the only avenue of Israel-Gaza coexistence. 
On the morning of October 7, Hamas terrorists blew up and burst through the barriers separating Erez from the Gaza Strip and poured into the complex. Unwatchable footage shows them killing some of the utterly unprepared, hopelessly outnumbered soldiers on duty and abducting others into Gaza.
The Erez kibbutz was founded in 1949. An agricultural community, they are especially famous for their honey. Ten years ago their population was 300, a number which has since doubled. They are proud of their cohesive community, which is more like one big family.
This peaceful existence was shattered at 6:30 a.m. on October 7, when an unusually large barrage of missiles was launched from Gaza. Missile attacks are a familiar part of life here. Life here in the Gaza envelope (now known as the Israel envelope) has been described by the residents as 95% heaven and 5% hell. “One must never go to the 5%,” the say, “for if you do, it can consume your way of life and become 100%.”
Missile attacks (which began in 1997), infiltrations, fire balloons, etc. make life a challenge. Israelis met this challenge by requiring every home built in this area to have a mamad (safe room of reinforced concrete). In addition, there are free-standing bomb shelters at every bus stop and scattered throughout the Erez kibbutz. Beautifully painted, they are works of art that help people deal with this reality. You have 15 seconds or less to get into a shelter when there is a siren. Often you hear the distinctive whistle of the rocket before the sirens even sound. People drive with their car window ajar to make sure they can hear the warnings.
Ironically, many people living in this area are themselves refugees from Arab lands, and many are peace activists and supporters of a Palestinian state. There were many volunteers that met Gazans regularly at the Erez crossing to bring them into Israel for medical care. On the fridge in homes were lists of names of people who cross the Erez border who need medical treatment and support that kibbutz families met regularly to help. 
We arrive at the guarded kibbutz entrance. Before disembarking from the bus, we review the safety procedures, something we do throughout the day, over and over, as we move from site to site. The tour guide explains, “The first boom you hear is scary. Even the second boom. They are loud and they are overhead, sometimes near and sometimes far. The loud booms, zeh shelnau (those are ours). You will get used to them.” And he was right. As we rolled out sod to build a field for children to play freely and happily, the loud booms from tanks, explosions, and guns faded behind us as we focused on the possibilities that hopefully one day will lie ahead. 
On October 7, the security forces of this kibbutz were able to successfully stave off the initial attack. They lost one member of their first line of defense security team of nine. Two were also badly injured, but a nurse heroically was able to get them to Sorokot Hospital in the midst of the morning chaos—despite her being told not to leave the kibbutz, she insisted, saying, “They will die if we stay, so we must try.” Then the terrorists were diverted to Nova, which proved an easier target.
Now, the streets of the kibbutz are empty. The tennis courts are quiet and the school unoccupied. Some 400 have temporarily relocated to Mitzpe Ramon. A few are living in our hotel in the south, and the remaining scattered in different locations.
The original school suffered a direct missile hit some years back. Fortunately it was Shabbat and no children were in school. The new school is built of reinforced concrete with no exterior windows (all windows are on the interior patio side), so it also serves as a shelter.
Our job there was to repair an outdoor recreation area. We plant, we paint, we put down grass and leave the area gleaming, awaiting the reawakening of life here. We imagine the happy smiles of the kibbutzniks upon their return to see this creation. Many do not want to return, many can’t wait to see the youth playing on the field we built, and others can’t see a path forward. 
Indeed we hear that that very evening, the few kibbutzniks still there and the soldiers enjoyed a barbecue dinner in the park and smiled happily for the first time in over 100 days. They knew someone cared and that Israel is not alone.
The entire focus of everyone we speak to here is a grim determination to recreate their lives and their communities on the ashes. There is a deep persistent sense of betrayal. Some business owners recognized employees among the attackers. Maps in possession of the terrorists were found that showed how many were in which house, whether they had a dog, locations of safe rooms. Information that was clearly documented by the Gazan workers.
