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Israel volunteers help others, heal themselves

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When 63-year-old Kyalami resident Penny Van A heard about the massacre in the south of Israel on 7 October, she felt compelled to go and help.

It led to her volunteering in Israel, finding opportunities through the Facebook page “Sword of Iron Israel Volunteer Opportunities”.

“I’m not Jewish, and I don’t have many Jewish friends. I don’t live in a Jewish community. The events of 7 October were just brutal. I couldn’t come to terms with what happened,” she said. “As I watched the world’s reaction, I got quite angry because it was so one-sided and uneducated.”

She was listening to a podcast where an Israeli woman urged people to come and see Israel for themselves, and this deeply affected Van A. She had been looking for something to do to escape the humdrum of her life in South Africa for a while. She struggled to find the perfect destination because she was looking for somewhere to get her hands dirty and interact with the community, so Israel seemed like the ideal time-out place.

Similarly, Lauren Dorfman, a primary school teacher originally from Cape Town who now lives in Melbourne, was also looking to volunteer in Israel from 6 until 27 June while in the country for a wedding.

“I decided to go to Israel to volunteer because my heart was aching. I thought that the best thing to do would be to give hands-on assistance as much as possible to help Israelis with what they were going through,” Dorfman said.

She also joined the Facebook group Sword of Iron to plan her volunteering expedition.

As soon as she stepped off the plane on 6 June, Dorfman jumped straight into it with a group called Eran’s Angels in the Tel Aviv Convention Centre.

“They’ve converted a huge part of the car park of the convention centre into a big warehouse,” said Dorfman. “People bring in all kinds of donations for displaced people, soldiers, and anyone in need. People like me then come and sort and pack depending on what’s needed. I was busy sorting linens, finding duvet covers, bottom sheets, and pillowcases to match.”

“There’s lots and lots of donations flying in from around the world for displaced families and soldiers. Someone must manage all these things, and they do an incredible job there,” said Van A, who was in Israel from 15 May for two weeks.

“Each day, I decided what I was going to do,” said Van A. “There’s a lady called Mor who has a horse farm with 12 horses that I volunteered at. She broke her leg and couldn’t take care of everything. So, I went to help with the horses, cleaning the stable, cleaning the horses, and various other things. I also worked at an animal shelter. There was one dog called Bookie that some Israel Defense Forces soldiers had found in Gaza. Bookie was very traumatised, and they brought her back to Israel. I spent most of that day just speaking to Bookie,” she said.

Dorfman volunteered at a vegan kosher restaurant called J17 in Tel Aviv.

“The guy who owns J17, Asaf, has been providing meals for soldiers and Nova festival survivors,” said Dorfman.

“We drove to an army base in Rehovot and provided a vegan lunch for more than 200 soldiers,” she said. “They loved it. They were so grateful, and they wrote to Asaf afterwards saying how much it meant to them for us to be there. It gave them so much strength.”

Van A also spent some time talking to people at Hostages Square in Tel Aviv.

“It touched something so deep inside me that even now that I’m home, I think about it. To be able to sit with people who are hurting so badly but are prepared to share their stories was such a huge opportunity for me,” Van A said. “I live in a bubble inside my head. So, to sit with these people and talk to them was amazing. The astonishing thing was how grateful everybody was that I’d taken the time to go there. The gratitude still overwhelms me.”

Dorfman spent a whole day packing melons on a moshav near the Gaza border with Israel’s food bank Leket. The group was picked up in Tel Aviv early in the morning so they could spend the whole day packing.

“There were about 20 or 30 of us from all over the world. Everyone was motivated, and the guy said that he had never had such an amazing group of workers,” said Dorfman.

Said Van A, “To this day, I can’t tell you why I chose to go to Israel. I admire the women of Israel. They’re like me. They’re extremely strong. I was shown the strength of Israelis on this trip, and I hope others feel the same way.”

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