Few events of my winter visit to Israel were as difficult
as my group's visit to the Frank Sinatra cafeteria at Jerusalem's Hebrew University.
The only visible reminder of the July 31 bombing was a withering wreath in
the courtyard. The café is now beautifully renovated with clean white walls,
good food and chattering students. It was the first stop of many on my visit
to volunteer and support Israelis. But it was a stark beginning and a reminder
of the bittersweet impetus to plan the trip. We had come to Israel to "take
note" or "sim lev," also the name of our trip.
It is well known that students plan their winter break far in advance and use their excitement to help pass the fall. This year, I exceeded all norms and started planning in September. As a first year student at the University of Illinois at Champaign, my planning began not as a result of dire boredom and desperation for the semester to be over but out of excitement for a new and previously never accomplished idea. A friend had the idea to gather a group of friends who care deeply for Israel and volunteer there over winter break. We wanted to show the brotherhood we feel and the degree to which we feel the need to help. But few Jewish organizations run an organized program for students who have previously been to Israel and want to contribute to society - so we developed our own. We raised twenty thousand dollars for the cause. We arranged our logistics and contacted the organizations with whom we wanted to volunteer. Slowly, our idea spread by word of mouth to our friends and soon, there were more than sixty interested students from across the country. Eventually, twenty-seven students committed and each joined a committee to be responsible for an aspect of our entirely student-led, student initiated program. We represented twelve campuses and various home towns.
As we prepared to leave for Israel, we collected items to donate - wedding
dresses, toiletries, school supplies, clothes and candy. Of the two suitcases
El Al permits to each passenger, each of us brought one full of donations.
We painted apartments and murals on school walls, visited children in a hospital,
served lunch at a soup kitchen, visited with elderly at Yad LeKashish - a
center in which older people do art work -donated blood, constructed walkers,
visited with Rabbanit Kapach - a woman who distributes donated items to people
in need, we ate lunch at the Frank Sinatra cafeteria at Hebrew University,
and we passed out candy and notes of good wishes written by Americans to soldiers.
We spent a day at Kiriyat Gat, Chicago's Partnership 2000 city, painting murals
with school children and planting flowers with nursery schools.