Young blood

Israeli youth making a difference

By: Paula Levin

“Ordinarily, specific government departments would tackle each of these challenges and deploy the necessary resources – but this is no ordinary time.”

Who said youth is wasted on the young? Israeli teens and adolescents are stepping up in a big way to make a real difference in a country at war and still reeling from October 7th’s devastating attacks. The need is seemingly endless, with humanitarian challenges on all fronts, but young people are using their idealism, ingenuity, and (much coveted) energy and time to offer kindness and service where it’s most needed. They don’t have to look far to find an opportunity to help.

Hundreds of thousands (some say up to half a million) have been displaced by border confrontations in both the north and south of the country. Many left home with just the clothes on their back and months into the war still cannot return home. For some, the homes and communities they left no longer exist – burned to the ground by Hamas terrorists. Others cannot return because of the constant threat of attacks by Iranian proxies Hamas in the south and Hezbollah on the border with Lebanon. These families need everything! Clothes, food, shelter, groceries, and help with their children as the men are either spending the week tending to their farms or have been called up on “miluim” – army reserve duty. The children’s schools in these compromised areas are closed. In earlier stages of the war, schools across the country could not return to normal functioning. Allowing all children back required that bomb shelters had capacity to protect all on campus – and they were never built to fulfil this need. Thus, classes were determined by bomb shelter capacity, leaving thousands of children at a loose end, with parents conscripted or needing to work.

Then there are the soldiers. About 360 000 reserves were called up presenting the IDF with an unprecedented logistical nightmare. These soldiers had to be fed, clothed, sheltered, and prepared for war. There were massive shortages of everything – from flashlights and winter gear to bullet proof vests.

Massively impacted by the attack and subsequent war is Israel’s agricultural sector. Before October 7th, tens of thousands of foreign workers and West Bank Palestinians provided most of the labour on farms in the south. In the aftermath, 10 000 foreign workers left the country and Israel has not allowed up to 20 000 Palestinians the necessary work permits to return to their jobs – fearing more terrorism. Israel’s food security and economy is threatened by crop failures because harvests could not take place and the window for planting the new crop is closing.

Ordinarily, specific government departments would tackle each of these challenges and deploy the necessary resources – but this is no ordinary time. Volunteers, young and old, stepped into the breach. A Hebrew University analysis by Professor Michal Almog-Bar found that almost 50% of Israeli society got involved in grassroots efforts to alleviate these and other crises. Her study further found that pre-existing social divisions were set aside, as over 1000 diverse civil initiatives were created. Donations by average citizens raised an estimated NIS 100 million ($25 million) during the two weeks covered by the study. At the time of writing, it’s estimated that American Jewry donated over $1 billion dollars.

Organisations previously established to protest the proposed judicial overhaul quickly pivoted. They were well-organised, close-knit, and motivated, so they were able to immediately leverage their infrastructure to support the war effort. Factions who had previously refused to sit down together in talks suddenly realised they were brothers. They metamorphosed overnight from activists against the government’s divisive judicial reform proposals into coordinators of a massive effort to rescue and support fellow citizens in distress. One such initiative was based at the Expo Tel Aviv International Convention Center. In a matter of days, it had distributed nearly two-thirds of 12 526 items of civilian equipment donated, found accommodation for nearly 8000 displaced families, distributed 120 000 food portions and 200 packs of medical supplies, transported 8000 civilians and soldiers, provided more than 1000 activities for evacuated children, and sent out 150 sets of equipment to host crowds at families sitting shiva – gazebos, plastic tables and chairs, fans, water heaters, and refreshments. It had even rescued 120 pets. Almost every truck and bus company had volunteered vehicles to transport civilian equipment around the country.

Parents’ organisations, youth sports teams, and neighbourhood associations quickly mobilised their members into grassroots efforts. “Israel is a very familial society, we feel very attached to each other and the communities we live in – that’s why when there is a need and a dramatic event, the first thing people ask is, ‘How can I help?’” said the study’s author. “Initiatives cover so many areas: helping soldiers, sending equipment, helping people who were evacuated, and psychological treatments for people dealing with trauma… In every field you can think of there is activity, including among the Arab and ultra-Orthodox populations.” Hi tech volunteers developed algorithms to match tattoos, special markings, and clothes to unidentifiable bodies. Eritrean asylum seekers were serving food for everyone – 300 portions per day – which the community’s women had cooked at home. And on the frontlines of all these relief efforts and more were teenagers whose schools had been shuttered and university students whose semester start was deferred to December.

Adolescence is usually characterised as a rather “selfish” life stage where young people are not called upon to do much more than household chores and take responsibility for their schoolwork. In South Africa, their freedom is also seriously curtailed by safety concerns, driving only at 18 and helicopter parenting. Our young people are glued to social media, checking JPost a hundred times a day, denouncing BBC, starting arguments online, and going to the odd rally or protest – but unable to do anything practical to help! Not so in Israel.

