While people the world over tuned in to the news at the beginning of last week to get the latest updates on Israel’s then-hours old air offensive in the Gaza Strip, Rabbi Eliezer Sneiderman, co-director of the Chabad-Lubavitch center serving the University of Delaware, was fielding e-mails and phone calls from frantic parents whose children were scheduled to accompany him the following morning on a weeklong trip to the Holy Land.

The group of 37 students arrived in Israel Dec. 30 as part of an alternative winter break social-service trip organized by the Jewish National Fund in cooperation with the Chabad on Campus International Foundation. Representing some 20 college campuses across North America, each one raised $950 towards the construction of an indoor protected playground the JNF is building in the war-torn desert town of Sderot.

Even with Palestinian rockets pounding cities across southern Israel, Sneiderman explained that the students and their families all understood the benefit in helping the Israeli people.

“It was just a matter of reassuring them that we were taking appropriate security measures on this trip,” the rabbi said of the pre-trip conversations. “They wanted to know more about the locations we were going to and whether we’d be in range.”

The first few days of the trip were spent in Arad, a mountainous city halfway between Be’er Sheva and the Dead Sea, and home to Israel’s Air Force Museum. Except for the sound of warplanes flying overhead – likely speeding to their targets inside Gaza – the students said all has been quiet. They’ve largely stayed focused on the work they came to do.

“We’re here doing community service,” said Noam Oldstein, a student at California State University, Northridge. “We have a reason to be here, and when you are committed to doing something, you can’t let fear stop you from doing it.

“I’d rather be in Israel,” he added, “than anywhere else.”

On Tuesday and Wednesday, the delegation painted park benches and the public spaces in low-income neighborhoods before meeting with a group of 40 families from Sderot who had come to Arad for a few-days’ respite from the rocket attacks.

The families, however, were told upon their arrival that their hotel rooms wouldn’t be ready. They spent the afternoon at a nearby indoor basketball court surrounded by their luggage, trying to sort out where to stay.

Sneiderman surprised the families with a gift from his local Jewish community to cheer them up.

“Before we left, the Jewish Community Center in Wilmington collected about 80 toys for the children of Sderot and asked me to make sure they were distributed,” related the rabbi, who has led several Taglit-birthright israel trips to the Holy Land operated by Mayanot. “I had no idea how I would do that, because we weren’t going to be in Sderot, but I brought the toys anyway, because I was hoping I’d find a way.

“When I heard what happened to the families that had come here, I knew what to do with the toys,” he continued. “I asked one of the JNF staff members to give me a ride over to the basketball court, and I handed a toy to each kid.”

At the close of the week, the college students headed to Jerusalem, where they planted trees and cleaned a local park in the capital city’s Kiryat Yovel neighborhood. They spent Shabbat in nearby Bayit Vagan, and spent the beginning of this week in the Latrun area for two days of volunteer work at a local preschool.

The students were scheduled to conclude their trip with a day of vegetable picking on behalf of Table to Table, an organization that distributes food that would otherwise go to waste – such as surplus farm produce – to soup kitchens and other non-profit organizations. After a full day of harvesting, the group will deliver the produce to a soup kitchen and prepare a meal with the bounty.

Sara Rosenbaum, a student at the University of Delaware, said that the jam-packed community-minded schedule kept everyone’s mind off of the war.

“With everything that is going on,” she said, “it feels good to be in Israel.”