We Came Here for You

By Rabbi Binyomin Zev Karman

Rabbi Burton (second left) and his group visiting soldiers.

Since the war began in Gaza after the Simchas Torah attack by Hamas terrorists, the Israeli goverment has done much to redeem the phrase famously said by President Ronald Reagan to be the scariest nine words in the English language: “We’re from the government and we’re here to help.”

In addition to the assistance provided by the Israeli government for those affected by the war, individual Yidden have stepped forward and offered financial help and moral support with efficiency, competence and an abundance of feeling.

Many groups have visited Eretz Yisrael bringing supplies and funds to assist families of the soldiers, the displaced, yungeleit and working people whose source of income has dried up. Hamodia traced the itinerary of two missions that traveled the length and breadth of the land, distributing physical provisions and spiritual sustenance to people of all stripes.

The first group included Shmuel Yosef Rieder of Monsey; Rabbi Aaron Kotler, president emeritus of Beth Medrash Govoha; Shmuli Werdiger of Lakewood; Ronnie Wilheim of Cincinnati; Daniel Kirshenbaum of Baltimore; and the coordinator, Rabbi Shai Graucher, who is all over Eretz Yisrael as he heads Standing Together–B’yachad Nenatzeiach, coordinating chessed over the past few weeks.

The second group, organized by Rabbi Shnayor Burton of Brooklyn, includes Rabbi Dr. Shmuel Horowitz of Monsey; Akiva Schonfeld of Monsey; Mikey Stone of Manhattan; and Shimshi Rosenberg of Monsey.

These amalgamated groups left their families and work and traveled thousands of miles to be there for their brethren. As we follow their routes, we hear the sorrows and triumphs, the setbacks and victories, and most of all the indomitable spirit of a nation united to overcome adversity.

We came here — thousands of miles from home — for you —people who are undergoing extraordinary stress and anxiety. Why have we come? What can we accomplish? How can we help? The answers were not readily available when embarking on the mission, but American Jews felt they were Jews first and foremost, and that obligated them to spring into action when they saw their fellow Yidden in need. During the days fulfilling their mission, their sentiment was expressed succinctly by one who adopted a phrase from the Gemara in Sanhedrin (73a): “Ba lelameid venimtza lameid, one came to teach but instead was taught.” We came to give chizuk to them, but in the end, it was we who were strengthened; in our emunah, in our caring for others, and most of all in the bond we have with our brothers and sisters.

Shmuel Yosef Rieder and his group delivering a package to a wounded soldier.

“We spent difficult and deeply moving time visiting families who have lost loved ones during the massacre in the Gaza Envelope and in the subsequent war with Hamas,” said Shmuel Yosef Rieder, one of the leaders of his group. “It was amazing to see the dignity with which the almanos and yesomim carried themselves. They had lost people closest to them, yet they spoke of their emunah and bitachon, and how proud they were of their husbands and sons who sacrificed their lives to save and protect others. Many wounded soldiers, having seen nissim geluyim, have decided to become religious.”

Rabbi Aaron Kotler spoke about the tremendous awakening among the Jewish people to return to a path of Torah and mitzvos. “This is not just igniting a spark of the pintele Yid, it is a full-throated declaration on their part that they believe in the Ribbono shel Olam, and shows a genuine greatness of their faith,” he noted. “The hisorerus, I believe, is unprecedented in our history.”

On a visit to Netivot, the group met an almanah of a police officer who grabbed his gun and headed to the border towns as soon as he heard of the attack. The officer, an Ethiopian Jew who had learned in yeshivah, moved to Netivot to serve, and lived simply on a monthly salary of just $2,500. He did not come back alive, and the sefarim he was learning from when he left were still on the table.

“The house was bare, and the almanah did not have money to pay for a mover to transfer her meager possessions to Be’er Sheva to move closer to her parents. There were no funds to pay anyone to clean the apartment into which she would be moving,” Rabbi Kotler explained. “Within minutes, Rabbi Shai Graucher, who has emerged as a hero of the chessed distribution during the war, ordered a professional mover to pack up her possessions and a cleaning crew to prepare her new accommodations.

“As we spoke with her, her neighbor told us an amazing thing. This past Shabbos, this almanah spent five hours learning Chovos Halevavos with her. It’s hard to imagine how a person who has gone through so much has the inner fortitude to put her full faith in Hashem, and despite the pain, she is able to present herself with such faith and dignity.”

