Alumni Alumni Volunteer Trip: Tracie’s Reflection

By Young Judaea

By Tracie Basch, Participant on Alumni Trip to Israel, January 2024

On the morning of October 7th, I was the last in the family to wake up. Coming out of my room I remember my 17 year old, saying “Mom, you need a hug.” I looked at him strangely, still half asleep, and he repeated it. He hugged me and said, “There was an attack.” Life changed. When reality settled in, I had one thought – I needed to go to Israel. A few days later I shared this with my husband, who, with the wisdom of 19 years of marriage replied, “tell me what you’re going to do, and we can talk.” Within weeks, Young Judea organized an Israel trip. Details were light – circumstances change constantly during war. The what didn’t matter. Being there did. And so, at the end of January, I found myself at JFK waiting for my El Al flight to Israel.

Upon landing, the stress that permeated my body and soul since October 7th disappeared. I truly felt safe (experiencing a Red Alert later in the week didn’t change that). My introduction to the current Israel began in the airport. There was a large ‘Bring Them Home’ banner with dog tags of all sizes hanging. The way to immigration is lined with posters of hostages. Not the usual greeting, but a foreshadowing of the week ahead. A week Being of Service and Bearing Witness.

Being of Service Two grassroots organizations, Achim Laneshek and Eran’s Angels field requests for items – food, clothing, diapers, formula, books – from displaced families. They receive no government funding. There’s something about packing items for a two-month-old that has known nothing but a hotel room that just breaks you.

For two days we were agricultural workers in the Hefer Valley’s Moshav Achituv, responsible for growing 80% of Israel’s cucumbers. Most workers are either serving or are Thai who returned home. We removed leaves so the cucumbers got nutrients and picked cucumbers. Helping the farmers and feeding a nation torn by war was one of the most impactful and meaningful things I have ever done. Knowing the work that it took to convert this malaria infested swampland into lush and fertile farms and that my hands in the dirt followed those that came before me, connected me to Israel as never before. I could have picked cucumbers for days.

Bearing Witness There isn’t anyone in Israel who hasn’t been personally impacted by October 7th. We were honored to meet some who not only shared their experiences but want the world to hear what happened. Here are some of their stories.

Noam, a 45-year-old single father of three survived Nova. He described the festival’s atmosphere as being “like a heart above us”. People were happy, free, alive. Until 6:30am. There was disbelief because this was “not the place where people were going to butcher you.” He rescued 15 people that day.

We met Gili Adar’s parents at her grave. Just 24 when she was murdered at Nova. By all accounts, she wasn’t just a ray of light – she was the sun itself.

Adele Raemer shared not only her survival story on Kibbutz Nirim, but that of her son-in-law and grandchildren also living there. The kibbutz is now relocated to Be’er Sheva and interestingly for a collective community, nobody discusses whether they will return. For the record, she will.

Timor is an Ashkelon police officer living in Sderot. He usually works a desk, but he answered the call that morning and, knew that his job was to delay the terrorists from entering Ashkelon. Shot in the arm, he applied a tourniquet and continued his mission, saving an untold number of lives. He has already undergone three surgeries.

Ramo Salmn El-Hazayil, a Bedouin police officer, took a security job at Nova. When leaving home that morning, something made him take a third magazine. Armed with just a 9mm and two magazines (he gave the third away), he single-handedly rescued over 200 teenagers – driving back and forth along the road to a greenhouse. Regardless of the experience and the person, there are consistent themes – nobody discussed politics, but ALL feel betrayed and let down by the government; all are heroes but don’t think that – they believe they did what needed to be done and what anyone would have done; they admit to still being IN trauma, in fact the entire country is IN trauma; the main goal is to bring the hostages home – everything else is secondary; it’s hard to envision a tomorrow, when today is October 7th the XXX (fill in for today), but there’s confidence that tomorrow WILL COME.

The People A lot can be said of Israelis. I liken them to a sabra fruit – hard and prickly on the outside, but once you crack that outer skin, it is soft and sweet. The shell is there out of necessity. How else can over 130,000 people be displaced from their homes, moved into hotels and yet still smile and laugh?

The hotels are full with displaced people. Refugees in their own country. The common areas are gathering places. The lobby bar – where kids do homework. The corridor – home to a knitting circle. It is noisy and boisterous. As life should be.

At Aroma Café, a mile from Gaza, we met soldiers eating. They kept refusing our offer to buy lunch – because what about the others? Only when assured that the others were taken care of, could we pay. Gaza is a stone’s throw away, and these soldiers thanked us and told us we were brave for coming, that our presence gave them strength to complete the mission. They kept asking how things were in the US. Chayalim are a breed unto themselves.

There are images forever seared in my brain. The soldier in Har Herzl at her boyfriend’s grave meticulously cleaning it, kissing the headstone, laying a rose, unable to leave. The man sitting between the graves of two brothers, born years apart, both dying October 7th. The group from Women Wage Peace who come to Hostage Square to keep attention on the hostages. The orthodox woman in Machne Yehuda in a feminine long flowing skirt and blouse, on her back a machine gun.

This is just the surface – I didn’t touch on the experts we heard from or our visit to Hadassah or what we heard from the head of the Rape & Sexual Assault Center Tel Aviv. I didn’t go into the details of each person’s story – trust me, each one is a harrowing tale of survival and how decisions made in a flash mean all the difference. To do all of this, would easily fill a novel.

If you can, go to Israel. Be there. It doesn’t matter if you can pack boxes, pick produce, make sandwiches – just be present. In addition to helping an economy devastated by war, our presence gives strength to the soldiers and the people. Am Yisrael Chai.

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