(New York Jewish Week) — The El Al desk at JFK Airport’s Terminal 4 was brimming with quiet anxiety on Monday as dozens of travelers waited to be checked in holding two documents: their passport, and their emergency summons from the Israel Defense Forces.
The military reservists were preparing to board at least two specially chartered flights to Israel, where they will join a burgeoning war effort. Since Saturday’s invasion of southern Israel by Hamas, which killed at least 900 Israelis, the country has called up an unprecedented 300,000 reservists for what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called a “massive attack” on the terror group.
That callup brought Israelis from New York City and beyond to the JFK terminal, where the check-in operation of Israel’s national carrier felt less chaotic than usual: Airline attendants were helping the men move through the process quickly, while hordes of volunteers had appeared to drop off food and equipment as well as make sure everyone knew where they needed to go.
“I’m just thinking about my team back in Israel,” said Noam, an Israeli man who lives in New York. “They’re already been called up together so I’m just waiting to join them.”
Noam, who served in a special forces unit in the IDF, found out he was called up for reserve duty on Monday morning. By 1 p.m., he was checking for a 4 p.m. flight to Israel.
Another Israeli man from the city said he was “just so tired.” Like several of those waiting in line, he was hesitant to speak to press for security reasons.
A third man had flown in from his home in Kansas that morning.
“They just told us to get here, and they would take care of it,” he said. “We don’t know what’s going to happen, but we are here.”
Not everyone trying to get to Israel on Monday was a soldier heading to war — some were just visiting the US and hoping to get back home. Delta Airlines, American Airlines and United Airlines have all suspended flights to Israel amid travel advisories from the U.S. State Department. Around the world, airlines from Europe and Asia, including Air France and Lufthansa, are temporarily suspending their flights to Tel Aviv as well.
“We’re feeling anxious to get back,” said Shira, who immigrated to Israel with her husband three years ago. The couple, who were visiting family in the New York area for the fall Jewish holiday season, originally had flights to Israel scheduled for Thursday that were canceled by Delta. Shira’s husband hoped to leave Monday afternoon; she had found a ticket to leave next week.
El Al is still operating its flights, and several WhatsApp groups have emerged to help reservists outside of Israel find their way back to the country. The groups help the reservists both find flights and pay for them, as the cost of a one-way El Al ticket has spiked to more than $2,000.
On Monday, another Israeli man had come to the airport just to get reimbursed by the airline for his ticket — he had given up his seat on a flight that day because “there are soldiers that need to go today.” It was unclear what he needed to do next, he said, in order to get back home.
Still others came to the airport to help those who were traveling. Boxes and boxes of food intended for the travelers were stacked in the terminal.
“We’re all looking to help in some way. People don’t know who to turn to,” said Elan Kornblum, the New York-based administrator of “Great Kosher Restaurant Foodies,” a Facebook group that has 91,000 members and which was helping organize and deliver food to JFK. It has previously organized food drives responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“I wish I could help answer all the questions, but we’re not set up for that,” Kornblum said. “But when it comes to food, when it comes to delivering things and getting people to do it, that’s what we’re best at and that’s what we’ve been doing.”
Currently, the group has solicited donations of hamburgers, pies, cookies, sandwiches, energy bars and coffee — all from kosher eateries and grocery stores in the New York area. The food will go toward soldiers heading to Israel and Israelis stuck in New York. Kornblum hopes to direct some of the donations to families in which one parent had to fly to Israel for reserve duty.
“There’s a lot of information on social media, it can get overwhelming,” he said. “You’re inundated with so much going on. I’m trying to just filter it all, to put it out there how people can help, to get them involved, hopefully to inspire and educate.”
One Israeli man showed up to volunteer at the terminal after being alerted to an opportunity to help on a WhatsApp group. He currently lives in New York and said he is likely too old to be called from the reserves.
“It’s really hard to hear this news and feel like you can’t do anything. My wife and family are here in New York,” he said. “This is really something small, but I still came to help.”