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Jewish Journal

A Mother’s Letter: Israeli Volunteers Aid in War Effort

by Donna Zeff

August 10, 2006 | 8:00 pm

On Sunday morning, July 16, after spending a restful Shabbat with his family, my 20-year-old soldier son found out that instead of going on an educational trip to Yad Vashem with his army buddies, he was to be sent to the small moshav of Netua on the Lebanese border.

That same Sunday, in the evening, my 18-year-old daughter Chana, received an SMS message from the charitable organization Lev Echad, requesting her help in the bombarded city of Tsfat. Without considering the potential danger or the extremely primitive conditions she would have to live in for the next few days, Chana immediately packed her bag and left first thing Monday morning.

With our children as our inspiration and the news of Katyusha attacks getting worse, despite the heroic efforts of the Israel Defense Forces, my husband, Rabbi Joel Zeff, and I decided we needed to do whatever we could to help, even if just a little.

In consultation with Chana about what types of things were needed in Tsfat, we began collecting art supplies, snack food and money from generous people here in Gush Etzion. On Wednesday morning, we loaded up the car and my husband and a friend began the long drive to Tsfat.

Due to major traffic jams near Kfar Saba, where a frantic search for a terrorist was underway, they went north through the Bekaa Valley instead of the generally faster Route 6. Knowing that there would not be any pizza shops open in Tsfat, they made a short stopover in Tiberias to purchase pizza and soda for the people in the shelters and for the soldiers in Netua.

Tiberias was like an eerie ghost town. What would have been a noisy, crowded water park, busy with the laughing voices of hundreds of children on the waters of the Kinneret, was instead a deserted, gleaming monument to the war going on all over the northern part of Israel.

At the pizza place, the proprietor had just received a phone call from his father telling him that a Katyusha had just landed in a field right next to their house. His father urged him to close up the shop and go to Tel Aviv immediately. After selling 10 pizzas and a case of soda to my husband at a discount, the man d id close up the shop but said he was not going to run away to Tel Aviv.

The approach to Tsfat from the Kinneret is a winding, steep road. Many plumes of smoke were seen rising into the deep blue sky, the result of grass fires caused by Katyushas crashing into open fields. Wednesday turned out to be the day of the largest number and widest distribution of Katyusha attacks of the war up to that time.

Before going to the shelters to distribute the supplies, they took a short detour to the old city of Tsfat. Its winding streets and dramatic views reminded them of Tsfat's history as the birthplace of modern kabbalistic thought and one of the revered cities of the Jewish people.

On the way to the old city, about a 15-minute drive, they saw four or five Katyusha impact sites. The first was a small crater in the road; the second showed severe damage to the second story of a tall building, and at another, a destroyed tree had deflected a direct hit onto a private home.

The detour to the Old City was to visit an old friend of the driver. During their visit, the siren began to wail, warning of an incoming Katyusha. My husband took refuge in the "safe room" of the house, but the friend nonchalantly came down the stairs and relied on his "invisible faith-umbrella," being a true son of Tsfat.

About one minute after hearing the siren, they could hear the thud, thud, thud of several Katyushas landing in the city. They tend to arrive in groups of three, four and five -- sometimes as many as seven -- within several seconds of one another.

It is a truly terrifying experience. There is no all clear signal, only the cessation of the thuds. Then everyone gets on with their lives until the next siren wails.

At last, my husband made his way to where the 50 young men and women volunteers for Lev Echad were headquartered in the large bomb shelter of the Ulpanit Tsfat High School. They were about to get on buses to take them to the various shelters across the city to help in whatever ways were needed, especially to entertain and distract the young children. My husband went with Chana to a shelter filled with children and some adults, where they distributed the pizza and sodas, as well as the art supplies. The children were thrilled, of course.

My husband's strongest impression of his visit to Tsfat was the lack of any apparent government intervention at the time in the care of the people that were left there. Most people who could leave had done so, leaving behind a large percentage of the poor and new immigrants lacking Hebrew skills. These people were barely taking care of themselves under normal circumstances and had now lost almost all ability to deal with their new reality.

Conditions in the bomb shelters were uncomfortable and cramped. The shelters had not been used as shelters in 30 years, and those with certificates that could still be read were last inspected in 2002. For others it may have been longer.

