After the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel, Bettina Kramer, of Atlantic Beach, was searching for a way to help the Jewish state, and she found it: the Jewish National Fund-USA.
The fund was established in 1901, in an effort among Jewish communities worldwide to guarantee a resilient and safe homeland in Israel. Over the years, the organization has undertaken a diverse range of projects across Israel.
Kramer and her husband, Allen, took part in a four-day volunteer mission to help out in the wake of the attacks, and amid the Israel-Hamas war. Roughly 60 people boarded a flight to Israel on Dec. 17. The volunteers did four to six hours of work each day, cooking, assisting in day care centers, doing laundry or cleaning up.
The Jewish National Fund-USA covered all expenses except airfare — accommodations, armed security, transportation to sites and meals. More trips from the United States are scheduled through May, and January is already sold out.
The flight to Israel wasn’t new for Bettina Kramer, but this time it felt different, and she felt it as soon as she got off the plane at Ben Gurion Airport.
“All the hostage posters are all over the airport — the ones that have been ripped off in New York,” she said. “It was a different Israel than I had been to before. It was very sad.”
The volunteers were greeted with a dinner at the Carlton Hotel in Tel Aviv. The next day, the jam-packed itinerary that Kramer described began, with agricultural work.
At an orange orchard in the village of Tlamim, the Kramers learned that many farm employees had left when, afraid of being taken hostage by Hamas. And some did become hostages, Bettina said.
“Sixty people in the group, and we picked 15 tons of oranges,” she said, adding of the farmer, “We basically took care of his orchard for, like, three hours. He was very appreciative.
“We really wanted to do something hands-on to help,” she added. “I feel like we did that.”
The JNF partners with Hashomer Hachadash, a volunteer recruitment organization that safeguards land and farms in the Negev and Galilee. Volunteers watch over 40 farmland posts, protecting over 145,000 acres of farmland from theft and vandalism.
With members of the Israel Defense Forces continuing to patrol the country, the visiting volunteers made over 400 hamburger lunches for them, delivering them and eating with them at an army base.
“Now, I never made over 400 hamburgers,” Bettina chuckled, “but we grilled, chopped lettuce, tomato and onions and put the packages together.”
After becoming acquainted with her fellow volunteers, Bettina has kept in touch with them since she returned to New York through a WhatsApp group chat.
Allen said that he and his wife were feeling empty after the Hamas attack, and wanted to do something to help. That spurred the interest in the volunteer mission.
“We were here in the U.S. and felt helpless,” he said. “By going, we felt we were doing something. The people were very happy that we came because there are very few tourists now, so they were very happy that we were showing support.”
JNF Long Island President Rosemarie Kipper wrote in an email that Long Islanders have mobilized to support Israel through the organization.
“So many of us on Long Island want to do more to alleviate the humanitarian crisis currently affecting hundreds of thousands of Israelis who had to flee their homes due to the Hamas terrorist attacks,” she wrote. “Now, through Jewish National Fund-USA, our community can roll up its sleeves and support Israelis on the ground. Through Jewish National Fund-USA’s volunteer missions, people everywhere are helping growers save their farms, cleaning up towns and villages affected by the conflict, and providing respite for patients in hospitals as well as those with long-term disabilities.”
One thing that struck Allen that was different from prior trips to Israel was how empty the streets were, except for Tel Aviv, he said. “At night, there were people in restaurants, but it didn’t feel the same,” he said. “Everybody was worried about sirens going off, family, children, etcetera.”
An exhibit at the Tel Aviv Expo, “Nova 6.29,” named for the hour on Oct. 7 when the first rockets fell at the Tribe of Nova music festival, made a deep impression on Bettina, she said. At the time, there was a crowd of more than 3,000 concertgoers.
“One of the survivors spoke to us, and everything about it was very moving,” Bettina said. “They showed cars with bullet holes, porta potties where the terrorist came and killed people hiding in there — it was just really moving and extremely well done.”