Paying it forward

Gush Etzion residents opened ‘pina hama’ – a free canteen for soldiers in the area – as a way to say thank you for their service.

Pina Hama 521 (photo credit: Courtesy: Sharon Katz)
Pina Hama 521
(photo credit: Courtesy: Sharon Katz)
With hundreds of IDF soldiers bustling in and out all day long, in addition to area volunteers dropping off cakes and other baked goods around the clock, it’s surprising that the hinges on the door of Gush Etzion’s “pina hama” (“cozy corner”) canteen for soldiers haven’t yet popped off.
Established at the Gush Etzion Junction over 11 years ago for soldiers in need of a break from their tiresome duties seeking a cold drink, a piece of cake, a cup of coffee, or other treats – all presented with a friendly smile from a local resident volunteer – the canteen is a melting pot where IDF servicemen and women of all backgrounds gather to freshen up, re-energize, talk to friends, read a book or even to get to know the locals.
For the Gush residents who man the canteen on a volunteer basis six days a week, it’s a way to give back and say “thank you” to the soldiers for their dedication, commitment and service to the country and for ensuring their security.
Because it is open all day long – from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. (it closes at one on Fridays and is closed on Shabbat), volunteers map out detailed schedules three months in advance to make sure the place is always staffed so that each and every soldier gets a personal lift – physical or perhaps even psychological – from a friendly face before returning to his or her post.
The idea for the canteen took shape in 2001, during the height of second intifada, by two widows and Gush residents Ruti Gillis and Osnat (Ossi) Sasson, whose husbands, Dr. Shmuel Gillis and Tzachi Sasson, were murdered just 10 days apart in separate shooting attacks on area roads.
Sitting inside the canteen, which looks to be made of several oversized shipping containers fashioned together, the walls and ceiling decorated with dozens of IDF banners – thank-you gifts from the various IDF platoons that visit here, Gillis says she feels that the canteen is “the perfect answer to combat the hate which led to the killings of those who fell in attacks on the road.” She adds that “we decided to do something small in memory of our loved ones and as a way for the residents of the Gush to get to know the soldiers who are stationed here and who protect us.”
The conversation is quickly interrupted as a group of adolescent girls walks in to drop off trays of cupcakes and cookies that they baked for the soldiers on the occasion of the bat mitzva of one of the girls, in order to include the soldiers in the joyous occasion.
Minutes later, another group opens the door. This time it’s 13 seminary girls from abroad who are studying at Jerusalem’s Midreshet Lindenbaum for the year. They are led into the canteen by their teacher, Neveh Daniel resident Sally Mayer, to drop off four cakes that they have baked for the soldiers. Mayer, who is part of a group in her community that has been regularly baking cakes for soldiers on a volunteer basis for the past eight years, wants to show her students the importance of giving back to the troops.
Gillis says that these types of visits happen daily. She adds that “there are people in the Gush who have baked cakes every single month for the past 11 years, so that’s over 130 cakes! In addition to those who do the baking,” she says, “there is that whole group of dedicated volunteers who not only bake but then actually donate their time to man the canteen.”
Elazar resident Judy Ziegler has been volunteering behind the counter at the canteen three times a week for the past four years. She says that “the canteen has become an important part in the lives of my entire family.” When her daughter had her bat mitzva, the family donated a foosball table for the soldiers’ use. Her children are also involved in delivering care packages for soldiers and they, too, volunteer at the canteen during special holiday events including an annual massive Independence Day barbecue, which this year drew nearly 1,000 soldiers.
“The soldiers appreciate this place so much,” says Ziegler. “They are always thanking us, calling it ‘holy work.’ Some of them, before finishing their active duty in this area, come in to say thank you and good-bye. Often, soldiers come back and visit.”
Gillis stresses that it isn’t just about giving the soldiers coffee or a piece of cake; It’s also about the soldiers getting to know the residents that they are protecting.
“As you can see,” she points out, “we didn’t just put out a coffee machine, but we serve them coffee from behind the counter. This way there is interaction and a connection is established.” She adds that “sometimes soldiers might have a false image of what a ‘settler’ is. When they meet us, they see that there are nice people here. We don’t have to agree on everything, but we have to get along.
That’s another main reason I got involved in this project – to spread that message.”
In addition to coffee and cake, the canteen features a juice machine, a slushie machine, a popcorn maker, a water cooler and other choice of food and drink that one might find in a small grocery store. There is also an ample comfortable seating area with chairs and tables inside the canteen and a shaded area outside for the soldiers to rest, smoke, or schmooze.
In addition, there is a small library with both religious and secular books for the troops to read while they are unwinding and snacking.
Gillis says that the entire operation is able to maintain itself thanks to the generosity of private donors both here and abroad. She is also grateful to the Gush Etzion Regional Council for providing the location for the canteen to be opened back in 2001 and for its continued support.
Soldiers come and go throughout the conversation, and Sergeant G. helps himself to some cold juice. He is taking a break from guard duty at a nearby junction to grab a drink and some cookies before going back out to his post.
“These people give 120 percent of themselves,” he says. “I come in a few times a day for drinks or food, and they always greet me with a smile. In one word, they are wonderful.”
Gillis, who stops in almost every day to talk to the soldiers or see how the volunteers are doing, leans back and smiles. “I still get emotional every time I come here,” she says. “It’s a place filled with so much love.”