Some shelters had no electricity and others did not have water. The poor conditions caused much bickering, unfortunately, among the shelter's occupants, which the volunteers tried to alleviate. Many of the children older than 10 had been sent south to stay at various youth villages designed to take care of orphans and other children with special needs. Mostly Ethiopian olim had had their children sent away, but the families refused to agree to send any children younger than 10, despite the government's attempt to persuade them to do so.

The city council did not know how many families were staying in the shelters, and they certainly didn't know what their needs were. The numbers were constantly changing as people left town or came to the shelter for the first time or only went now and then.

One of the jobs of the Lev Echad volunteers was to find out what the needs were and for how many people. There were even some building complexes with many families that did not have shelters. Those that remained were living only in the inner rooms of their apartments.

As I write this, Lev Echad has 50 young adults volunteering in Tsfat, but they would ideally like to have 100 just in Tsfat and 1,000 for all the cities in the north, so that the residents will be able to stay in shelters close to their homes.

Lev Echad was established last summer, during the last days of Gush Katif. As the residents of Gush Katif made the transition from their permanent homes to the temporary housing situation in Nitzan, Lev Echad was there to help them, especially the children, with the volunteering youth and young adults.

The conditions for the volunteers were in many ways worse than what the residents were enduring. There were no mattresses, not to mention pillows, blankets or sheets to sleep on. Those that brought sleeping bags stretched them out on the concrete floor to sleep, and others that came with nothing slept in their clothes on the floor. There were no shower or bath facilities, just a sink with water to wash your hands, face and brush your teeth.

Food was the same at all three meals: bread, chocolate spread, tuna, olives. There was no way to cook, even a microwave was not available to bake a potato or make a cup of tea. But our youth didn't mind, being young and idealistic and knowing that they were helping individuals, as well as our nation.

After the visit to Tsfat, there were still a few more pizzas to deliver to the soldiers on the northern border at Nitua, a small moshav. As my husband, Chana, fellow volunteers from Gush Etzion and the driver were leaving Tsfat, they got a chance to experience one more siren and Katyusha bombardment. The car immediately stopped and shelter was sought near a wall. After the Katyushas fell they proceeded to the border.

What should have been about a 45-minute drive from Tsfat to the border turned into about one and a half hours, because the direct route to Nitua was blocked. The army had a warning of Hezbollah infiltrators along that road, and it was closed to regular traffic.

They proceeded the long way through many Druse villages and eventually arrived. The soldiers looked tired but excited to receive such a surprise -- pizza and soda. The moshav is composed of mostly Jews of North African descent; they received the soldiers warmly, with much food and kindness.

It makes a mother feel at ease knowing that her son is being cared for by caring people, and makes us realize how important it is to take care of the soldiers that are among us here in Gush Etzion.

On the moshav you could hear the constant sound of Israeli artillery pounding enemy positions over the border. The sound was deafening and impossible to describe. After leaving the moshav, the travelers passed an Israeli artillery firing position in a valley just below the road.

They stopped the car and watched and listened for a few minutes. First they saw smoke from the guns, and then they heard the painful, deafening boom of the weapons firing. The sound was so loud that it penetrated into the body and could be felt in your bones and muscles. It was an unforgettable experience.

On the way back to Gush Etzion, they decided to stop for the night in Herzeliya, where the driver had an apartment. The volunteers that were getting a ride home were thankful to get their first shower in several days and an even more special treat, dinner out in a fancy restaurant.

What a contrast to the bread and chocolate spread they had been subsisting on in Tsfat. Although it was nice for the volunteers to have such a special evening after working so hard under such difficult conditions, including risking their lives, it was hard for my husband to see the happy-go-lucky people of Herzeliyah enjoying themselves, while at that very moment their brothers and sisters in the north were enduring an experience that was almost unendurable -- not to mention our soldiers who are giving everything, literally, for the sake of the rest of the citizens of Israel.

We pray that their sacrifice will bring us closer to the true peace we all yearn for, and that all the citizens of Israel, north, south and center, will soon be able to enjoy themselves at fancy restaurants without worrying that a Katyusha missile might fall on their heads.

Donna Zeff is a freelance writer living in Alon Shvut, where she is raising her nine children. Her husband, Rabbi Joel Zeff, is the director of the Glassman Center for Humanity, a division of Ohr Torah Stone Institutions, and the former rabbi of the Westwood Kehilla.

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