From an Israeli Volunteer in New York

I have so many more stories like these, but the point is that there is a huge and powerful impact on people that when a Jew is in need, we will fly out and find him.

by Shani Lachmish

It’s hard to imagine huge New York could be so dark. Anywhere in the world, it would be upsetting to see building after building, all 22 stories high, at night, without one single window lit up. You feel something’s wrong, the buildings appear to be deserted, it’s as though you’re in a danger zone. And the area has become dangerous, we aren’t permitted to stay out there once night falls. There is no street lighting, no traffic lights, the skies are cloudy … it is frightening and sad. But sadder still is the knowledge that there are hundreds of elderly people in this basic sheltered housing complex . They all lock themselves in their apartments. Some of them have flashlights and the rest might have candles, or maybe not even that. Elderly people who can’t go down the stairs because it’s hard for them to walk, the elevator isn’t working so they’re stuck. For nearly 2 weeks now, they’ve been stuck in their apartments, without electricity or running water, totally dependent on the kindness of volunteers who come with a warm meal and a friendly smile.

I feel privileged to be one of those volunteers. On our first day, we climbed up to the top floor with warm meals, bottles of water, toilet paper, batteries, flashlights, cans of food and blankets. From there, we went down floor by floor, knocking on every door and asking in English / Russian (most of them are Russian speakers) how they’re feeling, whether they need medical care, what their needs are, etc. From floor to floor, the provisions we had dwindled. We felt terrible when we could no longer offer even the most basic commodity – a warm meal. Some of the elderly people couldn’t open cans by themselves. Many of them told us they were hungry. It’s heartbreaking standing opposite a person telling you “I’m hungry”. By the time we reached the 15th floor, there was no more food left for us to give out.

Hard as it was to be unable to offer food now, more than anything else I felt that they needed somebody who wanted to hear them, who knew they were there, who would give them a warm hug. They are totally helpless there and as night falls, they get increasingly anxious and afraid. They don’t know if they’ll have anything to eat tomorrow, whether volunteers will come again … but I can’t put in words how excited and touched they were, those of them I told, that we had come from Israel, that we had left everything and flown to New York especially to help. They showered blessings on us and they cried. Here, the Jews have come – our brothers and sisters – all the way to the 22nd story of this building to help us! And even if there was no food left, just water and toilet paper, they appreciated it so much. I can’t emphasize how much it meant to them.

There was one elderly Russian lady who was waiting in the dark corridor, we couldn’t see her there, it was pitch black. The flashlight on my forehead shed a little light on her and I could see she was crying. She had been standing there for goodness knows how long just waiting for us to reach her. As we arrived, I held her hand and, ever grateful for the Russian course I took at the Hebrew University last year, I managed to have a short chat with her. I asked what she needed and told her we were a group of volunteers from Israel. She squeezed my hand so hard and then threw herself onto me and hugged me. As a former casualties officer in the IDF, which is fondly nicknamed “The Hugging Corps”, it’s second nature to me, and now the rest of the group has started calling me “Hamechabeket – the Hugger”. There was an elderly Israeli woman living there too, she was so upset, crying that no food had reached them for three days and all the canned produce she had was finished. But the fact we had come from Israel was so important to them; we felt so appreciated.

One of the workers there said that now he realized that Israel was closer to the USA than Canada. “It must be”, he said, “you came here to help out but Canada hasn’t sent anyone”.

I have so many more stories like these, but the point is that there is a huge and powerful impact on people that when a Jew is in need, we will fly out and find him.

I haven’t had the chance to tell you about the fantastic group I came out with – Nathan, Oriah, Yael, Sherri, Tamar, Ili, Amir, the other Shani, Or and Amit. Each and every one of them are just wonderful to work with. And Deborah and David Shimko, our great hosts from the Romemu community, who are looking after our every need and so much more….

Hugs (obviously!),


Shani Lachmish is presently volunteering in New York following Hurricane Sandy. Shani lives in Mercaz Shapira, which is between Ashkelon and Kiryat Malachi and is a member of the delegation of the Ein Prat Leadership Academy Alumni. Shani is a familiar face to many US Jews from the Ein Prat Fountainheads clips on YouTube.

The above are extracts from an email she sent to family and friends, graciously shared by her parents, Leonie and Haim Lachmish.