JERUSALEM—As Israel experienced its first real downpour of the year, war-weary Ashdod residents were grateful to have secured a bundle of winter clothes to keep warm and dry. Hundreds of items, all new and high quality, were made available when Colel Chabad, the oldest continuous charity in the Holy Land, hosted a free pop-up store to help those in the city who are struggling.

Ashdod—one of Israel’s largest cities in the coastal south—wasn’t evacuated on the scale of smaller towns in the region that were more directly in the line of fire. But only 27 miles from the Gaza border, many residents remain traumatized by the onslaught of rocket attacks from Hamas in the early weeks of the war.

Even before the war, Ashdod was home to many residents who needed assistance—whether the elderly, those living below the poverty line, or single mothers trying to make ends meet. The reality has become even more challenging with 350,000 Israelis being called up for reserves and tourism having ground to a halt, with a devastating impact on the Mediterranean coastal city’s economy.

“Ashdod was hit very hard by this war,” Yaakov (“Kobi”) Iluz of Colel Chabad told “After hundreds of rockets were fired at Ashdod, the population was terrified, especially kids and the elderly.”

From the outset, Chabad of Ashdod and its 15 emissary couples have worked tirelessly to meet the material and emotional needs of a city under attack. “We wanted to do something to raise their morale and also give them the essential items that they need,” said Iluz.

As such, for three days in January, Colel Chabad partnered with the U.S.-based World of Giving to provide 700 families access to all the essential items required to get through the winter. During that short time, hundreds poured in and gratefully took whatever they needed. A young girl smiling while trying on her bright pink puffy coat; two brothers reverently holding a new foosball table; a mother who now doesn’t have to worry about clothing her entire family for the cold months ahead are just a few examples of those whose lives were made a little brighter when they entered the impeccably organized warehouse.

All items were neatly organized, with some 20 volunteers helping the residents pick out the items most appropriate for them.
All items were neatly organized, with some 20 volunteers helping the residents pick out the items most appropriate for them.

All items were neatly organized, with some 20 volunteers helping the residents pick out the items most appropriate for them.

Each family also received a letter written by a child in the United States offering them words of moral support and encouragement.

“The residents were very moved by this initiative. Days after the pop-up was over, I still got phone calls of people calling and voicing their appreciation. Items from brands like Nike, Adidas, Gap and others made them feel special,” said Iluz.

Things to keep warm and dry in Israel's rainy season.
Things to keep warm and dry in Israel's rainy season.

‘It Is All Connected to What We Do’

This initiative dovetails appropriately with the overall ethos of Colel Chabad, which provides a myriad of programs to help Israel’s most vulnerable families access healthier food and sustain themselves financially.

In Southern Israel alone, Colel Chabad fed 50,000 households before the war and in the immediate aftermath was able to deliver 18,000 meals a day to residents of Ofakim, Sderot, Netivot, Ashkelon and Beersheva, where many grocery stores were closed or empty.

Pivoting to emergency mode is par for the course of the charity, which 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.

From name brand sweat-shirts to toys for the kids.
From name brand sweat-shirts to toys for the kids.

‘We’re Finally Back to Routine’

As such, in October and November with many elderly Ashdod residents terrified to leave their homes and couldn’t arrive safely to bomb shelter, they would have gone hungry had Colel Chabad not intervened.

As for the pop-up, “it is all connected to what we do regarding food security,” said Rabbi Menachem Traxler, director of volunteers for Colel Chabad and head of its Pantry Packers program. “We’re able to organize such comprehensive initiatives because we are connected with residents, local social workers and welfare departments in each city so if we want to get something done, we know who to call.”

In the case of the pop-up, Colel Chabad worked closely with the Ashdod welfare department, which helped them set up the distribution center.

This is, of course, not the first time Colel Chabad established a pop-up store to address the immediate needs of residents. In the immediate aftermath of “Operation Iron Swords,” the organization set up a distribution center for residents who had to flee their homes and find refuge in hotels across the country.

The other significant partner in this project was World of Giving, which works with socially conscious retailers, distributors and manufacturers, to bring much-needed goods to the most vulnerable in society. Since 2021, they have distributed more than $18 million worth of merchandise from their 30,000-square-foot central warehouse in Newburgh, N.Y.

Blankets and sleeping bags to keep the family warm.
Blankets and sleeping bags to keep the family warm.

Colel Chabad has received one large container a month from World of Giving, which they carefully inspect to make sure only the best quality items make it to residents.

As for Colel Chabad volunteer and Ashdod resident Hana Ben Hayoun, she is grateful that the pop-up coincided with a moment of reprieve for a tumultuous time in Israel.

“We’re finally back to routine. But there’s still tension in the air,” Ben Hayoun lamented. “We have residents here who have family members still held hostage in Gaza, and our hearts are still breaking for the hundreds who died. But we must continue fighting and living. We must be prepared to leap back into emergency mode if need be, and we’re learning as we go along.”

“We’re only 44 kilometers from Gaza. We can’t be complacent. This is our new reality,” she added. “We’re forever changed.”