JNF-USA volunteering in war-hit Gaza border towns let Americans pitch in, Israelis share struggles

'The fact that you are all here… it shows we are not alone,' one resident of the Eshkol region tells U.S. participants

KIBBUTZ URIM, Israel — Undeterred by the record-breaking 105-degree heat and the threat of rocket fire, a group of some 150 American visitors traveled from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv on Wednesday to Kibbutz Urim, which was came under fire on Oct. 7, and Pri Gan, a moshav infiltrated by Hamas terrorists. 

On the trip, which was organized by the Jewish National Fund-USA, participants planted, painted, farmed and heard firsthand accounts from residents whose lives were upended on Oct. 7. 

Aviva Kaufman, 19, from Chapel Hill, N.C., participated in the mission with her father, Jeffrey. She told eJewishPhilanthropy that she felt it was important to volunteer, rather than only observe the sites, because it gave her a way to “recognize the past, while trying to be positive about the future, and to help out while so many people around the world see Israel [negatively.]” 

The elder Kaufman added: “It’s an amazing place to be, and it’s unfortunate the people are so misinformed about what Israel is about.”

Brooke Verschleiser, a third-year student at Brown University who runs Brown Students for Israel, said her family “was contemplating whether we should [still] come” to Israel after the Iranian missile attack that occurred just days before their flight.

But Verschleiser said that, in the end, she “felt so much happier and safer” spending the day volunteering on kibbutzim near the Gaza border, and in Israel in general, than she does on her campus.

For the residents of the communities, the JNF-USA mission also provided a sense of solidarity as well as an opportunity to discuss the ongoing challenges facing their communities.

“The fact that you are all here… it shows we are not alone,” Michal Uziyahu, head of the nearby Eshkol region’s community center, told the group during its stop in Urim. 

Uziyahu recalled the hours she spent in the bomb shelter with her sons on Oct. 7. “I held my boys and said to them, ‘Guys, we have to snap out of it and survive.’” 

Fifty-four residents of the Eshkol region are still being held hostage in Gaza. “We need to do whatever we can to bring them back alive,” Uziyahu said to applause from the crowd. “We need to rebuild our communities to remind [ourselves] that we continue to choose life and when [residents] come back, they have a home to come back to.”

Tali Medina, who manages Kibbutz Urim’s dairy farm, told the group about her husband, who was shot by Hamas terrorists as he was riding his bicycle just outside of the kibbutz, resulting in the loss of two finger tips.  

“We don’t have a safe room in the houses here, so I was lying on the floor of my daughter’s bedroom, with my 6-year-old and 16-year-old,” Medina, a mother of four who has lived on Urim for 13 years, recalled in an interview with eJP. 

The Eshkol region, a 284 square-mile swath of land southeast of the Gaza Strip, has been the target of thousands of rocket attacks, possibly tens of thousands, since 2000. Yet several kibbutzim in the Eshkol region, including Urim, don’t receive the security assistance and financial support that those closer than seven kilometers (4.3 miles) from the border do, despite being so close to the Gaza Strip that “every time Israel bombs in Gaza our homes shake,” according to Medina. 

After Oct. 7, many residents, including Medina’s husband and children, evacuated because of the lack of resources. But as head of the farm, Medina stayed. She slept in the kibbutz’s bomb shelter for a month, returning to her house only to shower. With only about 12 other residents remaining, the kibbutz was taken over as an IDF military base until February. “You can’t just leave the animals,” Medina said. Terrorists bypassed Urim on Oct. 7, instead rampaging through and destroying neighboring kibbutzim Nir Oz and Nirim. But Urim was not spared from rockets. “We had 41 alarms that Saturday morning. One destroyed our clinic, and others fell on nearby offices,” Medina recalled. 

Fragments of exploded rockets and signs of the IDF’s use of the kibbutz as a base are evident all around the kibbutz. Playground paint is chipped, flowers have stopped blooming. But several families, including Medina’s, have returned in recent months. JNF-USA runs the daylong volunteer trip weekly. Medina said the help is appreciated “since we don’t get help from the government,” but that “it’s not enough.” 

“Not many people want to come over here to work now, but we are back in the kibbutz,” she said. “We need help with finding ways to keep our kids busy, because I need to work more now. More than anything, I wish there was a budget to build a safe room [in the house].” 

Medina was recognized by Ofakim, a nearby town, as an “agriculture hero” for her work on Urim’s farm since Oct. 7. “If they recognize me as a war hero, why doesn’t [the government] recognize our kibbutz for the budget for safe rooms? It’s not fair,” she said. “I’m a little angry.”