Canadian dispatches from Israel at wartime: Volunteers are preparing food from the heart

Volunteers in Jerusalem prepare food for soldiers.

The CJN is publishing dispatches from Canadians currently in Israel. Submissions can be sent for consideration to Lila Sarick at [email protected].

Only a month ago—just before Sukkot—my husband and I arrived in Israel. I had begun a sabbatical and planned to spend it here researching and writing. And so, we were here when the first sirens blared early in the morning of Simchat Torah, Oct. 7, signaling horrors that the country would soon learn about.

Although family and friends worry about us from afar, we have been shielded from the devastation that others have endured, and the risks that others take for the good of the nation. While uncertainty continues to permeate daily life, we witness an inspiring coming together that transcends religious, political, and social differences.

Responding to needs and manpower shortages, the spirit of volunteerism has engulfed this country. News about opportunities to help travels by word of mouth. Yesterday, a friend drove us past a walled enclave with two unassuming metal doors. “They need people,” she told us. “They open at nine in the morning. Come. Come any time after that. Just show up.”

It was a site I knew well: a 19th century Jerusalem compound that once housed a hospital for leprosy. I first encountered it in the writing of S. Y. Agnon as a place where a historian of past catastrophe learns true compassion. 

These days the grounds and buildings house graduate programs for the Bezalel School of Art, a museum and café. And, like many restaurants today, this one has given itself over to the demands of the hour, nourishing soldiers and displaced people from southern and northern areas that have been evacuated.

This morning we walk through an unassuming side entrance that leads into a storage room and kitchen. Moving along, we come upon a roomful of people standing beside rows of long tables, busy with various food preparation tasks.  “We’re here to help,” we tell a 30-something woman who looks vaguely in charge.  Wash your hands, she instructs us, and find a space at one of the tables. 

For the next few hours, we prepare food that will be distributed to soldiers. Working alongside students, retirees, teachers, caregivers, young mothers, writers, and others, we mince large bunches of fragrant herbs, peel and mash cartons of avocados. From immense vats, we scoop handfuls of a fish-and-herb mixture that we shape into patties and place on sheet pans, seven rows by ten rows, to be baked into fishcakes.

Make them flatter, we are instructed. They need to fit into sandwiches.

Twenty or so of us work at this, assembly line fashion. We chat a bit, but mostly focus on getting the job done. As quickly as we fill them, the sheet pans are whisked away and fresh ones appear.

We work together into the early afternoon, with people showing up or leaving without fanfare, as their lives permit. No one seems to be directing the activity yet it progresses smoothly. When one set of tasks is completed, people look around to see what else can be done.

There is a steady hum, a low buzz of conversation, mostly in Hebrew, but also in English and French. Every so often I’m asked to help translate something. We are like a beehive, only instead of honey, the makings of hundreds of sandwiches. So many of us have shown up to help, and have worked so efficiently, that our preparations are completed far earlier than anticipated. 

The meals prepared not only provide physical nourishment to the soldiers who eat them. They are a concrete reminder of the appreciation that people have for their difficult and risky service.

At the restaurant where we volunteered, it was understood that the meals prepared for the soldiers would not arrive freshly cooked and piping hot. The staff thought through what they would prepare. It would have to be not only nutritious but also tasty at room temperature, and not deteriorate during the hours it took to deliver. 

The mother of one of the young men in the unit that the restaurant provided for described how much these meals lifted their spirits. Carefully prepared and beautifully packaged, the meals conveyed to the people who ate them how much they were valued. Food from the heart, food for the heart.

There is something basic and physical about this work. As I form patty after patty after patty, I begin to feel an elemental connection with those for whom they are intended. Rolling the fishcakes with my palms, I think: my hands are touching this food that eventually a soldier will pick up, will put to her lips, will put in his mouth. The thought overwhelms me. I continue to shape the fishcakes. And as I lay them out on the sheet pan, I find myself offering up a prayer: Let this food keep him safe. Let it protect her from harm. Let it nourish the body and the spirit. May those who eat this return home. May their families rejoice to have them back.

Sara R. Horowitz is a professor of Humanities and Jewish Studies at York University. She is currently spending her sabbatical year in Israel.