- Social & Humanitarian
- The Rebbe
July 18, 2014
As IDF ground forces entered Gaza on Thursday, Chabad-Lubavitch representatives around the world reached out to their communities, galvanizing spiritual, moral and material, support for Israel’s soldiers. Chabad communities have launched campaigns to foster greater Jewish engagement, commitment to mitzvahs and increased participation in expressions of goodness and kindness. The popular Chabad-led “arms for Israel” campaign inviting men and boys to don tefillin, was started by the Rebbe in 1967 during the six-day war as a mitzvah the sages say strikes terror in the heart of Israel’s enemies.
There are more than 320 Chabad centers scattered the length and breadth of Israel. At all of these, Chabad emissaries are focusing on a spiritual response to the danger, while reaching out and opening their homes and hearts to those in need. It has taken a leading role in support of civilians and IDF soldiers on the frontlines, providing meals and other forms of nutritional sustenance, coordinating activities for children traumatized by daily bombings who now spend much of their time in or near bomb shelters.
Resources Strained, Israel Appeals to Chabad
Chabad’s preparedness to help has made it a first address for individuals seeking aid. With its network of schools, centers and social projects throughout Israel’s cities, Chabad is uniquely positioned to provide critical assistance at a time when the nation’s resources are so strained. Indeed, Israel’s Ministry of Welfare and Social Services has enlisted the help of one of Chabad’s oldest charities – Colel Chabad, to provide emergency meals for individuals and families in Israel’s hardest-hit areas during this time. Colel Chabad is a humanitarian program feeding Israel’s needy through its various soup kitchens and community programs.
Over the course of the last week, volunteers of the Chabad Terror Victims Project (CTVP) traveled to highly affected areas in the south and north, working to boost morale and take people’s minds off current stressors.
“We have been working nonstop,” said Rabbi Yossi Swerdlov, a representative of CTVP, offering help in any way they could and staying optimistic about the situation. “We do what we can to bring happiness.”
With schools and camps remaining closed due to safety concerns, children have very little to distract them from the constant booms of artillery in the distance. To bring some joy to the bleak environment, a group of rabbis and CTVP volunteers, some hailing from as far off as South Africa, went to hard-hit Sderot in the south with entertainers, including clowns and balloon makers. Going from shelter to shelter, they distributed over 50,000 shekel worth of toys and games to local children.
Rabbi Moshe Pizem, the Chabad reresentative to Sderot who organized the initiative, explains that the children “are shut up in their houses or in safe daycares and are unable to move around or even go to the playground. We thought our best bet was to bring them joy through fun, new toys and games. It’s a small step in mitigating their trauma.”
In Ashdod, where rocket attacks have been particularly severe, local emissaries Rabbi Yosef and Chanah Friedman hosted youngsters at a new play area in their Chabad center, created to give them, as well as their parents, some relief.
“Some haven't been out of their homes for days, and all are thrilled to have company in a safe environment,” said Rabbi Friedman. “When the sirens blow, the children and their parents quickly go to the safe area, which is in a nearby room.”
In nearby Ofakim, local shliach Rabbi Shneur Kenig leads a team of volunteers who visit school children in their homes, bringing them treats and games.
“There are no day camps running, because of a safety regulation,” Kenig says, “but we gather children in groups and organize fun programs for them in the bomb shelters.”
Reaching Out to IDF Soldiers
Chabad community leaders and yeshiva students have coordinated a near constant rotation of visits to soldiers on the front lines and at bases. They wrap tefillin with many of the soldiers, hand out prayer books, and recite prayers for their safety. Chabad representatives also offer soldiers care packages, including food and toiletries. Some bring pizza and homemade food items for soldiers who follow special dietary laws above the standard kashrut of the army. Pictures and videos of Chabad rabbis dancing joyously with IDF soldiers just miles from Gaza’s border have gone viral in Israel, with one of Israel’s most popular newspapers, Yediot Achronot, declaring Chabad volunteers “a part of the front.”
Rabbi Victor Attiya, an IDF veteran and Chabad emissary to Kiryat Arba, describes how he recently filled a van with 1000 books of psalms, treats and other gifts for the soldiers, “until there was no room left in the van,” and drove to the border of Gaza.
“What I found interesting was that many soldiers, who did not seem religious at all, requested that I bring them a pair of tzitzit (a religious garment of fringes). It was clear to me that these brave, young men had a deep rooted faith in G-d,” Attiya asserts. Quickly running out of the quantity of tzitzit he had brought with him, he "promised to return with more.”
Respite for Children
While this month’s fighting is the worst Israel has seen in years, it belies nearly a decade of rocket fire from Gaza that mainly affected southern Israeli cities, including Sderot, where residents have 15 seconds to find safety before a rocket hits. Children in Sderot have grown up under fire and many suffer from PTSD and other psychological traumas from the constant fear.
In an effort to alleviate the young children’s suffering, Chabad of Denmark has collaborated with Chabad of Sderot since 2008, to bring a group of children to the Scandinavian country every summer. The children join an overnight Chabad camp for local Jewish Danish children. Assigned their own bunk with Israeli counselors, (this year the counselors themselves hail from Sderot), the children have a rare opportunity to play outside carefree, without running to shelters at a moments notice.
Rabbi Yitzi Lowenthal of Denmark Chabad, who coordinates the program, says that though he wishes he can bring more children, the program can only currently support 10-20 children. Children are chosen based on economic and emotional difficulties—eight children in this year’s group have lost a parent. The venture, which is supported by local Danish philanthropists, is met with great enthusiasm by parents and children alike.
“Parents are happy to send to their kids out of danger, to a quiet place where they can experience normal life for a little while,” says Lowenthal.
“The program is very therapeutic. It is a very exciting adventure for these kids who come from unfortunate circumstances and who have never been out of Israel before. It is also very meaningful to the children and their families to know that people they’ve never met before feel so strongly about their situation to go out of their way to finance this and give them this kind of reprieve. They are touched when they realize how others care about them so much.”
“The dangerous situation is expected to continue,” says Rabbi Menachem Kutner, director of CTVP. “It is a very anxiety-filled situation, never knowing when or where the next rocket will hit. You can feel the tension and fear everywhere, especially among the children,” he reports.
Rabbi Aharon Prus of Tzerei Agudat Chabad Headquarters Israel in Kfar Chabad, Israel, explains that “The people of Israel need us, especially now that more than a million Israelis have practically ‘moved house’ to a shelter or reinforced room. When a Chabad support team arrives to spread a few words of faith and hope, and when the floor of a bomb shelter is transformed from a carpet of bored and scared children to a circle of happily dancing ones. This is real ammunition in the battle for people's spirits.”