A Journey from Grief to Action: Witnessing Tragedy, Offering Hope in Israel’s Time of Need Written by Sarah Cohen


Dec 2023

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On October 7th I saw the news of the horrifying events committed by Hamas unfolding. Immediately, I began messaging my friends in Israel to see if they were okay and to let them know that I was thinking of them. For days after, I felt paralyzed, and couldn’t stop scrolling on social media, wanting to bear witness to what was happening. On October 11th I woke up to the news that my friend Amit, the guard on my Birthright trip in September 2022, was murdered at the Nova music festival in Re’im. I was devastated that they murdered my friend, scared that they wanted to murder all the rest of us, and angry that the world was celebrating when we weren’t even given the space to grieve.

As soon as I saw that Birthright looking for volunteers to help in Israel, I knew that I needed to go. I applied to participate in Birthright’s Onward Volunteer Program to spend two weeks in November making a tangible difference on the ground, and was accepted shortly after. While there, I volunteered at Pichon Lev, an organization that is helping provide supplies to displaced families and soldiers impacted by the war. It was special to volunteer with other Jews from all around the world who felt called to help and give back. By the end of my time there, we had provided supplies and supported over 10,000 families and soldiers. The opportunity to volunteer and give back was healing for many of us, including myself, when the last nearly two months had felt dark and hopeless. I thought that Israel needed my help during the war but had no idea how much I needed Israel during these times.

It surprised me how life seemed to have continued in Israel, but the atmosphere felt more empty than when I had previously been there. Things were quieter, tourists went home, and spirits seemed so much lower. There was a hole in the heart of Israel. We were often met with “why are you here?” explaining that we had come to help during the war. Reactions included shock, appreciation, hugs, tears, thankfulness, gifts out of gratitude, and telling us that we are “crazy.” The Israelis I met shared stories of feeling isolated and left behind by the rest of the world, and that us being there gave them hope. While the work we did was important, the unity we were able to show with our Israeli brothers and sisters, and the unity we felt from them was just as or more important.

There were so many moments that moved or broke my heart while I was on my trip. Justin—a friend from my Birthright trip who also returned to volunteer—and I went to visit Amit’s grave. At first we couldn’t find the burial site, but soon noticed many rows of new graves marked October 7th. It was heartbreaking to see so many lost too soon, with candles glowing from recent visitors. Together we lit candles and prayed for Amit, who always kept us safe, who we couldn’t keep safe in return. Her headstone was the most beautiful thing I wish I never had to see.

More poignant experiences came during my visits to Hostage Square in Tel Aviv. There, I saw families of hostages and people paying their respects, alongside art installations that representing the horrors of October 7th. On one of those visits, we met a man and asked if he had any family being held in Gaza. With tears in his eyes he responded, “he chazrah” – “she returned.”

He talked about how his sister was murdered on October 7th, but that his niece, Emily Hand, the 9-year-old Irish-Israeli girl who was kidnapped at a sleepover and whose father made international headlines in his public comments about her, had been returned in the hostage release. He shared he’s balancing the conflicting emotions of mourning his sister with relief and elation of Emily coming home.

Finally, I want to share about my experience with the war itself and feeling of safety. Within only hours of my arrival, a few of my roommates and I headed to the safe room (our bedroom) in our apartment when the sirens went off. Sirens alerted us that Hamas was shooting at the center of Tel Aviv and we had 90 seconds to shelter. When the missiles weren’t directed at Tel Aviv, we could still see and hear the Iron Dome blowing them up in the sky, saving lives. I was surprised how little the American news showed what Hamas was doing to Israel. I would have thought that Hamas’ refusal to release more hostages, committing terrorist attacks in Jerusalem, and launching 200 missiles indiscriminately towards us in one day would be newsworthy. Instead, all I saw was the media commenting on Israel’s continued bombing in Gaza. It felt like the news did not care that 200 missiles were fired at civilians. It felt like unless we died in high enough numbers for them to feel it was “proportionate,” it did not matter how much Hamas terrorized us. I can’t imagine how much that weighs on the Israelis who must live that every day.

Although it was war, I felt way safer in Israel than I do in Iowa, and felt more love, support, and peace as a Jewish person there. I have decided to return to Israel to volunteer for two more weeks in January. This choice comes both because I feel a deep responsibility to continue to do more to help during these times, and selfishly wanting to feel that sense of safety and peace again. For those of you considering going, I strongly encourage it and am here if you have any questions.

For those of you who the opportunity is not for, that’s okay, too. While our Israeli family fights on the frontlines against Hamas, we have our own frontline to fight against antisemitism here. Whether in Israel or in the Diaspora, we have a responsibility to protect and support each other during these times. We must love each other far more, and far louder, than they will ever hate us.

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