Life & Culture

How British olim are helping out in Israel's hour of need

Since October 7, British-born Israeli citizen are volunteering in many creative ways


Over the decades, tens of thousands of British-born Jews have made aliyah and built new lives in Israel. Since the atrocities of October 7 they have been plunged into a crisis, and many are responding  by volunteering and raising funds to help their new nation however they can, from cooking for soldiers to organising therapy for traumatised children.

These are their stories in their own words.

Deborah Nathan made aliyah with her husband Jeremy from Hendon in 2019. These are extracts from her war diary

Every day we are making decisions about how to act. How to live in a state of war. What are the rules? What is risky now and what really is safe? I literally have no idea what I am supposed to do anymore.

We must not let fear rule our lives. We must also not be stupid or reckless.

A friend lost her mother yesterday, nothing to do with the war, a lovely old lady who had been ill for some time. I wanted to go to the funeral to be with her and to pay my respects.

In normal times I would not have hesitated. I would have gone and I would also make a shiva call. But today I hesitated. I thought about it for hours overnight.

Should I go? Was it sensible to drive from Netanya to Jerusalem? At the moment a five-minute drive to the supermarket and a 12-minute walk to shul feel like a lot.

I don’t know if I’m right, but it feels like we should all be staying close to home right now, with only essential travel, and making two-hour journeys by public transport just doesn’t seem to be the smartest thing to be doing.

I really hope my friend understands. My heart was with her even if I couldn’t make it in person today.

I think I feel uncertain whether being cautious is sensible or if we are “giving in to terror” and should be going about our lives as normally as possible. I’m new to this whole war thing.

Maybe old-time Israelis have a different view on this but I’m trying to navigate my way through an unknown situation and each and every decision has to be looked at on its own merits. I asked a friend who has lived in Israel for many years what she thought and she said, this isn’t like anything we have been through before. None of us know what to do now.

* Adjusting to daily life:

Today I decided I would go back to the gym and attempt to swim again. I weighed up whether I was at risk of a siren going off while I was in the water and the chance of an infiltration or other terror arrack on my gym occurring during my 40-minute visit, and decided that the probable benefit to my physical and mental health was worth the (probably, hopefully?) small risk. I enjoyed my swim and it felt like a small act of defiance. I wasn’t letting terror dominate my life. It was a tiny window of normality in a cruel, horrible and scary world.

But as I rushed to shower and get dressed I heard other women in the changing rooms saying “Why? Why? Why?”.

I knew that meant sirens were going off somewhere and yes it turns out it was in central Israel. Nothing here in Netanya thank goodness and I was back home and working before 9 am. I’ll take that as a win for today.

* Thinking about the children:

I hoped so much last night that the reports of 50 hostages being made ready for release would mean that the children would be coming home. Then the rumours turned out not to be true. Hopes raised and then dashed. A sick game played by monsters.

I have been thinking and thinking about the children. One in particular breaks me. His name is Kfir Bibas.

The youngest baby who was kidnapped and taken to Gaza, he is exactly the same age as our beloved grandson. Just 10 months old. And he has the brightest ginger hair, just like our grandson. My heart hurts just thinking about him.

I want to howl and scream and rage. The footage of him, with his mother Shiri and his four- year- old brother Ariel as they are taken by the terrorists, is truly appalling. His mother puts her protective arms around her two babies.

Her husband has just been murdered and now she must be everything for her precious children. I want to scream to the world that this is barbaric. There is nothing that justifies this. Absolutely nothing. No whataboutery. I will not hear it.

Bring them home. That is all. The world is a sick and frightening place right now. Not just because children can be murdered and tortured and kidnapped but because it can happen without any real international outcry.

People in London tearing down posters showing the child hostages, claiming they are just propaganda. No! These are children! Our children!

I shouldn’t be surprised, and really I’m not, that so many people actually condone the kidnapping, murder and torture of children, because it’s happening to Israeli children. And by Israeli of course, they actually mean Jewish children.

Jews have seen pogroms before. Six million of us were murdered in living memory. That makes anything seem possible.

