Growing up a traditional Jewish girl on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the 1970s, Bonnie Rosenbaum was always proud of Israel. Israel’s raid on Entebbe was especially meaningful to the young teen.
In 1976, an Air France plane flying from Tel Aviv to Paris was hijacked by Palestinian and German hijackers. Over 100 Israeli passengers and Air France crew were held hostage in Uganda. When the IDF rescued the hostages in a dramatic operation, “everyone was so proud and amazed and it put Israel on the map in so many ways,” beams Rosenbaum.
At the age of 14, Bonnie became more religiously committed and attended a high school affiliated with Yeshiva University.
She founded the Lower East Side chapter of NCSY, an Orthodox youth group, and she served as the NCSY regional president during her senior year in high school.
At the time, Natan Sharansky was still in prison and Bonnie stood on the streets of Manhattan collecting signatures on a petition to have him released.
She approached one woman to ask for a signature. That woman was Avital Sharansky, Natan’s wife, who hugged her and blessed her for her efforts.
At 16, Bonnie came to Israel for the first time, on a three-week tour with her mother. They stayed with a family in Mattersdorf, a neighborhood in Jerusalem.
The experience was so positive that she returned two years later on another group tour. “I didn’t spend a year in Israel after high school, but I came back a bunch of times. I just loved the country and everything about it. I loved the people. I really believe that there’s nowhere else for us to be living than here,” she explains.
Rosenbaum has seven children and four grandchildren. She made aliya with her then-husband and two youngest children. She has three married children in the US, one married daughter in Haifa, and, very recently, one of her single daughters made aliya as well.
“My mother was impacted by the fact that, during World War II, there was no army and no place for the Jews to run,” she reflects.
By contrast, Bonnie’s children grew up in a Zionist home. “I always took the kids to the Israel Day parade. I always spoke to them about how important Israel is when events happened, especially the September 11 attacks. As a child, I used to ride my bicycle from the Lower East Side to the Twin Towers. So after 9/11, I understood that there’s no such thing as borders. If terrorism is crossing borders, then no place is safe. It’s more of a reason to come here. At the end of the day, it’s our people who are going to protect us.”
Thinking ahead, Bonnie’s aliya decision was clear. “I also felt that something big is on the horizon. Everyone is going to wind up here anyway, so I might as well get an apartment I like before there are none available,” she says, laughing.
The real drama in Bonnie’s life comes from her drive to serve others.
“I was always involved in community hesed [kindness] organizations. It’s a big part of who I am. It’s part of my tikkun olam [repairing the world]. When I first got here, I started a small company called Bubbie’s Babka. I do Shabbat meals and baking.
“Last year, during the war, I would bring trays of cakes and potato kugel twice a week to the Pina Chama in Gush Etzion (where soldiers can stop in and get refreshments and a warm welcome).
Then I went on to the Michael Levine Lone Soldiers Center website and filled out volunteer form.”
They called her for help. The project? Feeding 700 lone soldiers on Thanksgiving 2014. “A month later, they got in touch again, asking if I would coordinate communities making Shabbat meals for lone soldiers.”
From those humble beginnings, Bonnie has grown the program to include 28 communities, such as Ma’aleh Adumim, Kiryat Arba, Gush Etzion, Ramat Beit Shemesh, Beitar, Modi’in, Yad Binyamin and many more. “The communities provide everything from grape juice to garanim [sunflower seeds]. Nothing goes in the trash. Soldiers take home leftovers.”
In addition to communities pulling together to provide Friday night dinners for groups of lone soldiers, Bonnie helped organize food for events on Independence Day, Shavuot, Purim, March Madness and graduation after basic training. She’s even coordinated volunteers to cater a wedding for a lone soldier.
“I was adopted at birth. I’m recently divorced, but during my married life, we always took in other kids, in addition to seven I gave birth to. They stayed with us anywhere from two days to 13½ years. All Jewish kids. Kids on drugs, kids from broken homes. Our house was always rocking. Now that it’s empty, it’s killing me. So there’s some connection to the lone soldiers and knowing how lucky you are being adopted.”
Her inspiration and drive to be of service clearly benefits Israel’s lone soldiers.
Through her efforts so far, 4,500 meals have been prepared and served.
“Now each community has kids get involved to draw cards and notes, which go into the packages and decorate the tables,” she reports.
“I always feel that lone soldiers have no reason in the world why they have to be here. They come from nice homes, nice communities. They are leaving real comforts. It doesn’t make sense what they’re doing.
“I went with one of my daughters to a Friday night meal in the Center and I met some of them. It really puts a perspective on what’s important and what’s not important. What are our goals in life? We’re really here only for a short amount of time. How can we leave a good impression on the world? “Seeing these kids who give up everything… it’s not glamorous. It’s really scary. I see that I can help in some way, use my talents to organize and get things done, to help them be more successful.
“I really benefit. I really don’t look at my own Shabbat table the same anyone. I feel gratified to know that I was the conduit between these soldiers and the communities.
“It’s just a good messenger job I have. I like what I’m finding out about everybody. We’re really nice people and we really want to help. Volunteers want to do more, not less. You connect yourself to a greater purpose.
“My life in America was work and home. In Israel, I have time for Zumba, swimming, ceramics. I didn’t live in America. I live here and I’m enjoying everything I do. It’s all on my terms now.
I don’t have to fit into a box anymore. I enjoy it. Definitely not the same financial rewards, but… “I really think that we are all just so capable of reinventing yourself here and living your dreams. That’s what I’m doing. By doing what I love, I’ve found my mission. I started off as a volunteer and really taking my passions and making it reality. It all started by feeding our soldiers one community at a time. It’s really just an honor to be that person.”
Bonnie is always looking for more communities to prepare meals and provide other necessities for lone soldiers.If you’re interested in getting involved in any way, contact Bonnie at firstname.lastname@example.org.