Yet, despite this they speak of their love of life, of the life they made here, of the need for resilience and community.
Every Israeli child receives a letter at the age of 16 to inform them that they will need to report for service at age 18. It includes their IQ and medical scores and which branches of the military they are eligible to join. Some letters say they are excused from services, because, for example, they are Special Needs. 
In 2001, Major General Gabi Ofir, who had a disabled daughter, created Specials in Uniform so that many of those deemed exempt could have a chance to serve in the Israel Defense Forces, which is a rite of passage here in Israel. The Specials in Uniform unit currently has 900 soldiers with disabilities. That night, we sponsored a thank-you BBQ dinner on an air force base for soldiers, and the band from Specials in Uniform performed. At the end of the beautiful concert of songs speaking of love, life, hope, and peace, the commander on the base said, “Thank you for sharing our country’s pain and for absorbing our soldiers’ pain. We will protect you.” We hug our soldier friends goodbye. Most are 18-21, smooth faced, eager, full of life. Together our hearts mend as we see the joy with which they dance and sing. These youngsters will indeed save us.
Shiva B’October
What is incredible and inspiring is to see how the people of Israel united and rose to meet the challenges that befell us on October 7. My team of volunteers were humbled to be able to see this with our own eyes and to participate in a small way and to honor their amazing bravery and resilience.
Soroka Medical Center in Be’er Sheva, the nearest and largest hospital in the newly named Israel Triangle, was designated as a Trauma 1-level hospital by 7:45 a.m. With 1,175 beds and 5,000 employees, Soroka is the largest hospital in the Israel envelope. They treated over 670 patients in the first 24 hours.
The deputy director painted a vivid picture of that day. Realizing something big and terrible was happening—there were reports of a large-scale attack—they developed an action plan at an emergency meeting.
Patients arrived by the dozens in ambulances, helicopters, private cars, and military vehicles. Some patients were unconscious, so medical personnel had no idea of their identities or medical conditions and medications. Teams were assigned to do the testing and research to identify the unconscious injured. A table was set up in the lobby, where parents and relatives all around Israel could email pictures of their loved ones so the hospital could try to match pictures to faces.
The 250 care packages we had packed the night before, which were filled with products from small businesses in the Negev that are no longer able to function, products we purchased to help support the economy, were brought in to be shared out among the injured, the displaced, and the soldiers. Over half had already been distributed by the time our short briefing was over to very grateful recipients.
Despite the chaos all around, it was not just Soroka Medical Center that served as an instant support system. There are a lot of heroes when things aren’t working according to plan.
For example, an event manager not affiliated with Nova festival contacted the Nova production team to retrieve the names of all those that purchased tickets to attend the concert. She then set up a table in Tel Aviv by noon on October 7 and made lists. Those helped connect who was missing and who was abducted. Others joined her and they used social media to track people down.   They followed Hamas’ social media accounts and used AI to help match names to people, creating Excel spreadsheets. Eventually they passed the sheets to the Israeli government and the IDF, who took over from there. 
Our guide shared, “We are not yet ready to memorialize. We are still in mourning. This is our second war of independence. We are a chapter in history textbooks.” 
A woman who hid in a bomb shelter for 25 hours with her three children explained to us there is no P in post-traumatic stress in Israel. The people are hurting, mourning, and fearful. They count days since the war started and the hostages are being held. It is not January 18 but October 104th. It is Shiva B’October. The youth have attended more funerals than most of us will attend in a lifetime. Many have tattooed the date on their arms in the same vein as Nazis in Auschwitz branded our relatives in the concentration camp: 100723. And yet, another tattoo that appears on the arms of other survivors of the Nova festival is “We will dance again.” 
A commander at an air force base said to me, “We cannot live in sadness. Look at all these volunteers from around the world that stand with us. Look at our youth chanting “Am Yisrael chai.” The Israeli flag has a heart painted around the star now. We don’t go down. We go up.” As he finished the words, I watched as two fighter planes left our base and flew over our heads. Everyone on the ground cheered the pilots on.