Never again really is now.

* Back to work:

Today I went back to work at Emunah. Just for the next two months, by when I pray this madness will be over.

Family circumstances changed significantly last year. I lost my beloved mum in London, leaving my 95-year old father determinedly living alone at home (ably supported by my siblings) and we became grandparents to a precious baby boy in New York. I took the decision to prioritise spending time with my family.

But now things have changed again. Emunah provides vital life-saving services to thousands of Israelis.

This may be someone who needs urgent counselling due to the trauma of the war (and let’s face it the whole country needs therapy now), or a child in one of our five children’s homes who has survived emotionally damaging early years and now has additional needs caused by the war.

It might be a lonely Holocaust survivor, who relies on a specialist seniors support helpline, or our young graduates from our homes and schools, many of whom were called up to serve.

Anyway I’m back as Interim Director and will be doing what I can to make a difference.

* Small things in life count:

They say it’s the small things in life that count. Or as Martin Luther King once said: “If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way.”

So my friend Angela calls me. Can I help? She is involved in organising a clothes collection for the hordes of people displaced who are being put up in Netanya because of the war.

They need knickers. And they need a lot of them because people fled their homes with nothing but the clothes on their backs and they aren’t going back anytime soon.

Pants. Undies. Thongs. Y-fronts. Boxers. Knickers. Whatever you call them we need them and we need new ones because as kind as people have been donating secondhand clothes, no-one should have to wear used underwear — even in war, there are limits! We have standards to maintain, and so we need new packs of pants or the money to go out and buy them for everyone who needs them.

I sit late at night and make a flier for the knicker appeal. In normal times I love a good pun but today I’m not sure how far I can go, when my whole country is still howling in pain over the lost loved ones and the missing, all beloved children of someone, whatever age they are. And the babies, the children...

We still need to laugh don’t we? In the face of the growing tension all around us and the horror we have to contemplate daily? Maybe I’m hysterical because I can’t help it. The puns are coming.

These people have reached rock bottom. Where can you drop your knickers?
No. I can’t do it. I behave myself because my friend Angela probably wouldn’t approve and stick to just one cheeky reference to our thanks coming from the bottom of our hearts.

So let’s hope we can do small things in a great way.

What do we want? Knickers! When do we want them? Now!

To support Emunah visit:

Michael Halpern made Aliyah in 2005 from Manchester to Tel Aviv

You feel empowered when you see that finally Jews have the might to fight for themselves, which wasn’t the case 70 years ago and prior to that.

I’ve been driving and delivering things to soldiers and civilians on the border: gear for the military, food, and clothing as needed.

At the beginning, I was probably on the road for nine hours a day and doing about 1,000 miles each week.

There are numerous places where they gather supplies, and from where they then need to be sent on. I just present myself and ask: “What do you need and where does it need to go?” We’ve become a little team of 10 drivers and we share them out.

Some soldiers hadn’t eaten anything besides tinned corn and tuna for five days until we arrived and gave them cooked meals.

Some lacked the kind of gear that makes their military lives easier, and so to bring it to them was a big contribution.

It puts a big smile on their faces and gives them strength to keep on going. Seeing that the civil front is strong and can help and is not just sat at home in depression gives them power as well.

It’s not easy for life not to be normal, but being a part of the nation’s volunteering efforts and doing a semi-normal task feels quite healthy. When you’re busy thinking about when you have to turn next, you don’t think about other things and I don’t scroll because my hands are at the wheel, which is good. It feels a healthy escape.

Natty Seef made Aliyah from London in 2009. She lives in Central Tel Aviv

After the attacks, donations of food, clothing, books and toys flooded in to all the hotels housing evacuees. I came up with the idea of buying balls for the children of displaced families because they encourage playing in groups and are easy for the kids to take when they return home.

Cramming lots of balls into my car was a challenge but one which my boys were up for, which helped.

I also hoped the balls would make the children smile. Their trauma has been enormous. Some of these kids have family members who’ve been murdered.

Others spent hours in their bomb shelters that weekend others have been constantly running for shelter from rockets.