In the first week after the war, while rockets were raining down across the south, my sister explained that her 18-year-old son Elnatan, whose yeshiva was closed, had refused to stay indoors and had gone off to Ashkelon everyday – amid constant rocket alerts – to help entertain children of medical personnel who were needed at hospitals to attend to mass casualties, leaving their children in bomb shelters in the city. She was both proud and terrified.

With schools closed, Elnatan’s 16-year-old sister Yakira and her teenage friends helped set up and man a hospitality station at the entrance to their yishuv in Yad Binyamin, which stands on the main highway down to the south. There they sang and danced with soldiers, bolstering their morale, handed out pizzas and refreshments, and listened with horror to soldiers returning from battles and clean-up operations in the south.

Yakira and friends were ready and able to sort through donations pouring in from around the country and landing in Yad Binyamin to be boxed and distributed to thousands of soldiers making their way down to the border. The donation hub was called the “chamal” – an acronym for cheder milchama (war room) – and the teens spent hours creating order out of the chaos. In a flurry of WhatsApps that went viral throughout the yishuv, these young girls took the chesed a step further, arranging an event for wives of soldiers and women from displaced families. The women enjoyed tea, coffee, and snacks while Yakira’s cohort of Ezra’s youth group madrichot mobilised their 10-year-old chanichot to entertain the small children and give the mothers a much-needed break. Other activities included making thousands of sandwiches for soldiers on the move and organising tributes to those tragically lost in battle – such as a hafrashat challah event for fallen soldier Dvir Lisha. Not content with all of that, they also volunteered on farms to help harvest crops, where they were joined by teens and young people from across the country responding to an acute manpower shortage. When school resumed, they visited hostage square – to show their solidarity and support for the kidnapped and their loved ones.

Yuval, Roee, and Shahar were three Ben Gurion university students with no special connection, but they came together to create ‘For the Students’. Realising that months without schooling would set many students back, they offered private online lessons on a completely volunteer basis, for students from 1st to 12th grade in subjects like mathematics, English, physics, programming, and additional core subjects.

Tel Aviv University’s (TAU) student union initiated a massive collection drive, while Dr Anat Gafni and Prof. Ram Fishman (who both teach on the international master’s programme) asked first-year students from Honduras, China, and Russia to volunteer on farms in the south. “It made me realise how important the sense of community is – with people working together for a common cause,” said Jose Cristobal Padilla Arias. “It’s a good way to acknowledge the hard work that agriculture involves, which makes you value it more. After all, agriculture is one of the fundamental elements of an economy – it provides us with food.” 800 TAU students, faculty, and staff have travelled to farms near the Israeli-Gaza border to provide much-needed assistance in agricultural work. Three times a week a bus with about 40 TAU volunteers arrives at the farm that needs it most to salvage the harvest or help sow a new one. Many volunteers returned again and again, getting to know the farmers better and forming personal bonds. 1000 Birthright alumni arrived in Israel in December to volunteer wherever they were needed.

Students with a special interest in politics, news, and social media have risen up to fight the battle of public opinion. TAU international master’s students Ari Spielman and Maria Elluli are two of the founders of the Social Media Task Force, disseminating truthful and fact-based information. “Because in war the first thing that dies is truth,” they said. “We are verifying survivor accounts and uploading stories so that in the future … this can’t be something where it’s said it didn’t happen – because Holocaust denial, genocide denial … this is something that happens even in a day and age when we have verified photo information. Telling the story of the victims, we distance ourselves from contributing to the statistical games that attempt to place morality on the ‘side’ with the most casualties.”

Bar Ilan graduate Jessica Scalis has leveraged her degree in Political Science and Communication to create short, factual social media content to counteract the lies and libels on social media. Her Instagram posts under the handle @IsraelUnmasked offer pithy, punchy insights into the Israel Palestine conflict that cut through the drivel and obfuscation and are imminently shareable. “In just two weeks I managed to connect with over 30 000 people across the world. My words and campaigns are making a difference, and the reach is farther than anything I ever could have imagined.”

American Bernard Moerdler (23) is a remarkable Bar Ilan student involved in several volunteer efforts. He’s still completing a Bachelor of Science degree in the AI aspects of computational biology but has already authored a paper called PTOLEMI: Personalized Cancer Treatment through Machine Learning-Enabled Image Analysis of Microfluidic Assays, a potential breakthrough in point-of-care cancer diagnostics! Bernard has been spending his time providing 24/7 updates to BNN (Bernie News Network) – an intelligence-based online news service that publishes timely and accurate news items containing information straight from the sources (no fluff or opinion), available on platforms like WhatsApp and Telegram. BNN has over 6000 followers. “I started BNN in 2016 and really believe in its potential to be the future of news. I hope it can protect the good name of Israel by sticking to the facts. We get news straight from the source, from soldiers, government officials, Israelis, and Americans, in Israel and Gaza.”

