(November 14, 2023 / JNS)

When the war with Hamas broke out last month, 25-year-old Israel Tolchinsky from Queens, New York, had been in Israel for less than six weeks on an educational program aimed at immersing Diaspora Jews into Israeli society.

Then, with rocket attacks raining down nationwide, the phone calls from the U.S. started coming in urging him to come home. With most airlines suspending service to and from Israel, his father found him a connecting flight via Europe and urged him to take it.

“I love it here so much, I need to stay,” Tolchinsky responded. “The flight will be sold out, take it,” his father exhorted. “That’s OK,” he responded.

Israel Tolchinsky prepares a barbecue for soldiers. Photo: Courtesy.

From English teacher to volunteer chef

Tolchinsky arrived in Israel in late August on a Masa Israel Journey program, to teach English in an elementary school. He had “fallen in love” with Israel on an earlier Birthright trip, and was looking for something steady to do for the year when the idea of teaching came up.

“It seemed like the perfect opportunity to come to Israel and give back to my own country and teach kids at the same time,” he told JNS in an interview.

Tolchinsky began teaching in the Tel Aviv suburb of Rishon Letzion this fall, not without some trepidation, amid cautionary tales that Israeli kids are much more aggressive than their American peers.

His experience was just the opposite.

“I fell in love with the school and felt the love and connection real closely,” he said. When his pupils heard he was from New York, they assumed he must be an actor, he recounted.

But no sooner had the school year started—quickly followed by the fall Jewish holidays—than the war erupted on the very last day of the extended holiday period, before he had a chance to make friends with any Israelis.

With the educational program put on hold, and some of his roommates packed up to leave, Tolchinsky was determined to find something useful to do and not waste his days staying in his apartment.

“I got to be more Israeli,” he told himself, and with his minimal Hebrew, he walked into a bar that had put up signs asking for volunteers to help pack food clothes and essentials for soldiers.

“Everybody was so welcoming,” he said, with some finding his story crazy and others telling him he really must stay in the country.

As the rocket fire grew in the first weeks of the war, the calls from home intensified (“every second,” in his words) to as many as three times a day. His aunt offered to buy him a ticket; his cousin told him to just get on the plane. But Tolchinsky would have none of it.

“’I’m sorry, I feel something,” Tolchinsky told them. “This is my real home. I need to be here.”

Having worked in catering in New York for some years, he decided to volunteer as a chef and connected with an organization of veteran American immigrants in Modi’in, “Grilling for the IDF,” which makes barbeques for soldiers.

Next, he volunteered with Israeli chefs making meals for soldiers. He was even asked to cook for a wartime wedding in the IDF for 150 people.

“It felt so good to go to the bases and be thanked by the soldiers,” Tolchinsky said. “Bro, you are from New York—we love it,” they told him.

“We are all one family,” Tolchinsky said in the interview last week from a bustling cooking school kitchen in Or Yehuda, east of Tel Aviv, where meals were being prepared for soldiers and bereaved families.

Israel Tolchinsky with some buddies from the Israel Air Force. Photo: Courtesy.

A nation of volunteers

Nearly 50% of Israelis volunteered during the first month of the war, a recent survey found.

Some 48.6% of the population engaged in volunteering during the war, including 28% who had not previously volunteered, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem study found.

The rate of volunteerism among the Israeli Arab population also reached a record high during the war, 29%.

Meanwhile, nearly 4,000 of the 5,700 young Jewish adults (aged 18-30) from abroad on the Masa Israel Journey program ended up staying in Israel during the war, a Masa spokesperson said. Many of those who left at the beginning of the war are now coming back. 

In addition, the organization has launched a new six-week volunteer program after receiving more than 1,000 requests from young Jewish adults to volunteer in Israel.

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