DAY ONE: MONDAY, APRIL 7 (NISSAN 2) “OLAM HAMITNADVIM” There was a time back in Teaneck when Natania, like other kids going to Jewish Day Schools, was scrounging around for “chesed hours” (time spent on philanthropic projects required by the schools for promotion or graduation). We had to arrive at something which she would want to do (not a lot!) and that we could get her to. Our solution: Tomche Shabbos! This is an organization that arranges for discrete delivery of food for Shabbat to needy families in the Bergen County community. Every Tuesday evening, the packing, which took less than an hour, was done at a synagogue about a ten minute drive from our house. Perfect! So for several months, I schlepped Natania up to B’nei Yeshuran; and because it made no sense to drop her off, come home, and come back forty minutes later, and because I wanted to set a good example, I joined her for the project. The guy in charge, who was named Boris, supervised the six or eight youngsters and one or two adults who would take quantities of onions, fruits, vegetables, bread, grape juice, whatever was there, and drop them in baskets placed on shelves around the room. I admit to having a certain visceral pleasure in this activity. I was literally feeding the hungry. Somebody else may have donated a thousand dollars to the organization, but I was taking a cauliflower in my two hands and putting it in the basket which would be delivered to someone’s door to be cooked and eaten. The several months passed by and Natania had done her hours. We stopped going – I’m sure to be replaced by other “needy” kids – and I lost out on this visceral feeling.
Here in The Land, there seems to be even more of these Tomche Shabbos-type activities: volunteer projects to help the needy. And, thank G-d, here in The Land, there seems to be armies of volunteers to do the work – especially in Jerusalem. Yes, there are students from schools, yeshivas, and seminaries; but, in addition, there are scores of retirees, many of whom are Anglos, willing and able to help out.
Among the recruits to this force of mitnadvim (volunteers) are friends, Beth and David, who have been living a little bit east of Yerushalayim a year longer than us. Beth has learned zero Hebrew, but she has racked up more “chesed hours” than anyone else I know. Every Monday, they are working for an organization called “A Package from Home.” It appeared that more volunteers were needed on this particular Monday – the last effort prior to Pesach – so they recruited Barbara, who, always willing to share, asked me if I wanted to come along. Now Barbara, if I haven’t mentioned it already, spent three weeks volunteering on an army base – part of a program called “Sar-El” – on which she packed medical supplies and painted walls, while others cleaned out an underground hospital which hasn’t been used since the most recent military activity in Lebanon two years ago. She also has volunteered at a soup kitchen on recent Fridays (while I was home making Shabbat soup for us). So she had a certain amount of moral suasion to convince me to go with her. Besides, I was curious to see what the world of volunteers was like here in The Land. We agreed to meet our friends on a specified 174 bus, and we traveled together into Jerusalem where we got on another bus going to a neighborhood called Katamon. Along the way, I got a crash course on the organization I was going to help.
Like many things, there is a history here. And like many things, there is something I call a “moment of decision.” Some of you (at least the people in Teaneck) know about Clara Hammer, “The Chicken Lady,” a woman who was simply standing on line (for those of you who don’t appreciate the linguistic subtlety, while most Americans stand “in line;” because I’m from New York, I stand “on line.”) waiting to purchase her Shabbat chicken, when she realized that the family who was in front of her on/in that line in that butcher shop was getting almost inedible chicken scraps because they were too poor to buy a real chicken. Mrs. Hammer decided to pay for that family’s chicken for that Shabbat, the next Shabbat, and every Shabbat. And, because there were so many other families in similar situations, Mrs. Hammer decided to become “The Chicken Lady,” soliciting funds to provide chickens for hundreds of needy families in Jerusalem.
