Surplus of support

With loved ones serving in the military, Israelis are trying to find a way to contribute and give back, but is their generosity going to waste?

A soldier sleeps at a base camp near the border with the Gaza Strip, surrounded by packages donated by citizens. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
A soldier sleeps at a base camp near the border with the Gaza Strip, surrounded by packages donated by citizens.
The young visitor struggled to read the Hebrew on the card.
“I’m sorry, my mistakes were corrected, and I... I don’t know what it says,” she admitted regretfully.
“It’s OK, just speak from your heart,” the soldier urged her on, as tears filled his eyes and he lay frail, unable to move in the bed.
Around them, the hospital room was chaos. Young girls in miniskirts and sandals elbowed for room among Chabadniks. There were prayers recited and home-baked cookies handed out. Family and friends filled the chairs and surrounded the beds. But despite it all, the soldier and the girl, a stranger to him, seemed alone in their own world.
“It’s OK, tell me,” he said, reassuring her. He was getting ready to go into surgery with his collarbone shattered, and struggled to keep his eyes open through the pain medication.
“Just, thank you,” she said as the tears began to well up in her eyes. “We all love you so much and the little bit we could do to help is not enough.”
As days turned into weeks and Operation Protective Edge reached full force, the pictures and names of the dead occupied front and center in the daily news.
More IDF reservists were called up, more wounded filled the hospitals – and the public felt at a loss as to how to help.
For Chai Rapoport, the young girl visiting the soldier, it was a natural reaction to go to the hospital.
During the second intifada she was taken around by her father, a rabbi, and saw the effect a personal visit and a small gift could have.
“We’re all on edge, we’re all ready to snap at any moment,” the 23-year-old Brit said, as she began unpacking a shopping cart of marshmallows, fruit and scented candles at Hadassah University Medical Center in Jerusalem’s Ein Kerem last week. “The only way I won’t completely break down is by doing what I’m doing.” Since the call-up of 40,000 reservists, the public has responded with an immense outpouring of support.
From individuals to large organizations, collections began with home-baked goods and food, to larger packages of clothing and toiletries. In a general search of the Internet, the number of places to donate are multiple and varied; funds for lone soldiers, army wives, donations specifically for French immigrants, requests from specific units, or individuals driving down and giving out supplies to the first base they come across.
Yoseff Shachor, a reservist serving in Gaza, said, in his opinion, a lot of it was going to waste.
He said that in the beginning, the snacks delivered to the base were a good morale booster and a change from the army diet. But as time went on and the donations kept coming, “it got to the point where we couldn’t look at another bag of Bamba.”
People then began asking what the soldiers really wanted. The best donations were warm sandwiches, Shachor said, because they were like a “real meal” and a change from snacks and tuna.
But, he maintained, there is an unnecessary surplus. “A lot of the shirts were used once and thrown away, because we kept on getting new ones.”
One reservist commented that soldiers would take a package of baby wipes for their business in the woods, then leave the entire package. The next time they went, they would grab a whole new package.
Rapoport, for her part, started collecting goods based on speaking to her own friends in the army, or friends of friends.
She first mentioned wanting to collect for the soldiers through friends and family, then through Facebook. With that, she said, donations just kept pouring in.
From the supplies she’s bought, the gifts she’s packaged and a rented car to bring it all to the border, she says she’s spent a few thousand shekels.
Most donations come from abroad, and even people Rapoport has no connection with have found her online to give donations.
“I get messages and they say, ‘I wish there was more I could do for Israel.’” OFFICIAL CHANNEL But are all these unofficial donations creating a problem? For one reservist, the war has turned into a “festival.” The massive number of people driving to the border, one kilometer from where people are being killed, poses a major threat to security and safety.
On Monday, a mortar shell attack killed four soldiers in a staging area in the Eshkol region. Also on Monday, a soldier in Israel was hit by cross-border sniper fire.
The military has taken to setting up roadblocks to stop people from visiting soldiers along the border and dropping off supplies, but they can’t officially stop people from passing.
The only official channel to donate goods to the army is through the Association for the Wellbeing of Israel’s Soldiers and Keren LIBI. These are specific branches of the army that receive both monetary donations and other goods, which the IDF screens for security, then coordinates among the units to see which items are needed and where.
“A pizza party is great, but it’s best when the army decides how to allocate funds,” said Tuly Weisz, donations manager at the American Friends of LIBI.
An officer working in the LIBI office in Kiryat Ono, who was unable to give his name as he is not authorized to comment, dismissed out of hand that donations were going to waste. “Absolutely not,” he said.
“People should not stop donating things to the army, but the question is they don’t know where it needs to be. LIBI goes through the process of making sure the people who need it get it.”
Shachor echoed the sentiment that his unit was receiving more snacks than actual useful equipment. “We were taking over houses in Gaza and we only had one flashlight in the entire platoon. It made it almost impossible to work at night, and extremely dangerous.”
Another soldier, recovering at Hadassah Ein Kerem, also suggested that donations focus on books or magazines, light reading material to help keep soldiers busy and distract them.
The staff at LIBI is small, fewer than 15 people, and they have been working around the clock to sort donations from every part of the country, either receiving truckloads of boxes or going to different cities for pick-up. LIBI also purchases necessary items with monetary donations. The official notes that most donations have been geared towards men – such as underwear and t-shirts – and not many items specifically for women.
Their efforts to inform the public, however, have been scarce, with close to no presence on social media. To keep private individuals from dropping off items directly to soldiers in the South, the military has taken to setting up roadblocks and turning cars away.
Large private organizations have taken on the role of helping to streamline donations. Weisz, at American Friends of LIBI, says it is very important for people to contribute, because “the army is stretched so thin doing what’s most important. Each Iron Dome [interceptor] costs $50,000.”
