180 Days Since October 7 - Teen Volunteer in Israel Reflection

Blog image - 180 Days Since October 7 - Teen Volunteer in Israel Reflection

By Micah Bidner and Shir Levenson, SSLI ’26, March 18-26, Teen Mission 


“We are living.” 

 On the Friday of our Alexander Muss High School in Israel (AMHSI) led teen volunteer mission, we entered a small tent set up at Hostage Square in Tel Aviv. In the tent, a man was speaking, an uncle of one of the 134 hostages unreturned. His simple answer was given in response to the awkward question, “How are you doing?” Amidst the aftermath of October 7 and still ongoing now, many Israelis have been stuck in this sort of in-between space. On one hand, the entire country is in a perpetual state of trauma from the horrors of the original attack on the 7th. On the other hand, the country and daily life continue. If there was one statement to sum up our experiences this past week, it would be the answer heard in the tent: “We are living.” Despite the incomprehensible trauma Israelis have endured, they are forced to continue with their lives.  

Teen Volunteer Mission March 2024, Micah Bidner and Shir Levonson


We began our week-long journey in the north of Israel on Tuesday, first arriving in the Western Galilee. We spent the morning in a wonderful woman’s home with her entire family, cooking and packaging over 500 individual meals that we sent to Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers. Throughout the morning, we each worked at our own station completing various jobs to make one meal in the end. Some of us grilled the chicken, some made rice, some of us cut cabbage, and some packaged cupcakes. However, the father of the home we were in explained that ultimately the most important station is where we would write the cards for the soldiers. He shared that “these cards of support, especially from you all as Americans, are more important and more powerful, than any material thing we can provide for these soldiers.” We even included our phone numbers on the cards we wrote, and later that night got heartwarming text messages and pictures from the soldiers who had received our meals. We then visited “Brothers in Arms” or “Achim Laneshek,” a civilian-run organization that provides support to both non-military people and soldiers. We ended our day with a visit to a Druze village in Mount Carmel. We spent our evening in a Druze home, talking, laughing, and sharing a home-cooked meal with the hosts. Our guide explained that if we had to find a positive in this time of war, it would be the unification of the country. He shared that, “we could be total strangers, but the minute we share bread and salt, just like Abraham did in the desert, we are friends.” 

Volunteering at Wadi Attir and ADI Negev

We spent our second day in the south of Israel. We began with volunteering on a Bedouin farm called Wadi Attir, a project funded by Jewish National Fund-USA (JNF-USA). While there, we gathered in the tent and met up with a current adult JNF-USA mission trip. In addition to being a Bedouin farm, this project is an agricultural school run by the Israeli government for Bedouin and Israeli children. We spent our morning harvesting plants, teaching or speaking to children, and milking goats. At this farm, and many others around Israel, the workforce, traditionally made up of foreign workers, military-age Israelis, or Palestinian workers, has been cut almost entirely due to the war. While our visiting and volunteering was just one morning, our help contributed to support the farm with the actual manpower it needed to keep going. From there, we went to ADI Negev Nahalat Eran. ADI Negev is a rehabilitation village in southern Israel dedicated to providing comprehensive care and support for children and adults with disabilities. The village offers residential, educational, medical, and employment services for so many. It’s located south of Ofakim and has a 40-acre campus filled with beautiful farms, buildings, and nature paths. The village was founded by Major Doron Almog to support his disabled son, Eran, and to support Doron’s own dream of developing the Negev. ADI Negev, undeniably, had one of the largest impacts on us. 


Yishai Segal, the director of development for ADI Negev, met with our group and discussed the effect of October 7 on the community of ADI Negev, located just 10 miles from the border of Gaza. Edna Malkamo was a 45-year-old Jew from Ethiopia and a beloved caretaker in the village. The residents, Segal explained, loved Edna and considered her almost as a mother. She took care of a group of women, many of whom were nonverbal. On the morning of October 7, Edna had been working the night shift with the residents. That morning, she gave her residents a hug, and got into her car to leave, just as she did after any other night shift. Just moments after turning onto Route 241, she was rammed off the road by Hamas terrorists and shot in the head. Segal explained that the residents she worked with have not been the same, and that many of them are left unable to comprehend the fact that Edna will never return to them. He shared that one of the verbal residents that Edna took care of said: “עוד חיבוק אחד וזה מספיק - One more hug and that is enough.” 


While ADI Negev suffered great losses, Segal also explained the incredible miracles that took place in this small village on that tragic day. Though it is located on one of the main highways used by Hamas, ADI Negev was largely left untouched by the terrorists. Segal explained that, “Here, we do God's work, and I have only an explanation for what happened, and that is the fact that God was there protecting us.” 



A Festival Turned Memorial

After leaving ADI Negev, we drove even closer to Gaza, arriving at the site of the Nova Festival massacre. This site shook us the most. Standing there on the grounds of the music festival, now a memorial site, hit us harder than we had expected. It was the first time but certainly not the last time that we began to cry. Being in this place we felt so much closer to the loss and tragedy and to truly understanding the suffering and pain of that horrible day. We stood around the tree planted in honor of Gili Adar, who I (Shir) knew from Camp Tel Yehudah. Our hearts broke just looking at her smiling picture and placing a Yahrzeit candle next to it. While walking around, we also had the opportunity to speak with the mother of one of the Nova Festival survivors. 

