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Young Professional U.S. Jews Gather for Volunteer Trip to Israel

As Maury Kelman watched the distressing news from Israel in the early days of the war in Lebanon, he felt helpless and out of touch at his home in New York. Not wanting to sit idly by while Israelis suffered heavy rocket fire and disrupted lives, Kelman resolved to go to Israel to see what he could do to help.

In the space of a few days, Kelman, who works at a hedge fund, assembled more than 80 people for a trip to Israel to be filled wholly with volunteering.

Once in Israel, the group put together battle rations for Israeli soldiers, ran a camp in Ma’aleh Adumim for children from northern Israel, helped staff soup kitchens in Jerusalem, distributed toys to kids in the rocket-weary southern city of Sderot, met with Israeli soldiers on the northern front, patronized a bowling alley in Kiryat Shmona and donated blood to Israel’s Magen David Adom.

“I wasn’t looking to start an organization, but it really touched a chord,” Kelman told JTA early this week, at the end of a trip he described as exhausting but exhilarating.

“People felt helpless” watching the war in the United States, “and by doing this they felt they really contributed,” Kelman said. “People had no idea you could come to Israel and volunteer. Now they’re telling their friends and already bugging me about the next trip.”

One synagogue in Los Angeles already has contacted him for help in planning a similar trip, Kelman said.

American Jews responded quickly during the recent crisis in Israel, donating more than $170 million in an Israel emergency campaign organized by the United Jewish Communities federation umbrella group. Jewish groups also have together missions to the Jewish state to meet with officials and tour northern Israel’s battered communities.

But Kelman’s volunteer-oriented mission was a departure from the usual mode of American Jewish help. These Jews — mostly young, Orthodox professionals from the New York area — said they wanted to go beyond opening their wallets and meeting officials — though they did some of that, too.

“It wasn’t just to meet important people. We were here to work,” said Abraham Katsman, a New York lawyer in his 30s. “We got out there. We were doing stuff, and that was the point of being here.”

Katsman, who has four siblings living in Israel, said he got a call from Kelman about the trip while he was on vacation on a beach near Seattle. He immediately said he’d help.

“Every citizen here is really on the front line and you kind of feel the need to join them to whatever extent possible,” Katsman said. “Nobody’s going to let me pick up a rifle, so I guess the next best thing is to do whatever’s needed.”

Among other things, the group donated more than 50 pints of blood to Magen David Adom, Israel’s emergency medical service.

“We always invite American tourists in Israel,” said Jonathan Feldstein, the Israel representative of American Friends of Magen David Adom. “But in this case, it was unique. More often than not, missions coming through get a tour and a briefing. This group came and almost the whole mission donated blood. It was unbelievable.”

The volunteers on Kelman’s trip, which he dubbed Care for Israel (www.careforisrael.com), woke up early, came home late and generally ran themselves ragged.

El Al Airlines and the Kings Hotel in Jerusalem offered special deals to the participants, and donations by Jews in New York helped bring down the trip’s per-person cost to $1,299.

The volunteers also brought with them about 50 suitcases’ worth of supplies from American Jews, ranging from toys for kids to toiletries for battle-weary soldiers.

“To come to Israel at the drop of a hat expressly for volunteerism — to me this is exceptional,” said Kaynan Rabino, executive director of Ruach Tova, an Israeli organization that helps match volunteers with sites that need aid. “And these are regular people, they’re not community leaders who might be coming for political reasons. They came to work, because Israel is important to them.”

Ruach Tova helped plan the trip’s itinerary, which changed as events warranted. Originally, the trip included visits to bomb shelters, but the cease-fire took effect just as the group arrived, so plans changed.

Many participants said the highlight of the trip was a daylong visit to northern Israel to meet with members of the Israel Defense Forces and visit rocket-pocked cities, including Kiryat Shmona and Safed.

At one army base, volunteers spent more than an hour talking to soldiers from an IDF Golani Brigade that recently had lost three men in battle, including Uri Grossman, son of famed Israeli novelist David Grossman.

“We were able to go onto the base and sit with these guys for an hour as they were cleaning their guns,” Kelman said. “It was very emotional.”

For Jerome Linsner, a clinical psychologist from Chappaqua, N.Y., this was his first visit to Israel.

“What was so meaningful was everyone expressed their gratitude that we made the effort to come and were aware of what they were going through, so they didn’t feel alone,” said Linsner, who came on the trip with his 23-year-old daughter.

Although his daughter had been to Israel several years before, on a summer teen tour organized by a Reform Jewish youth group, Linsner said this trip was completely different.

“She felt like these five days we spent was one of the most meaningful things we’ve ever done,” he said.

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