It feels good to be doing anything to help them and to meet them face to face. I’m trying to put myself in their shoes, think what might help or bring a smile to their faces.

The balls aren’t my only contribution, though. In the first week after the massacre, I met social workers and Home Front Command people on the ground who explained that nappies and baby formula were in desperate need, so I bought them too.

In that first week, I also met a single mum whose home had been destroyed after being hit by a rocket. I bought her little daughter a play kitchen.

I began by paying for these items myself but then I began to ask friends and family for donations.

A friend in America set up a donation page for me which has so far raised more than 36,000 shekels.

It’s very cheering. The more people have donated, the more I’ve been motivated to raise as much as I possible even if I know that in the grand scheme of things what I am doing is a drop in the ocean.

By helping out, I hope I’m showing my sons that this is how you respond, what you do when people are in need. I hope I’m raising mensches who are senstive to the needs of others.

My dream woud be to meet each and every hostage on their return to Israel and give them a gift that says: welcome back home.

Newcastle-born Laurette Pearlman lives in Netanya. She made Aliyah from Hull in 2015

Everybody knows somebody who’s either involved or in the army, or, God forbid, lost somebody.

So it affects everybody, and it puts a haze over everything. You want to be with your family and your friends and you think: what about the people who can’t do that and who are suffering?

Equally, you’ve got to carry on and be strong for those who have survived — otherwise Israel wouldn’t be here.

In Netanya, there are a lot of people from Sderot and Ashkelon and they’re looking for baby stuff and kids’ toys and clothes and food packages, and everybody’s doing what they can.

I’m chair of the British Immigrants Association and in the first week we did a big shop for people who haven’t don’t now have a house to live in

I have been a volunteer with the group Sar-el, working with the army off and on for the last 12 years.

Normally you go for a week or two weeks, and you sleep on the base and wear a uniform and do whatever’s needed. It is inundated now with volunteers.

The urgency of the situation means that everybody from teenagers to retirees is helping out..

We need food and medical supplies to be packed. Last week, my husband was packing sweets and cereal bars. If you told that to the outside world, they’d think it crazy, but it’s all needed. I’ve been on vegetables and fruit.

Farmers send them in, they’re stored in a huge warehouseand we pack them up and off they go to private homes, schools and refuges.

Dublin-Born Neil Gordon made Aliyah from London in 2011

We distribute many things to soldiers: toiletries, underwear, socks, thermals, T shirts, tourniquets, first aid kits, energy bars, electrolytes, sanitisers, earplugs, multitools. We’re getting combat gloves in tomorrow.

It’s run from the hall in the basement of the Ichud Shivat Zion shul in Tel Aviv. I’m quite involved in the shul and a few of us got together on the Sunday 8 October. We started the following morning and dispatched 25 boxes.

It snowballed from there. By the second day, we needed to order 125 boxes. Yesterday and today we had an insane amount of orders.

The soldiers need this stuff. A lot of people out on the field can’t charge their phone to speak to their family or their commanders.

A guy who’s intelligence in the army and who’s also an engineer invented a charger that allows you to charge devices with either USB or with cables. Every day, between 500 and 1,000 of them are sent out . The speed, the organisation is unbelievable. .

In fact, we run a pretty tight ship. I’ve got a couple of people who work in the back office who do a lot of the orders and who speak to the commanders. The commander tells us what is needed and we try to complete the order.

We’ve also got someone who does the stock-taking twice a week.

We are funding it all from donations, most of them from overseas. We’ve had several very large donations from private individuals; one family supplied us with 20,000 protein bars, electrolytes and hand sanitisers. Another donor in London bought 100 Leatherman multitools for us to distribute.

In the first week we had on average 70 volunteers a day. It was mayhem. And a lot of people bought things, or came to us with bags of anything and everything you can think of. Now we have around 500 volunteers.

I’ve got volunteers who I can trust 100 per cent. As in any business, it’s all about having the right people.

The first week I worked about 90 hours, the second and third weeks I worked between 65 and 75 hours. It’s the least I can do.

