Brandeis student Ella Toczek volunteered in Israel this summer.

Volunteering in Israel: An emotional and empowering experience

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Volunteering in Israel: An emotional and empowering experience

Brandeis student Ella Toczek volunteered in Israel this summer.

On Oct. 7, the world woke up to the horror of Hamas terrorists massacring over 1,200 innocent civilians and kidnapping over 240 hostages. I struggled to process my shock, heartache, and confusion.

In the following weeks, I walked around college in a fog and witnessed the rising waves of antisemitism and justification for Hamas’ barbaric acts. Then, the news that a woman who had worked at my middle school was tragically murdered at the Nova Festival. I felt utterly overwhelmed.

I decided to go to Israel, so my dad and I volunteered for a five-day Jewish National Fund-USA mission. When I first arrived, I saw the hundreds of “Bring Them Home” posters, reminding me that those stolen were only a few miles away, hidden underground. Do they know how much they are missed? How hard is Israel trying to rescue them? In America, those posters get torn down every day as the grief surrounding their captivity seems to evoke anger in people concerned about innocent Palestinians. In Israel, the posters are everywhere.

The mission began in Southern Israel, where we joined people who wanted to be a part of something meaningful in the aftermath of something so dark. The mission consisted of physical labor and bearing witness to the devastation of Oct. 7. We weeded overgrown crops, painted an indoor playground in Sderot in preparation for the safe return of the community, visited the Alexander Muss School, saw the Revivim cemetery – where victims of the Kibbutz Be’eri are temporarily buried until it is safe to move them back for a permanent burial. We also stopped at a BBQ close to the border of Gaza, where soldiers could get respite from their challenging and heartbreaking work.

We were joined by Special in Uniform, an organization supported by Jewish National Fund-USA where people with disabilities participate in the IDF, and their band sang songs. At the same time, we shared a meal with the soldiers. I was so touched to see how Israelis care for their people and hold each other’s broken hearts.

The Nova Festival Memorial site was a profoundly emotional experience. It was hard to reconcile all the stories of that horrendous morning with how beautiful it looked that day, filled with sprouting grass and wildflowers. Our guide explained the unimaginable that occurred there chronologically, and I felt breathless.

We had some time to walk around and see the photographs of each innocent victim. All of the faces looked familiar, like family. I found Hadar Hoshen, the woman I knew from school. As I looked at her beautiful smiling face in the exact space where she lost her life, I remembered her deep love for Israel that she joyfully shared with a bunch of American grade school kids. How could she be murdered for that love? When I joined the rest of my group, we participated in writing a sacred Torah, which felt very powerful. As Jews, we must hold onto hope and unity. The Torah reminded me of this.

I felt a strong pullback toward Hadar when we were preparing to leave. Through my tears, I experienced gratitude for her teaching me to love Israel and recognize it as my home. This trip changed me. As we all pray for peace and mourn the precious lives lost, I will continue to remember that Israel is a gift I must never take for granted. I am a Jewish American woman who proudly supports Israel. I will forever be thankful to Hadar for being an essential part of my personal journey to love and feel connected to my homeland. Θ

Ella Toczek is a student at Brandeis University. She traveled to Israel on a Jewish National Fund-USA Volunteer Mission.

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