July 24, 2006
KFAR CHABAD, Israel - As the Israel Defense Forces calls up its reserve troops and prepares for a protracted campaign in Lebanon, Tzeirei Chabad, Israel's 50-year-old Chabad-Lubavitch Youth Organization, is similarly mobilizing forces, capitalizing off of a tightly-knit infrastructure to match communities in need with thousands of volunteers.

Rabbi Yisrael Brod is the director of Kfar Chabad's "War Room," the office headquarters where Chabad staff members are recruiting and assigning scores of Lubavitch lay people to take toys to bomb shelters, visit hospitals, or help soldiers to put on tefillin.

"We're recruiting a massive army to go out and do something positive for Israeli soldiers and civilians," reports Brod. "Some will work one hour a week, some a few hours a day. Some will go up north, some south."

"We're recruiting a massive army to go out and do something positive for Israeli soldiers and civilians" Chabad, he says, is providing an all-inclusive package of services for those affected by the crisis along Israel's northern border. "If anyone calls with a request for help, we do everything within our power to fulfill that request."

Among its strengths, explains Brod, the Chabad Youth Organization can mobilize volunteers quickly because of its massive network of emissaries, as well as the close ties it maintains among Lubavitch lay families in Israel.

"We didn't have to start from scratch," he says. "If I need anything, I have our offices at Kfar Chabad at our disposal, as well as the office in Jerusalem. We already had the manpower and contacts and know-how. Unfortunately, we're all in business."

Making Connections

One part of the puzzle is Chabad's Terror Victims Project, headed by Rabbi Menachem Kutner. The program was started six years ago in response to the Palestinian terrorist onslaught; since then, Kutner has visited and counseled bereaved families, and provided logistical and practical support for many of the more than 8,000 victims and their loved ones.

"We are there to give moral, spiritual and material support in a family's most difficult hour," says Kutner. Apart from "routine" shiva calls and hospital visits, the program provides toys, baby goods, computers and other essential and non-essential needs for families that don't always know where to turn.

"There was one family in Beersheva, where an adolescent girl retreated to her room after her mother was killed, stopped speaking, and basically stopped eating. I visited the family two weeks after shiva was over, and the girl was not doing well at all," he recalls of one case well before the current flare-up in the north. "I spoke to her father for a little while and discovered that what she wanted most of all was a computer, but there was no way the family could afford one. I called up a local dealer, and an hour later knocked on the door to her room and delivered a brand new computer.

"Her father said it was the first time she'd smiled since the attack."

"Our most valuable asset is words of encouragement" The technical details of Chabad's "war room" are simple enough: Volunteers fill out forms describing their availability, such as where in the country they're willing to travel, how many hours they can devote, whether they'll grant permission to their teenage children to head north, whether they'd prefer to visit hospitals or deliver food to bomb shelters. Among the questions is how many extra beds they have in their homes, an area of need that has already been employed through the now 13-day-old conflict. Staff at the headquarters coordinates the results with the hundreds of requests they receive for assistance.

"In the last two hours, we got a request to bring supplies to a kibbutz in Rosh Hanikra," says Brod. "At Nitzanim Beach, near Ashkelon, there are 2,000 people from the north living in tents. We have to help these people."

More Than Just Water

Apart from Chabad's work with Israeli civilians, thousands of volunteers have been visiting military encampments and delivering religious articles such as prayer books to army bases. They've helped soldiers put on tefillin and, according to Brod, have simply brought some much needed cheer and encouragement to those tasked with defending the state of Israel.

"Our most valuable asset is words of encouragement," he says.

According to Rabbi Aharon Prus, who creates programming for Chabad with the IDF, volunteers set out every day from the southern town of Kiryat Malachi to distribute water to troops stationed near the border with the Palestinian controlled territory of Gaza.

"You can't imagine what a lift these visits give the soldiers," says Prus.

The backbone of Chabad's efforts is the dozens of emissaries who have remained at their posts, even as the streets of cities such as Safed empty of citizens fleeing the rocket attacks "It's easy to think, 'Aw, it's just a bottle of water and tefillin.' But you can really see how appreciative the guys are, how happy they are to see us."

In the north, the backbone of Chabad's efforts is the dozens of emissaries who have remained at their posts, even as the streets of cities such as Safed empty of citizens fleeing the rocket attacks. Their presence has provided encouragement and help to those who have chosen to remain.

"The people who don't leave town are the ones who have no friends or family elsewhere, and no economic means to rent a hotel room," says Brod, who has dispatched volunteers to assist Chabad rabbis in the north. "They need much more support. We bring toys and books to them to keep the kids busy, and food, because all the supermarkets are closed."

Avi Dabush, Civil Defense Coordinator in the coastal city of Nahariya, noted the help and support that Chabad is giving people in the bomb shelters.

"Your help and support strengthens the entire city," he told a group of Lubavitch emissaries in Nahariya on Monday. "Every visit you make picks people up and gives them strength. I don't know what we would do without your visits."

For Brod, the No. 1 goal is to raise morale.

"The bottom line is uplifting people," he says. "When people despair, that's the worst. As long as people's spirits keep going, there is hope."