I’ve lived here for 12-and-a-half years. When you go through something like this, you either sit back and do nothing, or if you have the space like we have in the shul and the manpower, you give it a bash.

I’m not the kind of person who likes to sit back and watch what’s going on. And this attack was so vicious, so violent.

I’m coping perfectly fine. I don’t suffer from anxiety. The sirens go off and I don’t run around looking for bomb shelters. I carry on doing what I’m doing. I’m not going to cower, be scared for my life. The Iron Dome is there and the shul is a behemoth of a 1950s concrete building.

It’s like Kinloss Synagogue. Today there was a siren at four o’clock and I was in the hall. I opened the door and people were running in off the street and I was sitting there having my cup of coffee looking at the orders and carrying on.

This is a war we can’t afford to lose. After what happened on that Shabbat, there has to be retribution. No one likes to see anyone die. But we also don’t like to see women and children raped and murdered and beheaded.

Elliot Ward, 42 and his wife Sarah, 40 made aliyah in 2016 from Gants Hill and now live in Bat Yam

ELLIOT: On Shabbat, we usually walk to the beach at sunrise, but on Friday night I said that I was exhausted and wanted to sleep in. Instead, we started hearing sirens at dawn.

As the day progressed I thought that the situation became ever more unbelieveable. We couldn’t believe what was unfolding.

I’m involved with a football league in Herzliya Pituah and two days after the war started we found out that Alon, one of the players, had been murdered at the rave party.

After many years of not being in touch with my father and younger brother, they reached out and called to check on me, and that really pleased me.

Our emotions are all over the place, but Sarah and I decided from the outset that we weren’t going to run. We made aliyah in 2016 to be with the Jewish people and we’ve built our lives here. Sarah has established herself as a successful hairdresser.

Before making aliyah, we knew it was going to be tough but I believe that Israel will come out stronger and rebuild again. London isn’t safe either. Rita, my lovely grandmother who’s 89, now hides her Magen David necklace when she goes shopping.

I was disappointed with Tottenham Hotspur club. The the owner is Jewish and a player is Israeli but they removed lights from the Wembley Stadium arch which had been lit in support of the victims of October 7.

I was a lifelong fan who has now withdrawn my support.

I’m worried about what could happen next. Should I be concerned about the large Arab community in Jaffa? London, my hometown, is now teeming with mosques. Should I be worried about that?

I’m beyond frustrated that Israel is the only country that needs to defend itself for defending itself.

I want to mention that the Keep Olim in Israel Movement, an organization, started by LiAmi Lawrence, has been very helpful. The organisation uses donations to give cards to olim to buy food at supermarkets and this is necessary because so many people have lost jobs since the war started. With the help of many volunteer therapists, Keep Olim is also providing therapy to hundreds of people for free.

SARAH: Since the war started I’ve spoken to my mum two or three times a day and my family has asked me to return to Britain.

The first week of the war was surreal, I was constantly checking Facebook to see if I knew anyone who had been murdered. We know people whose relatives were and one of them was just 18

I wasn’t sleeping, and PTSD, even paranoia set in. Even my dog has been affected: there are periods when his ears twitch every five minutes.

I’m also disappointed by what I described as many British Jews’ fear to speak out, people who are are too scared to say anything.

It’s not on. There are now very clear cut lines. One is either for terrorism or one is against it. There’s no middle ground.

If they want to help, British Jews can help out by asking where to send bras and toiletries to women who had to flee their homes.

Soldiers need very strong duct tape and bungee cords to tie things onto bags. And typex is useful so soldiers can erase markings and relabel equipment.

I have no regrets about being here, I even joke that our dog is a true Israeli. This is a magical place with amazing people.

Dani Jacobson Lives in Tel Aviv, and made Aliyah from London in 2019

It’s very easy to feel powerless and removed from what’s going on, so it’s nice to channel that energy into something positive and to feel that we can make a difference.

The scale of what people are doing is awe-inspiring: people a re giving up all their free time and energy to get involved. It’s wonderful when someone makes a big ask like: “Does anyone know where I can get schnitzels for 200 people?” and there’s a response within minutes.

