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  • Janis Raisen

Home Front Heroes: Three Women Build Wartime Volunteer Community



 

Since October 7, Israelis have felt sorrow, shock and grief. They have been trying to explain to the world that Israel has experienced the worst attack on the Jewish people since the Holocaust. Israel's supporters from around the world — Jews and non-Jews alike — have also been deeply affected. Tens of thousands have not only felt compelled to share the truth, but to volunteer for the war effort in Israel's time of need.


While most foreign airlines bailed — and many continue to do so — people were left with limited options to fly to Israel. Yet they came. They are still coming.


In the aftermath of October 7, locals began frantically searching WhatsApp and Facebook looking for volunteer opportunities.

Hagit Greenberg Amar, Co-Founder, Sword of Iron Facebook Group. (Photo: Courtesy)

 

Hagit Greenberg Amar, was one of many local Israeli volunteers that felt compelled to lend a hand. Amar, a bio technology engineer, with a law degree, is currently working on her degree in social work, while also working part time as a therapist. She first volunteered with the Hostages' families and evacuees, then co-founded one of the largest English Facebook volunteer groups to support the war effort.

“When the war started, all of the Israelis looked for places to volunteer because we didn’t know what to do with our time. Everything changed in a day. I live next to a hotel where most of the evacuees from the south and Sderot lived, so I started to go there, meet with people, help with the kids, do their laundry. There were lots of things to do there: teach classes, entertain the kids, even just to be with them, to help them, to support them. And then I started to go to the Hostages Center (before it was named Hostages Square). They started to create content, to bring the families together, and they started to do international PR, lots of things," explains Amar.

Yocheved Kim Ruttenberg, Co-Founder, Sword of Iron Facebook Group. (Photo: Courtesy)

 

While locals like Amar were already volunteering, people from abroad were booking their flights to Israel. Yocheved Kim Ruttenberg from the U.S. was one such volunteer. She arrived in Israel on October 20, 2023. 

“My brother was here fighting in the war. He drove down to the south on the 7th [of Oct.] and was down there by 11:00, fighting, and I couldn’t function normally, so I decided to book my trip. I booked my trip that Wednesday, raised $17,000 on social media in five days, flew out with 23 duffle bags full of supplies, and one bag of my own," Ruttenberg explains. "I was supposed to come back two weeks later. I told my job that I’m only going for two weeks, and three days before my return flight I quit my job and ended up staying."

Amar and Ruttenberg met in an interesting twist of fate. Ruttenberg's brother had to pick up army supplies from Amar's house — from her husband. That connection lead to Ruttenberg later being introduced to Amar. After they met, Ruttenberg was invited to stay at their house for a couple of months.


Once the two joined forces about their common goal to contribute to the war effort, the Facebook (Meta) group Sword of Iron was born, in November 2023. It's a place for English speakers to find volunteer opportunities. But it's also a community for Jews around the world to feel united and safe since the group is private and closely monitored.

 

Yael Yomtov-Emmanuel, Moderator, Sword of Iron Facebook Group. (Photo: Courtesy)

 

With over 24,000 members, some of that growth, has been credited to the group's first moderator: Yael Yomtov-Emmanuel who reached out to Ruttenberg to discuss getting involved. Born in South America and raised in Israel and New York, Yomtov-Emmanuel returned to Israel three years ago. Her business, YAEL CAN, focuses on helping English-speaking olim (Israeli immigrants) navigate daily life, so supporting volunteers in the Sword of Iron group has been a natural fit.


 

The Facebook group posts volunteer opportunities across the spectrum from farming, to helping at horse stables, assisting at Hostages Square, baking cupcakes at a hospital, packing supplies for soldiers and evacuees, and even unique opportunities like goat herding. There are hundreds of of volunteering opportunities that have popped up in the group over the last few months.