American Friends of LIBI, an all-volunteer organization with 95 percent of donations going to the army, says most of the their efforts go toward helping with the educational, recreational, social and religious needs of soldiers. They also serve as a direct line of communication between those who want to donate certain items to specific units, while working through the army.
“Parents of lone soldiers will contact us and we’ll find out that their son’s unit doesn’t have great water bottles and canteens,” Weisz said. American Friends of LIBI is then able to send the canteens directly to the requested unit.
But there is no question that some bases are overflowing with goods. Is there communication set up to give back some of the items, or to donate them to families in need? Leket Israel, the national food bank, has been in communication with the army to rescue food that would otherwise be thrown out, in addition to its normal activities of food rescue. “We’ve collected, until now, 220,000 fresh rolls, due to changes of what they’re doing in the South,” Leket CEO Gidi Kroch said. “This happened three or four times already.”
That was just in terms of standard-issue army fare. What about the masses of snacks and drinks people have been donating? “We’ve had specific Iron Dome units call to say people are dropping off food... and we picked up about two tons of [snacks and drinks]. On top of that, we have soldiers calling in saying, ‘I’m on my way up North and can someone meet me there because my car is full of food that we don’t need.’” The majority of Leket Israel’s efforts are being focused on the South, coordinating with different agencies that provide to soup kitchens or shelters for children. But, Kroch says, he has yet to receive any calls for redistribution of an overabundance of toiletries and clothes.
“If someone does approach us we’d be happy to help,” he said. For Shachor, his solution is to transfer the goods to families in need. “There’s nothing else to do with them.”
But for many, creating packages and donating food or clothes is the only way to have some control in an uncontrollable situation.
“People want to do something, anything, as it takes away the sense of helplessness that they feel,” says Dr.
Batya Ludman, a clinical psychologist in Ra’anana and contributor to The Jerusalem Post.
Ludman continues that in peacetime, donations are usually low as many people are preoccupied with their own day-to-day lives. Yet times of crisis – like war – bring people together. By contributing, they can be part of a solution. “People want to do ‘something’ as a way to contribute and as a way to say thanks, because they are OK and they know that others are not.”
The same could be said for Gal, a 27-year-old from Hod Hasharon who arrived at Hadassah for a meeting the same morning Rapoport was there. Gal, who’s own boyfriend is serving in Gaza, saw Rapoport packaging and asked if she could buy something to contribute. Instead, Gal was handed a pen and a notepad, asked to compose personal notes for each of the gifts. She then spent the whole day walking around the hospital with Rapoport, visiting the soldiers and handing out the gifts.
Rapoport visited 10 soldiers on four floors, bringing care packages she had put together in the lobby of the hospital that morning. People would pass by asking if the beer glasses filled with chocolate, nuts and dried fruit were for the wounded soldiers. When she answered in the affirmative, she was met with a resounding “Kol hakavod [Well done].”
And it’s not just the soldiers she’s comforting. In one room, a mother waited for her son to come back from seeing the doctor. Rapoport went in to deliver the gift, and the mother started letting everything out. Distraught, she couldn’t come to terms with the fact that people believe her son and the IDF are baby killers. Rapoport stood there, comforted the mother, and reassured her that “Am Yisrael hai [The People of Israel lives].”
“Generally, it’s very moving,” said Dr. Tamar Elram, deputy director of Hadassah Ein Kerem. But she stressed that visitors should call the hospital, either the information services or military office, so they can be properly advised when and where to visit. The hospital has also increased awareness among staff to make sure strangers are not coming in. “It’s a positive initiative,” Elram stressed, but added that “the wards are overwhelmed, and more importantly, the soldiers need to rest in order to heal.”
One recently discharged soldier said he drew great strength and gratitude from his visitors – of whom he received hundreds over his six-day stay.
Asked if the visitors ever became a burden during his recovery, he answered with a cautious no. “As I see it, cooperating with all of the visitors, it’s a situation of mutual benefits. On the one hand, they give me strength.”
On the other, he continued, sometimes he was the one that needed to sacrifice his own personal comfort to give someone the opportunity to feel part of making a difference.
“I have my own special story, and I know exactly how it feels to watch the news at home and get depressed about [not] being able to take part or lend a hand in these critical moments.
“So let it be. With joy, I’ll smile and say ‘Thank you,’ even if I want to sleep.”
He did appeal to people to act responsibly and judge the situation, however. Sometimes a soldier will ask the visitor to stay, listen or talk, but other times, the soldier may just want silence. “It would be nice just to say ‘Thank you,’ leave the cookies, smile and say goodbye.”
Racheli Goldblatt, spokeswoman for Hadassah, added that if people want to come visit, it is best to call the hospital to see when to come and what to bring.
“We are saying to everyone not to bring food,” she emphasized. “Most of the people cannot eat sugar, or because of their injuries. Please don’t bring food, bring anything else but not food.”
Dr. Elram recounted how one soldier, after receiving so many gifts, distributing them among his family and the hospital staff, then went to the pediatric ward with his mother to give the rest to the children. “They were so happy, to see an injured soldier giving them gifts.”
BY TUESDAY NIGHT, Rapoport was getting ready for another delivery to the South, armed with mosquito spray, more clothes and letters from well-wishers.
When warned about the roadblocks to prevent unauthorized donations, she laughed it off. “You know, just turn a little flirt on. We may be olim hadashim [new immigrants], but we have the chutzpah.”
And in the end, the soldiers truly appreciate any type of support, good wishes, gifts and donations; these are all still being welcomed.
“About three minutes ago we got our first shipment of books. Everyone’s happy because they’ve been bored to death,” Shachor said.
“I was smart and came to war with a Kindle.”
Seth J. Frantzman contributed to this report.