In Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, residents volunteer and keep kids at home as streets and supermarket shelves empty out


TEL AVIV ((JEWISH REVIEW)) — Al Hambra Deli, a neighborhood cafe and wine bar in Jaffa, would usually expect to be bustling on this Thursday night, the beginning of the Israeli weekend. Located on Jerusalem Boulevard., one of the city’s main arteries, it’s right on the path of Tel Aviv’s recently opened light-rail system, and not far from a soccer stadium. 

But this week, its doors have been shuttered. A sign greets passersby: “Beloved neighborhood, half of us are in the army and half are protecting our homes. We love you and are waiting to return, Staff.”

It’s a mood felt throughout the city and others in Israel’s crowded central region: Five days after an attack by Hamas killed and wounded thousands in the country’s south, streets in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are chillingly quiet aside from sirens warning of incoming rockets. Schools are closed and residents are yearning for ways to help as they cope with the physical and emotional fallout of the massacre and the war Israel is now fighting against Hamas in Gaza. 

Earlier this week, supermarket shelves emptied out as authorities recommended that Israelis stock up on three days’ worth of food. Shufersal, the country’s largest grocery chain, set limits on purchases of bread, bottled water, milk and eggs.

Details of the atrocities in the south continue to emerge, and 300,000 Israelis have been called up for reserve duty. Rockets continue to target Israeli cities, and Israeli airstrikes hit Gaza, as the country girds for what will likely be a prolonged conflict.

“We live in a permanent state of fear,” said Inès Forman, 29, a French-Israeli writer, describing the last week in Tel Aviv. “I feel anxiety and fear in my body every second that I am awake.”

Forman has committed herself to spreading news on social media about Saturday’s massacre. Many of the Instagram posts on her profile are about art or literature, but the images she’s shared over the past 24 hours are of a different kind: widely circulated clips of reporters describing the scenes they’ve encountered in towns on the Gaza border, and photos and video condemning Hamas and its supporters. 

“We are working on fighting fake news… basically all day” she says of her new routine, keeping a schedule that involves waking up and starting at “five or six until very late at night. Yesterday, I finished at around one” in the morning.

On Thursday, Forman attended the afternoon funeral of her friend’s younger sister, Shira Eylon, 23, who was presumed captured until her body was discovered in the woods on Wednesday amongst those who were murdered at the massacre at the music festival outside Kibbutz Re’im. 

“My beautiful and pure fairy — today you received wings. I love you forever,” her older sister wrote on Instagram, announcing her death. 

“There is not anyone who doesn’t have a loved one who’s either been killed, someone who they know, a friend or a loved one, or injured, or taken captive” said Melanie Landau, a 50-year-old Australian-Israeli therapist living in the Baqa neighborhood of Jerusalem. “So many people are on the front line and just worried about their loved ones.”

Many residents have left Tel Aviv, traveling abroad or to an area of Israel farther from Gaza, and have listed their apartments on spreadsheets coordinating housing for refugees from areas in Israel’s north and south that have been evacuated. Several people described the normally crowded city as a “ghost town.”  

Some Tel Aviv residents have relocated within the city. Lotte Beilin, a 30-year old British-Israeli news producer, is staying in a friend’s apartment because her own building is older and doesn’t have a bomb shelter. The city streets are “so quiet you can hear a pin drop.”

There are more “uplifting” moments too, Landau said, adding that “the sort of resilience and strength of the human spirit” has been on display this week. 

Throughout the country, many efforts are underway to collect needed supplies for the hundreds of thousands of soldiers who arrived at their bases lacking some critical resources. 

Lee Mangoli, a 32-year-old Canadian-Israeli yoga teacher in Tel Aviv, recalled that “on Sunday we started to come out of shock and I realized I needed to take action to help myself.” She met with a friend and started collecting food and other “basic amenities” like shampoo and socks for soldiers. 

Very quickly, she says that their small project “exploded with money coming in from abroad… and we are dealing with a lot of requests from a lot of different bases that cost money.” 

While there have not been any issues raising funds, her group has run into difficulties sourcing the supplies. “We are not finding the goods anymore. UPS and Fedex are not delivering to Israel” and certain much-requested items like Leatherman utility knives have been nearly impossible to locate. “I could buy 200 and have soldiers to give them to but nobody has them,” she said.

For others such as Becky Schneck, 36, a physical therapist and mother of four young children, the burden of her husband’s call-up to reserve duty on Saturday, in addition to the closure of schools until further notice, has been too overwhelming to consider volunteering for the war effort. 

“I am so busy, I don’t even want to think about it too much,” she said. “I do not have the emotional capacity to deal with everything going on in my house and also everything going on in the country.” Neighbors in her community of Tzur Hadassah, outside Jerusalem, have stepped up to deliver food to families like hers.

While Masa Israel, an umbrella group for gap year programs, said shortly after the massacre that none of its 5,700 fellows were harmed, at least one program has closed — the Yahel Social Change Fellowship, which engages its participants in social action and volunteering across Israel. 

“With a heavy heart, the Yahel board and staff have made the difficult decision to temporarily suspend the Yahel Social Change Fellowship until things calm down here,” announced Yahel’s executive director, Dana Talmi. 

Others are pressing on. At the Pardes Institute for Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, staff “are doing the best we can… [going] into overdrive to support our students as much as humanly possibly,” said Meesh Hammer-Kossoy, the dean of students. “Pardes is pretty serious about running” in spite of the war. Of the approximately 80 students studying year-long, 18 have joined classes via Zoom from abroad.

“We are resolutely gathering for regular prayer and trying to study as best as we can,” she said. 

Landau said that many Israelis are engaged in “a battle of consciousness.”

“There are a lot of people getting overexposed to a lot of the imagery and I think that is part of the battle,” she said. “Not to lose faith in humanity and not to be pulled in by that.”