Volunteering examples: Hostages Square (top left), Farming (top right), Eran's Angels (bottom left), packing and sorting supplies for evacuees and soldiers, Sar-El (bottom right), logistics army base. (Photos: © Israel Sites and Sights / © Janis Raisen)

 

While some volunteer work is more physical than others, there's isn't any pressure to push beyond your limits. The country is extremely grateful for every amount of support, and you can choose to volunteer in a way that's comfortable for you.

“I always say, ‘Please, you don’t have to kill yourselves. Do whatever you want, and if whatever you want is taking a day off, take a day off. Who cares. You’re s smiling, you’re talking to people. That’s worth a lot. It’s not only about the physical work. It’s morale," explains Yomtov-Emmanuel.

Volunteers frequently share their experiences, ask questions and support each other. The drive to contribute is powerful. People have come from all around the world, each experiencing something unique and special for them. One volunteer said:

"I just need to be here and feel more useful than just writing stuff on the internet. Have a daughter and a baby grandson here. Came for 3 weeks from Holland to be with them on Shabbat and work at Eran's Angels [packing/sorting items for evacuees and soldiers] during the week, "said Mike Bing.

One woman wrote that she just couldn't imagine going on vacation during Israel's time of need, so she answered the call to help.

"I was fortunate enough to volunteer in November for a couple of weeks with Sar-El. So myself and a group of 62 incredible and special people from all over the world were thrown together in dormitories on an army base and given our orders: pack nutrition packs for the soldiers!!! Mentos sweets will never look the same to me! We were only too happy to be able to contribute and to be in Israel during this horrific time," Jenny Eve Sadeh, UK.

Tal Olin came from Toronto and took on quite a variety of volunteer work. He ended up staying, and he also made an extra special connection:

"Hasbara (promoting/defending Israel) online was just not feeling like enough, and as a result, I came to Israel specifically to volunteer, due to my Israeli citizenship, then decided to stay. Volunteered on farms in the south driving tractors, forklifts, fixed farm equipment, replaced engine oil for farmers, volunteered milking cows, then worked at a furniture/carpentry shop at Kibbutz Be'eri, and then I was feeding soldiers. In the end, as great as this all was, it wasn't enough and I am now enlisting (yet again) in the IDF. Coming to Israel at this time was the best decision I've made. There was no hesitation and as a result, I also met my future wife," said Olin.

Many have even returned to Israel for the second time to volunteer again — and many more will follow suit.

"I don’t know if you’ve seen in the group that I started labeling people ‘R2’ and that’s my way of saying, ‘round two,’ because I already know some people are coming back. There’s no doubt in my mind, when they share how they feel, 'I’m like okay, I smell a round two coming’ because there’s a connection here that they don’t get anywhere else as Jews. We’re seeing that. People that came a few months ago are coming back. It’s like they can’t stay away," Yomtov-Emmanuel explains.
“They’re bringing their families. Their bringing their kids this time," Ruttenberg added

How has the group impacted each of you?

“I have a whole new family— a family of over 21,000 people. It’s brought the most incredible people into my life and has opened up opportunities I could have never imagined and the mitzvah to be able to support others to come to Israel," Ruttenberg says.
“I feel like everything I’ve done in my life has lead me to this point. If you see my company, it’s a little bit similar. I think I put all my best attributes forward to be able to help and give of myself and it’s been so rewarding, the people I have met, wow. I know I have made lifelong friends and to witness all the opportunities that others have had because of the group. It’s life changing," says Yomtov-Emmanuel.
“For me it’s life changing as well," Amar says. "No doubt. It’s an opportunity to demonstrate to the diaspora what’s really happening in Israel in a very unique and authentic way and for me it’s like all of my social activities over the years and all of my dreams to make this world a better place have led me to this point," Amar explains. ”This [the Facebook group] is the place to be for the Jewish people. This is your community. This is the place to get inspired, to be involved in what’s happening, even if you are not able to come. Join us. Feel the spirit, feel the urgency of that the Jewish people need. See what’s needed from your hometown because that’s our goal for the future to create projects that you will be able to help support from your hometown. You can inspire and be an ambassador from wherever you are. “





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