JERUSALEM—With tens of thousands of displaced families from Israel’s south in immediate need of food assistance, Colel Chabad—the leading food security NGO in Israel—has sprung into action.

With their lives threatened daily by relentless missiles from Gaza, more than 60,000 men, women and children from southern communities were evacuated after terrorists murdered their neighbors and destroyed their homes and towns.

“For the tens of thousands of families from the Gaza envelope impacted by the violence unleashed by Hamas, we are in a unique position to meet their immediate need for food,” said Rabbi Sholom Duchman, the organization’s director.

Over the years the Israeli government has partnered with Colel Chabad on many programs to help Israel’s most vulnerable families access healthier food and sustain themselves financially. Colel Chabad’s network in southern Israel was already feeding 50,000 households in southern Israel prior to the war, and within days of the Hamas attack was already delivering 18,000 meals a day to residents of Ofakim, Sderot, Netivot, Ashkelon and Beersheva, where many grocery stores were closed or empty.

The longest-operating charity in the Holy Land, Colel Chabad was founded by the first Chabad Rebbe—Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, known as the Alter Rebbe—in 1788. Colel Chabad’s modern-day activities have been guided by the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory. Under the Rebbe’s stewardship, it has become one of the Jewish world’s most recognized charities and its reach is staggering.

The food deliveries are not just for those who have had to flee their homes, but for the elderly and others who are sheltering in place and are unable to shop or cook for themselves, and to supplement food supplies for IDF troops and reservists who were called up to bases that did not yet have sufficient food for them.

With some supermarkets closed and shelves bare in many places, Colel Chabad is also providing aid packages delivered directly to people's homes. These non-food packages include basic items like baby formula, diapers and toiletries. So far, Colel Chabad has distributed more than 3,000 aid packages last week and plans to hand out at least 10,000 this coming week.

In addition, many of the displaced families have fled to Jerusalem, where Colel Chabad is delivering 6,000 meals three times a day. This is in addition to the organization’s “Meals on Wheels” program, which provides food for 37,000 families every month door to door.

Rabbi Menachem Traxler gives an Eishel card to a young man dispaced by war.
Rabbi Menachem Traxler gives an Eishel card to a young man dispaced by war.

Volunteers on the Ground Around Israel

One of the Chabad volunteers on the ground is Shlomo Rizel, a resident of Ofakim, a town near Gaza hard hit by Hamas. According to Duchman, Rizel has been at work day and night throughout the week to help assemble and distribute thousands of meal packages to distressed residents of Ofakim with other volunteers.

But when’s reporter attempted to reach Rizel, he messaged a number of times that he couldn’t come to the phone—because the sirens were sounding and he had to get to a shelter; or there was word of a terrorist on the loose in Ofakim, and he and his family had to lock themselves into their homes; or he had a list of urgent requests for help from community members that the had to rush to fulfill.

Rabbi Menachem Traxler, director of volunteers for Colel Chabad and head of its Pantry Packers program, was among the Colel Chabad staff who has been rushing around the country. Throughout the year, volunteers work with Pantry Packers to assemble meal packages for the needy, and the need has been greater than ever before.

In addition to finding ways to assemble more food packages than he could have imagined, Traxler has been working with Israel’s Channel 13 TV show Hatzinor and the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews to raise and distribute 5,000 NIS (about $1,250) gift cards to survivors of the massacre at the Kfar Aza kibbutz so they can purchase whatever they immediately need. Colel Chabad hopes to extend the program to everyone displaced by the war.

“One recent effort has been working on refugee families who have been sitting shiva. We are distributing food cards, money for supplies and whatever else they need, including toys for their children,” said Traxler.

At a visit to a Pantry Packers warehouse in Kiryat Malachi—about 10 miles east of Ashdod—Traxler did some of the things he loves to do most: Help soldiers put on tefillin and bring them food.

“Our duty is to show up for our soldiers whatever they need,” said Traxler. “When I sent out a message that I was near Gaza, within 30 seconds, I got a call from a good friend who asked me what they needed: ‘How many guys are there? I’m coming down.’”

“This is the spark within every Jew,” said Traxler. “We hear a need from one of our brothers or sisters, and we step up.”

Rabbi Zalman Duchman, a development director at Colel Chabad, reports that within the first 24 hours of the Hamas massacre, the organization experienced an outpouring of support from its regular donors, large and small, as well as from people finding them online.

“It was the busiest in terms of web traffic that we've ever seen, which was just heartwarming,” Duchman says. “At this time we are trying to meet the unprecedented needs people are facing, while at the same time thinking about the fact this will likely be a protracted crisis.”

Young volunteers pack food at a Colel Chabad Pantry Packers warehouse. - File photo courtesy Colel Chabad
Young volunteers pack food at a Colel Chabad Pantry Packers warehouse.
File photo courtesy Colel Chabad

Deliveries to the Homebound

Another complicating factor for Colel Chabad this week is that their network of food kitchens around Israel has been shuttered due to the nation being on high alert. But pivoting from in-person to remote aid is something Colel Chabad is well-versed in as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the organization was able to quickly move to deliver food to people’s homes by replicating the model they used during that time.

However, with elderly people frequently relying on these food pantries not only for food, but socialization, Colel Chabad has expanded its Get Chessed program, which pairs young students with the elderly. The students deliver the packages to their homes and spend some time with them to help ease the loneliness. The program usually takes place on Friday but now will be offered throughout the week as kids are not in school due to the security situation.

To those looking to support soldiers and residents from the Gaza envelope, Traxler acknowledges that “the way we can help right now looks different for everyone. For some, it may be donating money. For others, it may be helping mothers with husbands on the field, or even helping an elderly lady get food because she doesn’t want to leave her house.”

Whatever one decides to do to help, Traxler encourages every Jew to celebrate being Jewish despite the darkness of the time.

“Do something special,” he advises. “Do another mitzvah, help someone else do a mitzvah. Celebrate your Judaism through real, tangible actions. Celebrating what it means to be a Jew helps your fellow Jews here in Israel, and bring our spirits up and gives us the energy to continue helping those who need us the most.”

Volunteers distribute gifts to children who were forced to leave their homes near Gaza.
Volunteers distribute gifts to children who were forced to leave their homes near Gaza.