A group of volunteers from the UK have just returned from a humanitarian mission to Israel to provide hands-on assistance and support to communities in need.
The group of 13 people took part in activities including farming, packing essential supplies for troops, visiting displaced families, offering condolences at a house of mourning for a young girl, delivering provisions and organising BBQs for communities and soldiers.
“It was a natural step for us to create this impactful journey,” said Rabbi Sandor Milun, managing director of GIFT, which organised the trip. “The impact was immeasurable.”
He added: “Witnessing the appreciation for our hands-on assistance, rather than mere observation, was profoundly moving. It elevated the sense of unity and solidarity. It was undeniably one of the most powerful four days of my life.
“The palpable sense of togetherness, shared loss, and the resilient spirit to live in peace resonated deeply. Israel felt safer than our own cities, and the warmth of the people's appreciation was overwhelming.”
Volunteer Steve Neerkin, from north London, jumped at the chance to join the trip because he “felt the need to do something and wanted to be one of the first people on the ground”.
He said that everyone on the trip felt that they had made a huge difference to communities in Israel and encouraged Jews around the world to go out and do the same. “It was truly phenomenal. The variety of work that we did left us feeling that everyone can go over and make a difference. Israel needs the Jews of this country and all the other countries to go over. The work you can do there can have a huge impact.”
Setting off on the night flight after Shabbat, the group from GIFT, which comes under the umbrella of Jewish Futures, took “half a plane load” of supplies with them and returned four days later. Their first job was to pack up supplies for the army and drive them around the country to different bases.
They spent evenings either with the soldiers or displaced families, cooking for them and speaking to them and listening to their stories. “The country is in shock, and they just want to vent,” said Neerkin. “Our job was to stay and listen and let them know that they weren’t alone. One of our group had a guitar and he was playing it and singing, and we were just trying to take their mind off things and trying to introduce some form of normality to them.”
The group spent two days farming in the fields, the first harvesting sweet potatoes in Rishon LeZion, near Tel Aviv, and the second picking pomelos and oranges in the south.
On day two, they were situated close to the border with Gaza. “We were farming to the sounds of guns going on behind us,” said Neerkin. “It’s remarkable that we were picking fruit off the trees while these explosions were going off down the road.
"Normally these farms have huge numbers of volunteers doing it and there was nobody there. The crops are there and if there's no-one picking them, they would go to waste. When you pick something and watch it go into the back of a lorry, you know someone's going to eat that. You know you've done something good.”
While they were down south, the group visited two of the kibbutzim that were attacked on October 7 and shown the aftermath of the atrocities as well as the CCTV video footage.
“We saw, unfortunately, places where people have been murdered,” said Neerkin. “We were told: ‘That's a grenade and those are the bullet holes, and this is the room where they killed all the Thai workers’, and sawdust was still on the floor drying out the blood. Somebody in the group turned round and said: ‘This is a bit like going into Auschwitz the Monday after it closed.’”
Neerkin said that they were so close to the border that the guns that “the Israelis were firing into Gaza were behind us - they were going over our heads. People were giving us a tour and saying: ‘This wire above us marks the boundary of the Iron Dome.’”
The overwhelming emotion that Neerkin picked up from the Israelis they helped, whether it was families or soldiers, was anger. “They are angry at the Palestinians; they’re angry at the army; they’re angry at the government. There’s a huge amount of uncertainty because they don't know how long this is going to go on for. But they are resilient and there’s a huge amount of positivity still in the country.”
However, the volunteers described the gratefulness of everyone they supported. Neerkin handed out cigars to all the troops as they were about to go into Gaza, who insisted on giving the volunteers sunflower seeds as a snack as a token of thanks in return.
“From the moment we landed, we didn't stop,” said Neerkin, who described how they would be on the fields at 8am and back at their hotel after midnight. “It was a life-changing trip purely because it was driven by selflessness. We just wanted to go and do good. And the response that we all got was that we had done something good.”
Another volunteer, Jamie King, said: “Aside from the practical mission to participate in some small way in the national volunteering effort, we noticed amongst all the people we met a powerful sense of purpose and a quiet but determined resolve to move on and survive. We took strength from this resolve and felt proud – and safer - knowing that the people we met in Israel are a part of our worldwide Jewish family.”
King added: “The joy and togetherness brought to bereaved families by the thousands of volunteers across the country is on another level of ‘special’. I feel privileged to have experienced this intense sense of peoplehood amongst the many other emotions felt on our trip.”