AYA students give hands-on care in Israel
Photos: Courtesy Akiba Yavneh Academy/NCSY Relief Mission to Israel
Akiba Yavneh Academy/NCSY/Orthodox Union Relief Mission participants, from left: Hillary Rothstein, Noam Gurfinkel, Yael Minsk, Zohara Manor, Abby Stock, Sara Lipszyc, Danielle Levkovich, Zohar Gorny, Jordyn Denn, Leah Hargrove, Avigail Salzman, Moshe Swissa, Coby Feinstein, Daniel Sharvit, Jonah Hochschuler, Rabbi Ethan Katz and Jason Feld.

By Deb Silverthorn

Thirteen Akiba Yavneh Academy students and their chaperones participated in a week-long mission to Israel. Participants in the Akiba Yavneh/NCSY/Orthodox Union Relief Mission left Dallas on Feb. 7 with spirit and intention and returned on Feb. 15, their lives changed forever.

“It was important that we heed the call of those who need our hearts, our support and our hands-on touch,” said Jason Feld, AYA head of school. “This was something the students wanted to do. I’m a big believer in opportunities. I’m delighted we could make it happen.

“It was definitely a na’aseh v’nishma, do it and then figure it out, moment,” said Feld. “Every Jew is responsible for one another. That is one of the most important lessons we can teach and a lesson we must live.”

In chaperoning the trip, Feld was accompanied by Abby Stock, director of Dallas NCSY/Jewish Student Union and Ethan Katz, founder and director of OU Relief Missions.

“Every step seemed impossible, but we just kept taking steps and it was an amazing 10 days,” said Stock. “Whatever we did was impactful and filled with inspiration for our Jewish future.

“Some of our students wore their hearts on their sleeves, some were quieter, but they all vowed to come home and share what they saw, what they heard,” Stock added.

Danielle Levkovich approached Feld, then Stock, saying there must be a way that a group could go to Israel. “We had to go, we just had to make it happen,” said the AYA senior and NCSY member.

“Being there put life into perspective,” said Levkovich. “I sat for hours in the hotel lobby playing shesh-besh (backgammon) with my limited Hebrew and still made connections. Everything we did, the ‘chores’ and the playtime, all felt like our being there mattered.”

Joining Levkovich were Jordyn Denn, Coby Feinstein, Zohar Gorny, Noam Gurfinkel, Leah Hargrove, Jonah Hochschuler, Sara Lipszyc, Zohara Manor, Yael Minsk, Hillary Rothstein, Avigail Salzman and Daniel Sharvit.

After the group’s late-night arrival, they were on the bus before 7 a.m., then packing Shabbos gift boxes for families with fathers serving in the Israel Defense Forces. They spent three hours picking clementines in an orchard whose employees, mostly Palestinian, are no longer able to work there.

They visited Hostage Square in Tel Aviv; while viewing artwork portraying the horror of Oct. 7, they sang “Acheinu” as they did many times that week. The song translates as “Our brothers and sisters, the whole house of Israel, who are in distress and captivity, who wander over sea and over land, May G-d have mercy on them and bring them from distress to comfort, from darkness to light, from slavery to redemption, now, swiftly and soon.”

“I expected to come and see somberness. Instead, everywhere we saw happy and hopeful smiles and appreciation,” said Lipszyc. She encouraged her friends to sing loud enough for the hostages to hear them; the captives include her cousin Daniel Perez, a soldier who was captured near Kibbutz Nahal Oz.

“We heard so many stories of people grateful for their lives, from soldiers who lost limbs and who would go back again in a minute,” said Lipszyc. “The children we played with giggled and laughed and danced. Their families are split up, they’re far from home but they carry on. We just need to be grateful and never lose emunah, faith. We will keep telling their stories and speaking out for Israel and am Yisrael!”

The students set up a carpet of hope made of blankets woven by women from all over Israel. They visited injured soldiers at Sheba Tel HaShomer Hospital.

“I realize now that the people next to me are my brothers and sisters, that I have to be there for them all, always,” said Hochschuler. He and his classmates were stirred by Shalom, a soldier who lost his leg fighting in combat after Oct. 7. Along with Shalom, other soldiers told stories, the group sang and each of the students left inspired.

“Before Oct. 7, the country was so divided. Now it’s all about ‘am Yisrael chai,’” Hochschuler added. “My whole outlook now has to be a positive one.”

The students created a carnival for children who were evacuated from their homes in Sderot to the Caesar Premier Hotel in Jerusalem, where the Dallas group was staying. With most of their fathers serving in the IDF, their mothers relished the hours their children were entertained.

The group heard stories wherever they went. There was Tamar, an evacuee; there was Jen, whose son Binyamin, a 21-year-old IDF sergeant and the grandson of AYA Assistant Principal Julie Wolk, was killed in Gaza. Activities ranged from a military briefing to eggplant picking. The group visited Har Herzl and spoke to Moshe Swissa, who reenlisted as an IDF reservist after sitting shiva for his son, Dekel, a soldier who was killed on Oct. 7.

In Sderot, they met Yossi, who was shot on Oct. 7. Placed on a door-turned-stretcher, he was driven to a hospital, his life spared. The mission’s participants saw the courage of those willing to risk their lives for others; they experienced the gratitude, the power and the strength of the people of Israel.

The students and chaperones went to Re’im, site of the Nova Festival. They saw memorials to those who were murdered, stopping at each to pray. They walked through a field of trees planted on Tu B’Shevat in honor of those killed.

At Tzomet Gilat, a military rest stop for soldiers near Gaza, the group prepared burgers for more than 300 soldiers. Delivering cards and shaliach mitzvah dollars (funds for a traveler to do good) from those at home, they relished the excitement of their recipients.

There was more time with their friends from Sderot, doing crafts, playing games, painting as well as an evening of bonfire, music and reflections. The group picked eggplants and packed boxes of clothing and supplies for soldiers. At the Kotel, the only typical “tourist site” visited on this trip, they witnessed an IDF swearing-in ceremony.

“Our students couldn’t have been more committed and the Israeli people couldn’t have made us feel more needed,” Feld remarked, recalling the group’s bus driver’s tears as he said goodbye. “Sending children at a time like this wasn’t easy but ours is a warm and connected school united in purpose. On this trip, that purpose was fulfilled.

“This school was built by those who dreamed our core values would be of character and soul,” said Feld, “and those who have just returned from Israel are indeed living them out.”

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