“I didn't know I could miss people I don't know”

A post-Oct. 7 working visit to Israel showed the importance of helping out by being…well, helpful

Since leaving his position as development officer at Federation in November 2023, Rabbi Mark Cohn has been serving as spiritual leader of Temple Sholom in New Milford, CT and as the Director of Partnership Development for the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values. For the month of March, Mark visited Israel with his wife, Rabbi Amy Wallk of Congregation Beth El in Springfield. He found opportunities to work first on a farm with Israel Food Rescue and then in support of the Israel Defense Forces as a participant in the Sar-El program. He stayed in Israel for the better part of a month, and here shares some of what he saw in a country five months into a war it never wanted.


After my plane landed, I was so happy to be back in Israel and then, walking toward Passport Control, I passed signs of the hostages – and so began a feeling that no matter where I would go, there would be reminders. And they are ubiquitous – on yellow-knitted scarves tied around the trunks of trees on Rothschild Blvd in central Tel Aviv, in a massive lit up sign on HaBima Square in Tel Aviv, in stores, on people's lapels, and certainly in the stories people tell.

There is a poster Amy bought. On it, there sits one lone yellow chair with the words: “I didn't know I could miss someone I didn't know.” It refers to the hostages and how they are constantly on people’s minds and in their hearts. The lone yellow chair serves as a reminder of the Shabbat table set up in Tel Aviv, in front of the Art Museum, where an empty set table serves as a reminder of the impact of the vicious, genocidal Hamas that not only started this war but has conducted 18 years of fighting against Israel.

One night, Amy and I went to dinner with her daughter, Nina, who is serving in the IDF. We were joined by two dear friends: Gina and Yossi (names changed).

Gina is a psychologist. She spent three months after October 7 volunteering with survivors of the Nova Music Festival. The stories she heard are beyond chilling – you can imagine, as she primarily worked with women.

Her husband, Yossi, went to volunteer at a center where Israelis who have been forcibly removed from the Western Negev and northern reaches of Israel can get support. A loving, vibrant grandfather, Yossi went to spend time with little children so their parents could get a moment's break to get support for themselves. He wound up playing with a 2-year-old for an hour. As he finished his time with the child, the social worker said: "That is the first time the boy has spoken to anyone since he left his kibbutz on that fateful morning."

As became a recurring theme for me: tears and silence in the face of the reality of life in Israel right now.


I have long said that if I wasn't a rabbi, I'd be a farmer.

I think my week on the farm ended any such illusions I had about farming. Amy and I volunteered for a week with Israel Food Rescue (IFR), an organization which began in the Fall in order to assist struggling farmers in Israel during the war. Between Israelis called up for reserve duty and foreign workers returning to their countries of origin and Palestinians unable to enter the country (from the West Bank and Gaza), the typical agricultural labor pool plummeted mightily.

IFR has worked with various farms. We worked with the Seishel Farm of Moshav Givati, a community of roughly 1,000 people founded in 1950 by Jewish refugees from eastern Europe and Arab countries. The farm has roughly 200 acres of land and they produce cauliflower, fennel, plums, olives, and eggplant. They have roughly 300 milking cows. The moshav sits about five miles east of Ashdod, a major port and about 20 miles from the northern part of Gaza.

While working in the fields, we saw a few Israeli military drones and at one point heard two major booms, which one of the farmers told us was the IDF destroying a Hamas tunnel. I didn't know if that statement was factual or hopeful. I hope, and have been told, it is true.

Our group was made up of six to eight people, depending on the day, and most of the participants were with IFR for 5-10 days. As Jews, we were Reform, Conservative, Modern Orthodox, Secular. We were men and women aged from about 35 to 70. We were a TV news producer, a radiologist, an OBGYN, a financial analyst, a researcher and teacher of horticulture, a nurse, a US Air Force Vet, and of course – two rabbis. Most were Jewish – two were not Jewish and of differing degrees of connection to Christianity. We were all committed to supporting Israel, the war effort, the survival of the agricultural industry in Israel, and making sure Israelis know they are not alone.

Our days began at 6:30 a.m. with a hearty breakfast and then a ride to the farm. We worked from roughly 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. In my five days, we assembled cardboard boxes, planted eggplants, harvested a massive amount of cauliflower, ventilated eggplant coverings, and shielded young cauliflower with their own external leaves. Did I mention harvesting cauliflower? Who knew how heavy they can be!!??

The farmers were deeply grateful for our efforts and given the IFR's work, they told us that IFR has helped save their farm. I believe it. Our efforts are a drop in the bucket, but I know that with so many other volunteers in the country right now, there are meaningful ways to contribute. Not everyone can come and not everyone can do the kind of work that is needed. Each of us just needs to help in a way that is…well, helpful.


I first learned about Sar-El when my rabbi volunteered for the organization some 15-20 years ago and I thought how wonderful that Americans (Jewish and non-Jewish) could come to work on an army base to assist the vital efforts of Israel's military.

When the war broke out in Israel in the early Fall, Amy and I immediately began to consider how and when we could get to Israel and where we might volunteer. Sar-El seemed a natural option and so we were very anxious to help. Thankfully, they have been overwhelmed by applicants and sadly, they have been desperately needed.

We wound up on a massive base in the central part of the country that, among other duties, coordinates the distribution of medical supplies. I was assigned to a small group with three other volunteers, supervised by a civilian IDF employee. Our job was to label supplies and then create emergency medical kits that would be used “in the field.” With every package we assembled, my prayer was the same: May these never be needed but if they are, may they be used successfully and save the life of the wounded … knowing full well that the injured may be someone in my circle of life and love within one to two degrees of separation. 

Another team of volunteers was assembling medical kits that would be used in life-threatening situations. As one of the IDF workers said to them, “If they have to use this kit on a soldier, there is a 50/50 chance he’ll survive.” One of our volunteers had a son in Tzuk Eitan (Operation Protective Edge, 2014 – an earlier fight with Hamas in Gaza). That same type of kit was used on him. Thank God, he survived. Due to proper training, skill, and equipment, Israel now has the capability to get a wounded soldier from Gaza to a full medical hospital within 38 minutes.

If my work on the farm was instant gratification (seeing a head of cauliflower go from the plant, into a box, and off to market), then this week was about delayed gratification, knowing that the medical kits we were assembling may be used in this current war or not for another several years. In either case, the goal was the same: to help Israel and to save life. Our supervisor had us working very hard and we assembled hundreds of medical kits. Why the urgency? As he explained in Hebrew:

“.בגלל כל הבלגן הזה בצפון” – “Because of all this craziness in the North.”

Meaning: Southern Lebanon with Hizbollah and a potential war upcoming.

Looking at the Jews with whom I interacted this week, I saw Jews of every color, as the base included Israelis from throughout the country: from Ethiopia, Ukraine, France, Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Russia, America and more. The rabbinic dream of kibbutz galuyot (ingathering of the exiles) is not a dream here. It is THE reality. And for those who say that Israel is a colonialist-white-oppressor, I realize how unaware some people are of Israel’s history and reality and how antisemitism manages to morph and find its way into the minds of those who promote a damaging ideology that endangers Israel and Western, Liberal values.

Amid the awful experience that Israel has undergone with a future still uncertain, there is a palpable sense of determination, creativity, hope, and resilience. How long this can last, I do not know. But as one friend said, "We know we are in a seismic moment and we do not know how it turns out." Indeed, we don't. That uncertainty can be numbing and terrifying. But it can also be encouraging and empowering. There are so many things that are beyond our control.

For those things which are in our purview, may we seize hold and dream, hope, create, and DO!