Wartime volunteer stories

Thirty-thousand meals a day, hand-crafted soaps and yoga-inspired massage were just a few of the treats civilians provided to the soldiers serving during the recent conflict.

Yona Offner gives yoga inspired massage. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Yona Offner gives yoga inspired massage.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
This summer, Israelis lived different realities depending on geography. For some, the summer was characterized by fear and trauma, while others continued their daily routine and experienced the war through obsessive tracking of news and social media.
Regardless of location, we were all involved, some as victims of the indiscriminate rockets, some because loved ones or the loved ones of friends were serving at the front. Others – many others, as it turns out – flocked to help, contribute and volunteer their time, money and hearts to support the soldiers who spent their summer protecting us.
The following stories demonstrate only a smidgen of the outpouring of love freely given by a grateful nation who found different ways to say thank you.
BY WAR’S END, volunteers had provided close to 1.2 million meals to a daily influx of more than 30,000 soldiers to Doron Elbaz’s farm in Moshav Maslul, about 18 km. from the Gaza border.
“It started as a lemonade stand that the kids set up for the soldiers waiting on the border,” says Elbaz, “and it just took off and grew in ways nobody expected.”
A few days into Operation Protective Edge, Elbaz posted a message on Facebook asking people to come to the farm to help prepare meals for the soldiers.
“And Am Yisrael [the Nation of Israel] came. It was a process that once started, became unstoppable. Over 30,000 volunteers produced 20,000 to 30,000 meals a day. It was an act of ahavat hinam [groundless love],” he says.
Volunteers arrived not only to cook meals and run the barbecue, but to also provide massages, manicures and pedicures, acupuncture and other alternative treatments to help make soldiers who had not been home for over a month feel good. Portable showers and toilets were donated. About 25 Americans from JNF-USA and Nefesh B’Nefesh arrived one day to cook.
“The soldiers were asking for clothes, specifically underwear and socks, as well as cigarettes, batteries, candy. We asked people to buy these items as well as the ingredients for the meals and coal for the barbecues from the front-line towns, such as Sderot and Ofakim.
This was a double donation because it helped businesses that had been badly affected by the war.”
Every day of the war, some 15,000 soldiers, army employees, police and all those connected to the war effort could enjoy a free meal, a shower and a rest at the farm. Elbaz and his team as well as IDF personnel collected the rest of the meals and distributed them to soldiers in the field.
During the war, rockets fell some 200 meters from the farm – but fortunately, no one was hurt. “People ask me why there were so many volunteers when there were no shelters,” recalls Elbaz.
“But the rockets fell, and the volunteers came and made sandwiches.”
“It was if they arrived here with an ache and left feeling whole,” he says.
“One mother wouldn’t leave until she’d made 1,000 meals, because she needed to know that 1,000 soldiers who were in Gaza ate the food she prepared.”
Elbaz movingly describes how a former air force pilot, a war veteran confined to a wheelchair, arrived to make sandwiches for the soldiers. “Suddenly there was a siren and everyone ran to find shelter, except for 10 soldiers who surrounded him to protect him. Maybe this says everything about Eretz Yisrael [the Land of Israel] – that 10 soldiers stand for one war invalid. These are our soldiers. This is our life.
“Another war invalid called Solomon came here to give massages to the soldiers.
He was blinded in the Six Day War and today he’s a massage therapist at the autistic center, Aleh Negev [rehabilitative village]. We publicized this on Facebook and others followed; we got to the stage where we had some 30 massage therapists a day.”
Some of the units that were set up on the farm temporarily are becoming permanent facilities, such as the kitchen. “Today we received another contribution to build a kitchen,” says Elbaz, whose anger at the perceived indifference of the government to the sustained suffering of the people of the South is apparent. “It will stand as a protest to the fact that the people of the South are still under attack and that as long as we’re under attack, we’re here to support the soldiers.”
Says Elbaz, “I don’t believe it’s over.
They’ll be shooting at us again in another day or two. So what began as a lemonade stand finishes as a permanent station.
“When peace comes, we’ll have a big party and then we’ll close the station.”
“I WAS listening on the news to how people are going South to volunteer at the lemonade stand and I thought, well, I’ve got whiffle balls, artificial turf and golf clubs, so I grabbed a friend and we drove off to look for some soldiers to whom we could teach golf.”
Paula Adelman of Givat Olga, a former member of the US Ladies Professional Golf Association, had no idea where she was going, but planned to stop at a gas station near Sderot and ask where she could find some soldiers.
“Eventually, we ended up at Park Eshkol, some 17.4 km. from the Gaza border,” she says. “After clearing it with the sergeant at the gate, we found an open area, parked the car, approached a group of about 30 soldiers and asked them if they’d like to learn to play golf.
That’s how it started.”
They spent some two hours at the park, teaching the soldiers how to hold the club, swing it and hit the ball.
“Some of these kids really got into it,” says Adelman. “It really was a wonderful afternoon.”
She enjoyed the experience so much that when the opportunity arose to join a group of people traveling to the Elbaz farm to h e l p prepare the barbecue, Adelman again gathered her golf equipment and joined them. “I set up right next to the entrance of the farm so the soldiers could see me. I first taught them in groups of three or four, then gave each one a bit of personal attention. One soldier was so excited; he’d never hit a golf ball before and told me he’d love to keep playing.”
Towards the end of the afternoon, Adelman looked askance at a man in civilian garb who’d began swinging a club. “Who are you? This is for the soldiers,” she said, unaware the “intruder” was Doron Elbaz.
ORIGINALLY FROM HONOLULU, Hawaii, Yona Offner is a yoga therapist who made aliya in 2009 and now lives in Moshav Hodiya, about 40 km. from the Gaza border.
“I wanted to give some kind of support to the soldiers,” he says, describing how he treated soldiers to a yoga-inspired massage on the first day they were stationed near the Gaza border.
“I’ve developed my technique over the years and it involves a lot of modalities,” he says. “But the main part is helping someone focus on his breathing.
This is the foremost stress management method that sends energy to any area a person might feel discomfort or pain.”
Volunteering for soldiers is not new to Offner, who as a member of Connections Israel, an NGO that provides a support system for soldiers and fosters unity among the Jewish people, has run the Jerusalem Marathon every year since his aliya to raise money for soldiers’ welfare.
“It was the first time the soldiers had experienced this kind of treatment,” says Offner. “I’m a spiritual guy so I told them to focus on white light. Some of the soldiers were very stressed; they’d been carrying around some 40 kgs. over a number of days and were having back problems.
“They don’t feel the stress, they don’t show it. But the body knows it.”
SUSANNA BRANDON of Zichron Ya’acov and her daughter, Leyla Levy of Kibbutz Ma’agan Michael, run a handcrafted soap social enterprise. For Levy, it was immediately apparent that soldiers didn’t have everything they needed.
“To me, it was obvious that they needed the very best, so we took our entire inventory of 120 soaps and wrapped each one individually in fabric we got from a fashion designer friend.”
Brandon and Levy then approached fellow kibbutzniks and random pedestrians on the streets of Zichron, and asked them to write messages to the soldiers. “People wrote such heartwarming things, like ‘Come back safe,’ ‘You’re our heroes’ and ‘We’re thinking of you.’” The soaps and their special messages were then packaged by Levy’s children and duly delivered to the soldiers. A week later, they sent another batch of soaps, this time smaller pieces packaged in plastic bags so the soldiers could carry the soap with them, and in boxes decorated by the children in the kibbutz kindergarten.
“All we wanted to do was to contribute,” says Levy. “The idea was to give back something to the soldiers.”