Let me now introduce you to Barbara Silverman, like Clara Hammer, an American olah. It seems that in 1985, she and her husband were driving past a roadblock near the Arab village of Ramallah. There are many, including some Israelis, who thoughts on passing such a roadblock, put up to prevent terrorists from gaining access to heavily populated areas, would dwell on the “plight” of the “Palestinians” (although, in truth, the roadblocks and road closings are a serious difficulty for many Arabs who are just trying to get through their day). Most of us would be grateful for the soldiers protecting our lives, but would leave it at that. But Mrs. Silverman took it one step further. It occurred to her that while she would be enjoying her Shabbat day of rest in the comfort and safety of Rehavia (one of Jerusalem’s nicest neighborhoods), a group of young men would be standing on duty at this machsom in the heat of the summer, making do with what passes for cuisine in the I.D.F. And so Barbara Silverman came back before that Shabbat to that machsom with enough home cooked food for six Shabbat meals. When she came back for the following Shabbat, she found out that there were more hayalim in another machsom just down the road. It wound up with her preparing and bringing forty eight meals every week for years, until the ID.F. asked her to stop because the trip had become too dangerous for unarmed civilians. But you can’t keep an intrepid soul like Barbara Silverman down for long! After a few year’s hiatus to take care of family matters, she began her current project: to provide every week “A Package from Home” for the many bodedim and bodedot, “lone soldiers”, young men and women who come on their own from across the globe to volunteer and serve in the first Jewish army since the time of Bar Kochba. She began this project in her apartment in Rehavia, only to have it overwhelm her living space and threaten to destroy her furniture. Recently, the project has been on the move, and Beth, David, Barbara and I were on our way to its most recent home, a matnas (community center) in Katamon, which we finally located by virtue of walking around the neighborhood.
Here in a small room was a table laden with merchandise, more boxes on the floors, plastic bags all around, packers and soldiers milling around, from which seeming chaos would come an hour or so later over 400 packages ready for delivery. The procedure was simple enough: take a plastic bag, put in it a package of socks, a package of underwear, a tee shirt, several kinds of snacks, some toiletries, and some sheets of paper containing messages of encouragement in at least three languages. How this was done reminded me of shul kiddushes I have witnessed: find a plate and a fork, reach over several people to spear a few pieces of herring, go around another mass of surging people to locate a piece of kugel, walk around the table to get some pastry, balance this carefully as you head over to where you think they might have some Scotch, find a napkin, etc. In our situation, a dozen or so people were performing a dance, weaving in and out around the small tables laden with stuff, sometimes improvising a relay where a bag might be handed from person A who was near the socks to person B who stood by the snacks to person C who would flip in some shampoo or a toothbrush to person D who had the letters to person E who would tie the bag and place it in one of several piles. How the counting as done, I couldn’t figure out, but finally we had packed the requisite number of bags, and we were done. People began to leave, stuff got packed up, the floor was swept, and the room became quiet.
At this point, I approached Shira Gilor, who has served as the program coordinator for the last several years. I told her that I had just finished a course in grant writing, and before I started charging for my services, I was willing to write a few proposals gratis to polish my skills. Well, did I feel like Santa Claus! Shira’s face lit up; she told me that she had wanted to apply for a grant, but she didn’t have the time, didn’t know how to do it, and didn’t know where to apply. So, in effect, I was “hired,” starting after Pesach.
Our farewells said, Barbara and I followed Beth and David out the door, down the block, through the neighborhood, to Beit Lechem Street in the German Colony. Our destination? A tiny (I mean tiny) shop that, according to David, makes the best falafel in town. One thing about David Gordon: he knows his falafel. We had a simple, inexpensive meal and continued our perambulation through the German Colony back to the center of town, where we stopped at the new Cup o’ Joe for an Israeli “Iced Coffee” (not the same as a plebian “kafe kar” [cold coffee]). At this point, none of us was in a hurry. David was considering a pre-Pesach haircut, Beth had a little time before her next tzedekah project, and Barbara and I had several hours until our next appointment: we needed to get pre-approval for a larger mortgage (the dollar has shrunk in value; the price of real estate throughout Israel has risen because the economy keeps growing). We ran a few errands and headed to our mortgage banker in the Bank Leumi on King George St. There in front of the Mashbir (Israel’s first “department store”) was an enormous contingent of Christians, mostly from America, supporters of Rev. John Hagee, who had come to The Land to show their support of our beleaguered country. Barbara spoke with a few of them briefly before we went in to see Dafna, our banker, who had our much larger request pre-approved on the spot.
Finally, it was time to head back to Ma’ale Adumim. We waited for our bus and headed off. But Jaffa Street ahead of us was blocked up. The large contingent we had seen before was now marching a thousand strong through the midrechov (promenade) on Ben Yehuda and on to I know not where. My initial reaction was one of annoyance. But as I watched this demonstration with its banners “Israel, we support you,” I had a change of heart. Usually, if traffic is stopped in Jerusalem, it is either because of a chefets chashood (a suspicious object; i.e, a bomb threat) or because some foreign dignitary – who is most likely here to convince us to divide our City and relinquish our land – is passing by. Here were a thousand people who have no direct stake in the outcome of our conflict with our neighbors coming to offer us their encouragement. Let them march. In fact, we would meet them again the next day, another day in Nissan.