The speed with which we are moving, the readiness of everyone has to help each other is astonishing. We’re taking consolation from how beautiful that spirit of unity and care is. It’s a glimmer of hope at a very hopeless time.

The Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (JLIC) in Tel Aviv are organising a huge effort of community volunteers.

Before October 7 there were 200 people in the WhatsApp group, now there are 600 or 700 people organising different things: the collection of clothes and resources, visits to funerals and to shiva houses, and trying to take care of the evacuated families in Tel Aviv to ensure they have everything they need.

They’ve also set up a job allocation programme for people who have come from the south.

I’ve also been by sitting outside the Ministry of Defence in Tel Aviv, to keep the plight of the hostages at the forefront.

I’ve felt so much fear after the attack, I’m devastated by the murders and mutilations, and the devastating images from Gaza.

It’s just awful to watch the situaion there escalating and to feel so worried and so uncertain about what comes next, and how, or if, will we ever get back to anything that resembles normal.

It’s very heavy and dispiriting. Volunteering feels like a little thing that we can do to help.

Joel and Rebekah Pearlman live in Tel Aviv and made aliyah from Hull in 2014

It’s still very hard to process.

We’re trying not to think about things so much at the moment because if we do, we’ll just break down and won’t be able to continue. Instead, we’re trying to just keep ourselves busy.

That’s partly why we volunteer, make ourselves busy, I think. .

Lots of people that we know personally were called up, so the first week was centred around supporting them, making sure they had everything they needed to be as operational as possible.

People literally got in their cars on Shabbat morning or evening, and went to their bases. Nobody was prepared, so they needed basic stuff like gloves and underwear, multitools, headlamps, batteries, sleeping bags and socks.

In week one, Rebekah learned that through someone that a unit of soldiers hadn’t had breakfast that morning and so she arranged hummus, salad and coffee and drove it out to them.

Everyone got more organised in the second week. Soldiers started to get sent what they needed, and we began to take care of the wives of the reservists and soldiers by organising meal trains and helping with babysitters, and driving kids to school and back.

And yesterday I went to a friend’s unit and barbecued for about 100 soldiers.

I can’t be on the front line, so this is our way of providing support for the war effort. And like it’s amazing to see how everybody here is banding together.

If you put out a message saying, “we need 5,000 shekels to get food for a unit”, within 18 minutes you have 10,000 shekels.

Or: “we need 10 bags of nappies or formula for a family,” and suddenly you have 50 of each. We’re in the middle of a war, everyone is doing their bit and no one is complaining about it.

Richard Jenkins lives in Tel Aviv and made aliyah from London in 2014

My main focus is getting people mental health support.

At first, I was packing schnitzels and sausages and rice in plastic boxes to go off to soldiers because I was doing anything that I could do to help and that was what was needed. A lot of us suffered from a big sense of helplessness, so there was this massive drive to do it.

By the end of the first week, I realised that people were suffering from anxiety and trauma day to day and that there was a massive gap in the mental health provision for English speakers.

So I’ve been working with a range of different people, including therapists and mindfulness teachers, to help people to grapple with the extreme stress.

To do this, I teamed up with Natal, an organisation that supports people suffering from war trauma.

They’d never operated in English before, but I pointed out that there English speakers here who are also Israeli citizens. They were initially dubious, but then 175 people turned up for an online session in English.

After that, they set up some smaller, more intimate groups, and a parent-child group in English

I also got in touch with a clinical psychologist in Jerusalem, with whom I worked whenI trained as a mindfulness teacher some years ago. We held an online session for mindfulness-based stress reduction to which 75 people showed up.

We taught them the fundamentals of stress response and practical tools for when you’re in its grips. So far reached 300-400 people and we know there are a lot more people out there that we could reach. We’re probably going to be meeting every Sunday.

The trauma is happening, but we’re not in a state of healing yet, we’re in a state of damage control. Most people I speak to are just exhausted the entire time, can’t think with clarity, and are feeling pretty low.

It’s not surprising: we are in a state of heightened anxiety all the time. We’re all on high alert.

