In many ways, the Israel Defense Forces has always been an army for all Jews. But in the war against Hamas that just ceased, American Jews were particularly engaged and aware of the soldiers’ plight. In addition to the many protest rallies and prayer sessions around the country and the world, Jewish organizations and individuals found several ways to send Israeli soldiers more direct forms of encouragement.
One very popular method was sending care packages to soldiers. A pioneer in the field has been A Package from Home, started in 2000 by Barbara Bloom Silverman, a 77-year-old immigrant from Chicago. Since then, the organization has sent over 150,000 packages containing dozens of items. They include towels, socks, T-shirts, wet wipes, toothpaste and toothbrushes, and lots of snacks – and in the winter, fleece jackets, blankets, gloves, neck warmers, and more.
During the 34 days of war with Lebanon in 2006, A Package from Home sent 22,000 packages, Bloom Silverman said. She estimated that they had sent more than 7,000 during this war.
Eliana Brody delivering a package to a group of soldiers.
“We’ve been working around the clock,” she said, “from 6:45 a.m. to midnight. At 3:00 we’re ready for a break, but that’s just when the rest of the world wakes up and begins sending letters.”
She added, “The only time we rest is on Shabbat, and by then we really need a rest.”Bloom Silverman is assisted by Shira Gilor, who is the only employee of the organization. They also receive help from many volunteers. “We never have a shortage of volunteers who want to help pack,” Bloom Silverman said. “We often have visitors from America also helping.”
The work is done out of Bloom Silverman’s two-bedroom apartment in Jerusalem, where one of the bedrooms has been turned into an office. They also use a storage room in her apartment building.
She said that many soldiers have attested to the “lift” they get when receiving the packages. “One said that the clean towels smelled like home,” she said.
Each package also contains letters of support written by Jews around the world. The letters are in Hebrew, English, Russian, and Amharic (the language of many Ethiopians). Thus all of the soldiers can read them. Since the beginning of this conflict, the organization has received more than 6,000 letters. The letter of one 6-year-old American girl featured a big red heart drawn in crayon with the words, “I send you my heart,” Bloom Silverman said.
Several other American groups have organized campaigns for letters of support, including the National Council of Young Israel (NCYI), which has asked American Jews to e-mail their messages of “chizuk and strength.”
Another project of support that NCYI helped facilitate was Operation Tefillah, Torah & Troops, where Jews from around the world are paired with an Israeli soldier, and are responsible to pray, learn Torah, and do special acts of chesed on behalf of that solider.
The project was started during the 2006 Second Lebanon War by Rabbi Simcha HaCohen Kook, the chief rabbi of Rechovot, Israel, and the Bostoner Rebbe, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Horowitz of Har Nof. The two rabbinic leaders continued the efforts this year. In the three weeks of war, some 100,000 people have signed up to pray for an Israeli soldier, according to Rabbi Pesach Lerner, executive vice president of NCYI.
Rabbi Yanki Schneck, assistant to Chief Rabbi Kook, said that their office has received nearly 25,000 e-mails from people worldwide requesting names of soldiers. His office has seven phone lines that are constantly ringing, as thousands of calls pour in.
Chaim Leibtag, chief operating officer of NCYI, spoke of a similar scene at his organization’s offices. “Our phones have been ringing every day from 8 a.m. until we leave.” He added that at one point, the requests arriving by e-mail to Rabbi Kook’s office got so large that they could not process them, and that Daniel Gordon, CEO of OutDash Development, agreed to help process the rest – free of charge.
(Leibtag added that he is now looking for volunteers to help sift through all the videos and other material on the Web posted by Hamas and others, so that organizations like CAMERA, Honest Reporting, the David Project and StandWithUs can review and categorize them.)
”The power of prayer should never be underestimated,” said Rabbi Lerner. “By raising our collective voice toward the heavens and asking for God’s help, we can provide the support and strength that our soldiers need as they carry out a mission that is vital to the future of the Jewish state.”
Some American Jews who were in Israel for other reasons joined the support effort. A group of 35 Yeshiva University students, on a mission to “expose the students to cultural groups that have immigrated” to Israel, according to a press release, took time out to help pack care packages for soldiers.
The Orthodox Union spearheaded efforts to send to IDF soldiers what the OU’s director of public relations, Stephen Steiner, called “spiritual ammunition”: tefillin, tzitzit and books of Tehillim.
“Requests for religious items keep pouring in every day,” said Rabbi Avi Berman, director of OU Israel. “What are you going to tell a soldier on the battlefield – knowing he is about to confront a vicious enemy – when he asks to connect to God with tefillin, tzitzit and Tehillim?”