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Amid War, AJA Alumni Volunteer, Learn, and Reflect

The Stories of AJA Alumni in Israel

AJA Class of 2022 alum Yered Wittenberg was in the Beit Midrash of Yeshivat Lev HaTorah dancing with a Torah scroll when war in Israel broke out on October 7. Jemima Schoen, AJA Class of 2023, was in the middle of leading Birchot HaShachar (Morning Blessings) at Midreshet Lindenbaum’s womens’ minyan. Fellow AJA 2023 alum Ayla Cohen was awakened by an Israeli peer rapidly yelling in Hebrew outside her door.

“I remember being half asleep and half in absolute shock,” said Racheli Seeman, AJA Class of 2022, who rose to the sound of Israel’s rocket siren on the morning of October 7. “I remember just sitting on the couch with my roommate and her phone and thinking, ‘How is this real?’”

The siren and other alerts about the war interrupted the usual activities of AJA alumni across Israel. They broke the celebrations of Simchat Torah morning and signaled that the days and months ahead would not proceed as anticipated. 

Since October 7, when a Hamas terror attack in southern Israel killed approximately 1,200 Israelis and sparked a war, many AJA alumni have adjusted their lives accordingly. They have changed their routines, reconsidered their goals, and developed their connections with Israel. Some are volunteering, some are learning more, and some have flown home. For those in Israel, accustomed to the distance between Israel and Atlanta, the reality of war feels unusually close at hand. 

Yered, who planned to start college at Machon Lev in mid-October but now works as a madirch (counselor) at his alma mater Yeshivat Lev HaTorah, felt the proximity of the war from its beginning. Many of his peers at Lev HaTorah left soon after the first sirens to serve in the IDF. “Being in that culture, it’s very real,” Yered explained. “It’s not, ‘Oh, other people are going.’ My closest friends and my roommates are going to risk their lives for me.”

Seeing his peers leave prompted Yered to undertake service of his own. “My friends are grabbing guns and going to fight, and I’m just sitting here,” he reflected. “So I walked around my Yeshiva collecting money.” With the money he raised, Yered bought cart loads of essentials for soldiers. He continues fundraising to purchase more supplies such as portable chargers, underwear, socks, and bullet proof vests and raises money for displaced families in Israel. 

“Ezra said he supports Israel through more than hands-on work.”

AJA alumni on gap years also volunteer to support Israel. Ezra Feen, Class of 2023, who learns at Yeshivat Torat Shraga, has tied tzitzit for soldiers, set up hotel meals, and prepared school dorm rooms for displaced families. 

Ezra said he supports Israel through more than hands-on work. He has also increased the time he spends davening, learning Torah, and saying Tehillim. 

“We’re not on the sidelines,” he said. “What I can do Im Yirtza Hashem is going to help us as well.”

Ezra said that he chose to remain in Israel to feel a continued sense of motivation to assist through spiritual means. “You feel like the obligation is more upon you because you’re here,” he said. “I came to Israel to learn. I came to Israel to grow.” Despite the war, he added, “now my goal doesn’t change.”

Some alumni have felt an enhanced sense of purpose to their routine activities in Israel since the war began. Jemima said she initially came to Midreshet Lindenbaum to expand her own knowledge. Now, her learning also serves in the stead of those who can no longer study Torah because of the war. “It might feel like you’re just kind of sitting there in an air conditioned space,” she reasoned, “but it is really meaningful.”

Not all alumni could remain in Israel to study or volunteer during the war. Ayla, who studies at the Shalom Hartman Institute, temporarily flew back home to Atlanta due to safety concerns in mid-October. 

Ayla explained that leaving Israel brought mixed emotions. “Part of me felt like I was leaving the people,” she said. “I felt guilty about that.” Ayla added that she made many Israeli friends, making it difficult for her to leave them for America. She has since returned to Israel to continue her studies.

The outbreak of war strengthened fellow Class of 2023 alum Eli Cohen’s connection to Israel. When the war began, he said, “It almost felt like I was back in America, trying to understand what is happening to all of Israel.” With time, Eli, who attends Yeshivat Lev HaTorah, has started seeing himself as an active member of Israeli society rather than an outsider. “You are becoming a part of these people now,” Eli said of his mentality. “You are helping these people now.”

Eli volunteered by taking shifts at a local grocery store, among other initiatives. He and his peers restocked shelves for Yesh Chessed, a store in Beit Shemesh facing staffing shortages amid the war.

Being in Israel during war has been an adjustment for many alumni. Racheli, who is  serving with Magen David Adom, Israel’s emergency service, said that it took time to realize the nearness of the war, a process she described as a “reality check.”

“I’m used to the mentality of looking in from the outside, being an American Jew who is able to help rather than an Israeli citizen who has to start a war stock of food,” she said.

During the initial days, Racheli faced the choice between staying at a friend’s house or continuing her service. She ultimately chose to resume work as an EMT and emergency vehicle dispatcher with Magen David Adom. “When I was at home, I felt powerless in the situation,” she reflected. At work, however, “I know that I’m helping people, even if I’m dispatching an ambulance, and I don’t see the patient face to face.”

Many alumni shared this sense of purpose while volunteering in Israel. “The way to respond to evil is with good, with righteousness, with helping people, with healing people,” Racheli said. Working at Magen David Adom is Racheli’s avenue to achieve this response. ”I’m helping people feel better,” she said. “And that is really what’s important to me.”

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