Bernie is also a one-man logistics phenomenon. When his university friends were called up and told him about equipment shortages, he turned to his American network of family and friends. “I call it the Jewish parents’ logistical network and it is surprisingly powerful! I’ve recruited parents to bring stuff from America in extra suitcases every time they fly. The Jewish world is a small place. When we needed armoured helmets one parent had a nephew at a company… And that’s how it’s been with cigarettes, vests, radios, flashlights, and so many more supplies. Soldiers in Gaza to 800 small towns in the north have been relying on Americans bringing stuff in. Israel is a small country and the need has been huge.” When asked what made him even think he could do anything significant to help his answer was simple: “I’ve always had the belief that there’s no harm in trying,” he says. That’s how he and a friend created a full-scale Boeing 787 flight simulator using 3D printing, laser cutting, and woodworking in high school, and how he’s truly making a difference! “My grandfather told me that one day I’d either become really successful or end up in jail,” he laughs.

Ashira Chasen (17) lives in Raanana and had some insight into how teens and young people across the country suddenly became its heroes. “Young people in Israel are always looking for ways to help, not only in this war,” she explains. “In Israel we have a lot of freedom and doing chesed is a way to use our independence and be part of something bigger than ourselves. The hardest part was at the beginning of the war when we just had all this trauma and tragedy and we didn’t know what we could do. We are raised to be sensitive to other people and to do what is in or power to make a difference.” Before the war broke out, Ashira had been a madricha for Bnei Akiva for two years and her group had arranged a bat mitzvah for a family without financial means as well as a wedding! Every week she drives a troubled young girl to get a haircut. From a religious family, now totally secular, this adolescent had been living on the streets of Jerusalem and was sent to a rehabilitation hospital in Raanana. “Why does she need a haircut every week?” I asked. “She likes her hair short,” Ashira explained!

“When the war started, we all got involved in so many projects. We were asked to tie tzitzit because there was an unprecedented demand from soldiers. We volunteered at a hub in Raanana where we packed food, toiletries, and winter supplies for chayalim and people from our area would drive it down south. When school started, we were taken to help out on farms. It’s the way we live here in Israel. We care about each other.”

My friend Andi Saitowitz, a Raanana-based coach, tried to guide her three children in the days following the massacre. She explained to them that everyone reacts to trauma differently. Some fight, some freeze, some flee. “I told my kids that there is no right or wrong way to feel about what happened. I said I can’t tell you how to deal with this but I can tell you two things you have to do every day: exercise and help! Move your body to release the trauma, and volunteer!” Andi then wrote this profound reflection on how much Israeli youth’s education has been impacted by the war. “I keep hearing people say our kids are falling far behind. There are significant gaps in the traditional way of their learning and our entire education system, and we won’t be able to bridge these soon, or ever, necessarily. However, our kids have grown massively and are more than we could imagine they would be at this stage of their lives, given how they have turned this crisis into the most unbelievable meaningful opportunities, alongside the agony, fear, sadness, and volatility. And for this, I believe they are way, way ahead! My 18-year-old daughter is doing more impactful work in her national service than she would in any other place in the world at her age. It’s mind-blowing. My high school children are volunteering and contributing to the community and country in ways that leave me in awe. Together with their friends, school, youth movement, and our wider community of phenomenal people, they are collecting donations for soldiers and displaced families, they are BBQing on army bases, they are working the land and helping with the agricultural crisis on different farms and fields across the country. They are dog walking. They are letter writing and picture drawing. They are constantly baking and making sandwiches. They are helping young families with their children whose parents have been called up, they are praying. Very hard. They are tying ribbons and posters around the city. They are creating fun activities for small children from the south. They are active on their social media accounts defending their country with pride. They know far too much. They see far too much. They feel far too much. Their hearts have shattered far too much. And what they have stepped up to share, contribute, create and help with, is very very much. And they understand they are part of a unique, special nation. And they are part of a story so much larger than themselves. And it’s beautiful. And it’s so deeply painful. And I don’t think they are behind. I think maybe they’ve grown up way too fast. And I am so proud of them.”

My friend Sarah Sassoon, a Jerusalem-based poet and author, shared the following: “War is a new education. My 15-year-old son before October 7 was not going to return to school after Sukkot. He has ADHD and learning challenges. He was going late to school and cutting classes. He was always on his phone. Now everything has changed. He’s still always on his phone. He has become our main source of Hebrew information and news. Now he is waking up early and volunteering to take supplies to the South, getting jobs helping to clear security shelters, and he has also adopted a young boy with special needs. All in a week. Over Shabbat he said to us, ‘You know, it doesn’t matter how you look. It doesn’t matter if you’re fat or thin, or how your hair is. What matters is what you do.’ I asked him, ‘What makes you say that?’ He replied, ‘When you read about the dead from the South it doesn’t say how they looked, but what they did in this world, if they were married, how many kids they had.’”

Israel’s war has revealed to its youth something many adults still struggle to believe: They are significant. They matter. And the greatest thing we ever achieve in this world is service to others.

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