If you hear a motorbike go past at a certain speed it can sound like the beginnings of the rocket siren and so you get triggered, your heart rate goes up, you feel sudden panic.

My husband is the army, so when I’m not keeping the business afloat and volunteering however I can, I’m making sure that he is OK and getting whatever he needs when he comes home to feel safe, secure, nourished, and ready to go back out there again.

If you can’t be on the front line, you can support those that are.

Ruth Nieman lives in Israel and the UK

I was in Israel for the chagim when the war broke out and I’ve been cooking for IDF soldiers ever since:

I needed to do whatever I could. That’s what you do here. Everyone sprang into action to help. My skills lie in cooking and so I put them to use.

Friends told me about a café in Rosh Pinah that is now entirely dedicated to making sandwiches for soldiers, 5,000 of them a day.

I did that for the first week, but then I met Smadar whose late mother, she died a month before the massacre, had run a vegetarian restaurant called The Kitchen Garden. Smadar decided to reopen its doors to make hot meals for soldiers, but they needed help to do it.

I’m perfectly placed to help her do this.

I help her plan the logistics while a team of volunteers chop and peel the huge quantities we need.

Food comes from donations of surplus produce from local farms and producers. We cook Ashkenazi and Sephardi recipes, everything is kosher and we provide a taste of home for the soldiers.

We’re cooking around 400 hot meals a day, which is a huge logistical operation — especially from a relatively small kitchen. We can only fit four trays of meat at a time in the oven so it needs some planning.

The IDF can feed their regular soldiers but they couldn’t cater for 300,000 reservists on top. Every day we’re told which units need what. And we prepare gluten-free and vegetarian meals too.

It all leaves me feeling rather humbled. But I also feel good because I know I’m doing something worthwhile. And I cannot begin to explain how grateful the soldiers are. It’s hard to put it into words.

Not all the food is sent out. They know who we are and they pop in for coffee and cake for the road, and it feels good knowing they’ve got it.

The hardest thing about being in Israel is knowing how the country is being portrayed in the rest of the world.

We see marches on television and can see what’s happening on social media. It’s not pleasant.

Part of me wants to shout about what has happened in Israel,the significance of October 7 from from the rooftops.

Why aren’t people supporting us more?

In Israel everyone is mucking in and supporting each other. Everyone wants to know if you’re OK. ”

Laura Cowan, 52, made aliyah from Manchester in 1996

When the war broke out I was woken by sirens at 6:40 am. I grabbed my children Lia, 16, and Olly, 13, and ran down to the safe room.

My son Max is 19 and in the army. For the first three days I was glued to the news all day and practically everyone I’ve ever met called or messaged me, even people I haven’t seen for decades.

My kids are very Israeli, strong and pragmatic and have faith in the army. When I felt terrified that things would get worse they calmed me down. I thought about going to Britain, but the children wanted to stay put and so we have.

Right now no one is out and about and our family feels the same. We’re staying close to each other at home.

I’m from Manchester. As a teen I was active in Habonim Dror and after high school I went on a programme at Kibbutz Rosh Hanikra where I learned Hebrew and hiked across the country.

In Britain, I studied silversmithing and jewellery at London Guildhall University. and when I moved to Tel Aviv I worked for a Yemenite jewellery store while I established my judaica business.

I have customers in America, Europe and Israel, but for the first week I put business aside to concentrate on fundraising from friends and family to buy special equipment for our soldiers.

I’m in touch with Max once a day. He’s young, motivated and has formed a cohesive unit with his guys. I feel that morale in Israel is very high which comes from support from other countries and I hope this will continue.

I’m hopeful that now is the time to clear out Hamas and make rockets a thing of the past. The war effort must not be halted with a ceasefire. It’s natural to feel worried and anxious, but I believe that the army will protect the country.

Occasionally I feel guilty that because I chose to live here Max must serve in the army, but he’s proud to do it and feels it’s his duty.

In contrast, in Manchester, the town of my birth, people are ripping down posters of the hostages and there have been pro-Palestine marches which my friends and family have found frightening.

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