Never once did a word of hate pass through the lips of those we met. Never once did I see a hateful sign. Never once did I see a torn flag. Instead a young boy picked up trash off the floor to help keep Hostage Square clean, art was created to express pain, a man played guitar with songs of hope, people danced in the streets, and eyes that were filled with pain discussed solutions and actions. 
It Will Be OK
After a full week in Israel, I ended my stay visiting a friend and her family, originally from Yemen, for their weekly Shabbat breakfast consisting of jachnun and kubaneh. Our conversation from start to finish was about the state of Israel, politics, and the future of the Jewish people as 18 people from three generations sat around a table outside surrounded by lemon and orange trees. 
The patriarch was a lieutenant colonel who made aliyah when he was 3 years old in 1947. He has seen every war in Israel. His soon-to-be grandson-in-law asked him, “What do you want Amy to go back to the United States and tell her community about what is going on here?” Without missing a beat he answered, “Yihye beseder.” Yihye beseder translates to “It’ll be OK.” It’s a common Israeli phrase, an answer to whatever might have just gone wrong—a “Don’t worry, be happy” without the “be happy.” The soon-to-be grandson-in-law responded that in 1992 then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin made a speech encouraging Israelis no longer to answer problems with “Yihye beseder,” noting that the phrase usually conceals all the things that aren’t OK. My friend’s saba thought for a half second before shrugging his shoulders and saying, “Yihye tov” (It will be good).”
The attacks of October 7 devastated me. I was terrified and helpless. I decided to go to Israel to volunteer, the least I could do.
I went to Israel on January 14 and stayed until January 28. I was part of a program run by Livnot Ulehibanot (Build and Rebuild), based in Tzfat. 
We spent the first week in Tzfat preparing lunches for soldiers. One day we put together 1,500 Shabbat meals and baked cakes to send to the front. We did so together with many Israeli volunteers of all ages. Usually, the program supplies 3,000 Shabbat meals, but the donation money is drying up. 
Some of us went to local farms to help harvest lemons and raspberries. 
In Sderot, we did a variety of things. We cleaned and painted preschools in various kibbutzim (communal settlements). These particular kibbutzim were not attacked by the terrorists, but the people were evacuated from the danger zone, and the schools were used as barracks for soldiers. After three months of being barracks and of general neglect, the preschools looked pitiful. Making these schools into schools again—bright, clean, and cheerful—was the most rewarding task we accomplished while in Sderot.
The kibbutzim were eerily devoid of people, though their belongings were still there, as if some magic wand swept the people away—one moment they were there and the next moment gone. Teacups were still on the tables with plates of cookies next to them.
We also went to an organic farm to plant lettuce. The farms in the south lost most of their regular workers. Terrified Thai workers went back home, and workers from Gaza no longer come in, for obvious reasons. All farms in the south desperately need help, and the farmers were grateful for our small contribution.
Actually, not only farmers. All the people in the south we met were deeply appreciative of us volunteers. Cleaning and putting in order their homes is exhausting both physically and emotionally, and they were grateful for any help they received. 
The people in the south also thanked us for simply being there. One woman we met, who just came back from being evacuated to Eilat, was terrified of being back in Sderot, but seeing that we came all the way from North America to help calmed her fears. That alone was a worthwhile reason to come here.
The last house we worked on was in a Yemenite Jewish village. Terrorists came here, made a hideout in a storage shack, and started shooting everyone in sight. People died and houses suffered damage. Now they are being repaired, cleaned, and painted in the hope that their owners will come back.
Before I came to Israel, I was seriously afraid that this time Israel may not survive the multiple attacks on its soil, but after being here, meeting incredible ordinary people, working side by side with them, seeing the unity, determination, and warmth, made me believe in a brighter future.
“Ein lanu eretz aheret,” they say. We have no other country. Am Yisrael chai