A visit to two sisters-in-law who were rendered almanos on Simchas Torah was simultaneously painful and inspirational. “Their two husbands were brothers. When they heard of the attack, they both headed there to protect the residents, and neither came back alive,” Shmuel Yosef Rieder related. “One left behind a baby of just 3 months. Shai Graucher supplied them with an envelope of cash to tide them over and asked them what else they needed. After much coaxing, one almanah finally said that her husband used to carry the baby up to their apartment, and she didn’t have the strength, so she could use a lightweight carriage. Within 25 minutes, a new carriage was on the way.

“Another almanah with three children in Netivot spoke of how her car was destroyed when her husband went to the towns under attack. A three-month rental was arranged immediately so this woman would be able to get around until a more permanent solution could be arranged.”

The group visited wounded soldiers in Tel Hashomer Hospital, some of whom had lost limbs during their battles. They spoke of the open miracles they witnessed and how it compelled them to make new strides in coming closer to Hashem. “Many have undertaken shemiras hamitzvos, and their stories left an indelible impact on the Americans who came to offer them chizuk,” Shmuel Yosef Rieder related. “One soldier told of how his car was riddled with 172 bullets, and how five of them hit him. That was the first nes. His car stalled, and he called out to Hashem to save him, and suddenly it roared back to life — the second nes — albeit without any steering. His car crashed into a wall, and he was ejected.

“He was losing blood and felt his strength fading. His hand was stuck in a half-clenched position, and with his last bit of strength he raised it to his eyes to say Shema Yisrael. At that moment, the third nes happened: An IDF jeep came by, and a rescue crew whisked him to an ambulance and eventually to the hospital.”

Tashmishei kedushah for all.

The group was exposed to an awesome level of emunah and bitachon among the injured. “We met a soldier who was shot and applied a tourniquet to stop the bleeding. It took seven hours until he was located and evacuated to the hospital, and as a result, his leg was amputated. Nevertheless, he was smiling and thanking Hashem for granting him life,” Rabbi Kotler said. “Another soldier spent 12 hours fighting [on October 7], and three times, his life was saved by open miracles. He told us, ‘I know what this means,’ and told us how he has begun his return to Torah and mitzvos.

“The suffering is great, yet the morale is high. Another soldier was hit by shrapnel in his neck and leg. His leg wound was serious, but he referred to it merely as his mazkeret — a reminder of what he went through. He was eagerly awaiting his return to his unit in Gaza, which the doctors said will have to wait until he heals a bit more. His mother, who was at his bedside, assured us that he will go back as soon as he can, because he feels obligated to help protect Jews.”

Another aspect of the mission was to distribute material and supplies to the soldiers and affected families. Shai Graucher procured gear needed by the soldiers and delivered hundreds of pairs of desperately needed combat boots. “Israel is a modern army, but the call-up was so quick and in such massive numbers that many reservists were left with less-than-optimal gear,” Shai said. “We saw some whose boots were in tatters, yet they were going out to battle regardless of the lack of proper footgear. We were able to supply many of them with what they needed, and we are working to get more for those who still need it.”

While the government has allocated funds for many categories of people affected by the war, there are substantial numbers of people who do not fit into any specific category but are nevertheless suffering. “There was money set aside for families of victims, hostages, displaced people, but the yungeleit had not received the stipends they usually get. Shai Graucher was able to deposit a nice sum into the bank accounts of many avreichim,” Rabbi Kotler related. “In addition, there were working-class people whose businesses have not generated any profit for weeks, and we were able to help them as well.”

One brainchild of the organization was the “Blue Friday” event held recently, where a huge tent was stacked with whatever the needy people required. “Each family was given a sum of faux money and were able to choose what they needed, paying with the paper money they had been supplied with,” explained Shmuli Werdiger. “Through this, hundreds of families were able to ‘purchase’ desperately needed clothing and merchandise with dignity. American Eagle donated a million dollars’ worth of merchandise. In addition, vendors whose businesses were interrupted were given the opportunity to set up booths in the tent, and they, too, ‘sold’ their wares for the ‘customers’ to get back on their feet. The event was so successful that we hope to repeat it elsewhere and continue this project after the war is over. Our motto is, ‘Everything, everyone, anywhere.’

Neshamah to neshamah.