After our brief experiences in both the north and south, we spent a day in Jerusalem. We began our morning at Yad Lakashish, a community center for elderly Israelis living in poverty. Here, these people participate in creative work opportunities facilitated by professional artists. Alongside the tangible benefits, like a monthly stipend and access to social services, participants gain a renewed sense of purpose, dignity, and belonging through their work and community engagement. This was one of the most special and unique places we visited on our mission. Interacting with these venerable individuals was profoundly moving, and the opportunity to buy handcrafted gifts from their shop added an extra layer of significance to our visit. After this, we went to Ben Yehuda Street where we shopped, got lunch, and explored. I (Micah) was able to stock up on my kippot from the famous Kippah Man, get frozen Aroma coffee, and authentic Israeli falafel and hummus. We then went to a beautiful overlook point of Jerusalem, before having time to go down and explore the old city. After walking around, we visited the Kotel. This Kotel experience was like no other time we had there in the past. In addition to it being Ta’anit Esther (the Fast of Esther), the war transformed the wall to be a place of unity and deep connection to G-d in this time of struggle for the Jewish people. We then went to Machane Yehuda where we got dinner and shopped at the local vendors. 




A Different Tel Aviv

Our final major stop on the mission was the day spent in Tel Aviv. We began our morning volunteering at a strawberry farm. Like the Bedouin farm, the farmers on this farm were mostly immigrants from the Philippines and Thailand. They numbered over 80 before the war but have been reduced to around 17 now. While also snacking on some fresh strawberries, we were able to help this local Israeli farm by filling up many containers for them to sell. From there, we went to Sarona Market in Tel Aviv. Here we got lunch, shopped, and explored the area. In the market, many people were dressed up for Purim; it was really inspiring to see people continuing their activities and enjoying a day out. While on our mission, we could tell how important it was to focus on the silver linings, and the joy of the Sarona Market was a big one. 


Teen Volunteer Mission March 2024, Micah Bidner and Shir Levonson - Hostage Table


We then took a quick bus ride to Hostage Square. The Square is located in the plaza in front of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, across the street from the IDF headquarters. This experience proved to be extremely moving and powerful. The area is made up of many different art exhibits relating to the hostages currently held in Gaza. One of the main exhibits was a model of a Hamas tunnel. The tunnel showcases the cramped, dark, and hellish conditions that the hostages are forced to endure in Gaza. While it was just an art installation, it was extremely terrifying and displayed what we imagine to be the horrors that these innocent individuals continue to be forced to endure. All of the different art installations, including the Shabbat table set for the hostages, were incredibly gut- wrenching. After an important day we returned back to the Alexander Muss High School in Israel campus to get ready for Shabbat. We had beautiful Kabbalat Shabbat services Friday night and relaxed during the day on Shabbat.  

Feeling Safe in Israel 

Many people have asked us about the safety of our trip. There truly was not a single moment where we felt unsafe during our time there. While it was definitely a little bit of a culture shock being introduced to all of the bomb shelters on campus and having our counselors point out the safe places in case of an emergency, it opened our eyes to the everyday reality of Israelis. We felt just as, if not more, safe walking around the streets of Hod HaSharon and Tel Aviv as we would walking around the streets here in the US. 



One of the most impactful things that we noticed on this trip was the sense of togetherness and strength of the people. Everywhere we walked, whether it was around the south of Israel near the hardest hit places on October 7th, or in a market in Tel Aviv, there were stickers, signs, and posters for the support of Israel. We saw signs next to ice cream shops and on the side of the highway, simply there to remind people that we will win and we will prevail, just as we have in the past. This time is no different. Our people are so strong, and the signs are tangible reminders of that.  

Why Now? 

Another one of the questions we have received a lot is, why now? Why is it important to us to go to Israel now? In fact, when we were leaving the US, we were asked this exact question by one of the security agents who interviewed us before we checked in for our flight. Our answer to this question is anything but simple. In fact, we don’t know if we even have an answer; or at least one that fully encompasses how we feel. We, as Jews, especially those living in the United States, have a duty to support and stand with the State of Israel, always, and especially when it is under attack. Our Jewish communities and organizations like AMHSI and JNF-USA, have instilled in us a true and unwavering Ahavat Israel, love for the State of Israel, something for which we are forever grateful. Showing up for our people and our country is something we are so grateful to have the opportunity to do, and we encourage each and every one of you to do the same in whatever way presents itself, whether donating, volunteering, or traveling to Israel. A beloved Hebrew teacher once explained to our class that no matter how connected or disconnected a Jew feels to the State of Israel, our lives would be upside down without a Jewish State. Israel serves as a testament to our people and the enduring nature of our religion, and we have a duty to ensure that it continues to thrive for generations to come. 

Our madricha (counselor) on the mission, Lanir, explained that it is our duty to continue our lives and to carry the longing for the return of the hostages and the memory of October 7 with us. She feels that if we stop and lose faith, we are giving Hamas what they want. Hamas does not want us to return to normalcy, or to even exist for that matter. While this sense of “normalcy” will never be what it was six months ago, it is our duty to continue supporting the State of Israel and supporting our Jewish brothers and sisters around the world in any way we can. 

A major underpinning of our mission is our ongoing hope and prayer for Omer Neutra. Omer Neutra is a 23-year-old American hostage held in Gaza. Omer and his family are members of our shul, Midway Jewish Center, and he graduated from our school, the Schechter School of Long Island. Each and every day we pray for his immediate release and speedy return. 


Am Yisrael Chai.  

Bring Them Home Now. 

Bring Omer Home Now. 


Learn more about how to sign up for a Teen Volunteer in Israel Mission this summer here.