SA volunteers to Israel give and receive comfort
Israeli solidarity missions are attracting South African community members, whether it be to make a difference on the ground, bear witness to the atrocities of 7 October, or show Israel just how united the Jewish nation is.
“You can read as many articles as you like or see as many pictures as you like, but until you stand on the ground in Be’eri and until you look into the eyes of the people who’ve been broken by the events of 7 October, you can’t really understand,” says Gabi Bricker, the chairperson of Mizrachi South Africa. Bricker is among about 14 South Africans on the Mizrachi and Yeshiva College Solidarity Mission to Israel.
Speaking to the SA Jewish Report after completing the first day of the tour, Bricker, who has always had a deep connection to Israel, has already been profoundly impacted by the experience. Aimed at bearing witness to what happened, demonstrating that the Jews are one nation, and providing practical assistance, the tour has a varied and intense schedule that changes with the evolving situation.
“We’re also here to give strength where we can,” Bricker says. “We met Tamar who is from a small yishuv called Shlomit on the border of Gaza and Egypt, who told the story of looking after her five small children in their safe room while there were bombs falling everywhere. She talked about how the husbands of four of her close friends left their homes to protect the yishuv next door. Just to look into her eyes, and see the deep trauma of what it means not to feel safe – I don’t know if we appreciate this fully. Though we potentially feel a little more unsafe than we used to living with current levels of antisemitism, it’s not this deep-rooted fear that we saw in her eyes.”
The group also met the head of World Mizrachi, Johannesburg-born Rabbi Doron Perez, whose message of strength and conviction in the Jewish people and our future was inspirational, says Bricker. “Both the rabbi and Tamar spoke about what it means to see Jews coming from all over the world. They said this isn’t about Israelis, or a particular sect, this is about all Jews – we really are all one nation with one heart. You can’t demonstrate that as effectively from afar.”
Naomi Hadar, the executive director of African Friends of Sheba Medical Center, is planning a Friends of Sheba mission to Israel open to people across its worldwide hubs. She’s hoping to get 10 South African participants on one of the packed weekly flights to Israel on El Al in December.
“The mission involves volunteering for a few afternoons at the Sheba Medical Center in Israel to meet soldiers, affected families, victims of terror, and possibly some parents of Hamas hostages, as well as those involved in Achim La’Chaim [Brothers for Life], a non-profit organisation which provides support for wounded Israeli soldiers,” Hadar says. Participants will also travel to kibbutzim, moshavim, and the police station in Sderot, all of which were attacked on 7 October, and will volunteer in the hard-hit agricultural sector.
“The feeling in Israel is that nobody cares about us, especially in South Africa, in which the government and senior politicians are against Israel,” says Hadar. “So, to see a group of people coming from South Africa and supporting Israel, it’s heartwarming.”
Praising South Africa’s medical community, Hadar says that immediately after the 7 October massacre, the African Friends of Sheba Medical Center was overwhelmed by the number of doctors in South Africa who were – and still are – willing to volunteer in Israel.
Thankfully, Sheba doesn’t need their services at the moment as its doctors around the world have all returned to Israel. However, there’s still a list of these more than 50 South African doctors, psychologists, occupational therapists, and physiotherapists, who are ready to be called upon.
“South African volunteers are well known in Israel,” she says, “even since 1948, when the state of Israel was declared and a South African established our air force. A number of South African doctors also established hospitals and medical facilities in Israel.”
Michal Kahanovitz recently returned from a week-long solidarity trip to Israel organised by Midreshet Harova and World Mizrachi. “We went to provide strength, comfort, to volunteer, and to help,” she says, “Yet, what I don’t think we realised was how much strength and comfort the people we met would give us. We met and held the survivors, the refugees, the chayalim [soldiers], and the nation, and they held us.”
Another aim of the trip was to bear witness to unspeakable atrocities. Though the group heard many chilling, first-hand survivor testimonies, Kahanovitz was particularly struck by a survivor who shared his story while sitting in his kibbutz home.
“Hearing his personal story of fear, death, and destruction on the worst day in recent Jewish history while sitting in a home that’s still scattered with bullet holes, shattered glass, the belongings of the terrorist, and blood, was truly heartbreaking,” she says. “This soft-spoken man in his early 20s told his story of how he battled against the invading terrorists, lost his father and uncle, and will be going back into Gaza to continue his fight.”
Masa, which offers immersive international experiences in Israel for young adults, is also planning Israel solidarity trips for those aged between 18 and 40. For now, three groups are going, with the first departing on 5 December, says Mendy Grauman, Masa Israel Journey’s Israel youth programme consultant.
“Fellows will have options so that they end up volunteering in places where they can make the biggest difference,” says Grauman. “They will generally volunteer four to five times a week in various roles including in education, humanitarian work, social action, kibbutz, coexistence, and more. Fellows can also choose to volunteer in high-risk communities assisting with displaced families, mentoring displaced children, agricultural support, and other initiatives,” he says.