“The sense of achdus that permeates the air throughout the country is astounding. All barriers have fallen, and we see people interacting with each other neshamah to neshamah, regardless of their background or level of religion. Even the non-religious soldiers joined in the heartfelt singing of Anachnu Maaminim Bnei Maaminim at the concerts we held with Avraham Fried and Kobi Peretz. We distributed hundreds of pairs of tzitzis made of army fatigues. Rabbi Yehudah Deri, Chief Rabbi of Be’er Sheva, joined us and led them in crying aloud Shema Yisrael and Hashem Hu Ha’Elokim, which was deeply moving. They expressed the feeling that they were fighting as Jews, not merely as patriotic citizens of a country.”

Daf Yomi for all.

An awakening of the neshamos yearning for spirituality is sweeping the country as well. “We distributed between 40,000 and 50,000 Daf Yomi Gemaros, and thousands of Chumashim as well,” Ronnie Wilheim said. “When we visited a base and celebrated a siyum on Maseches Kiddushin and Seder Nashim, we distributed 60 plaques to those who completed the masechta. About 20 men were not there to receive their plaques in person, since they were on the front lines.”

The renovated shul.

“On our trip down south, which was arranged through Rabbi Nechemia Malinowitz of Eretz Hakodesh, the colonel who took us around the base showed us how the invaders specifically attacked the shuls in the towns,” Rabbi Burton related. “They wanted to degrade the central religious places. The IDF decided that they must restore them as quickly as possible, filling in the bullet holes in the plaster, replacing the shattered doors, and repainting the interior. The shul became the sanctuary for the soldiers on their break, and it would have been demoralizing if they were confronted with the devastation. The religious soldiers were learning there, and even the non-religious ones ran there to put on tefillin and say a prayer.”

Cards from America.

Rabbi Burton’s group spent a day traveling up north, where they visited outposts of soldiers who were stationed on hilltops with a tank or two, and perhaps an artillery piece as well. “We delivered greeting cards made by the girls of Bais Yaakov of 18th Avenue, Prospect Park Yeshiva, and Hamaspik in Williamsburg,” Rabbi Burton said. “Judging by their reactions, it was extremely meaningful for them. They read them over and over again, and some hung them near their beds or even on their tanks.

“We had three goals when we set out. First, we wanted to contribute, and we did this by distributing supplies and raising morale. Second, we wanted to promote the feeling of achdus, showing the soldiers and other people in Eretz Yisrael how much the frum Jews of New York cared for them. And third, we tried to facilitate the wave of teshuvah which is sweeping the country. When secular people see that we view them as brothers, it underscores that we identify with them — and the unifying element, of course, is the Torah. During the course of our conversations with them, they, too, began to identify with that core belief.

“After traveling for a day, we all realized that there was a fourth accomplishment, which was a calming effect that the trip had on us. Of course, the anxiety was still there and the fear was constant, but seeing what was being done and how the soldiers and citizens were going about their duties and routines, we realized that they were committed to resuming their lives and continuing the development of Eretz Yisrael.”

Rabbi Burton’s group went to the levayah of Staff Sergeant Dvir Barazani of the 890th Paratroopers’ Battalion, who fell during the operations in Gaza. “The words of emunah we heard from the family showed amazing strength.

A wounded soldier receiving a refuah sheleimah card from America.

“We visited the Airly family, whose son Binyamin Meir fell in battle in Gaza. Despite being strangers, we were received warmly, and everyone expressed appreciation for our participation.”

“When we first set out, I was skeptical that our small group would be able to accomplish anything,” Mikey Stone said. “But I felt compelled to be there and do my small part by participating. In the end, I saw how much our visit was appreciated and how moved the soldiers were when they read the letters and spoke to us. Although there is no sugarcoating the devastation and injuries, their spirits are high. We heard how the soldiers are willing to fight for us, and how the wounded ones are impatient to be released so they can rejoin their units. It was a zechus to meet them in the flesh, and it demands that we make some alterations in our own lives.”

Shmuel Yosef Rieder writing a letter in the sefer Torah.

“One of the most moving events of our trip was the hachnasas sefer Torah for Adir Tahor, Hy”d, a 19-year-old who jumped on a grenade to save his comrades,” Ronnie related. “Adir’s mother told us that when her husband, Adir’s father, was killed in a different war, Adir expressed his desire to dedicate a sefer Torah on his behalf. Now, with Adir’s loss, she wanted desperately to fulfill his wishes. Shmuel Yosef Rieder sponsored the sefer Torah, and Shai Graucher was able to procure one that was nearly finished. A terrible tragedy was the springboard for eternal consolation.”

Through these missions of chizuk, our brethren in Eretz Yisrael better understand that Klal Yisrael is truly one unified nation that is supporting them worldwide.

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