I am not a soldier. I am not even a citizen of Israel. Yet Israel is the only place on earth where, whenever war breaks out, I feel a yearning to “be present,” both physically and emotionally, for those whom I view as my people.
I clearly remember a beautiful day in mid November 2012, when I sat in a classroom in southern California, unable to concentrate on the lecture. That morning, the IDF launched Operation Pillar of Defense after more than one hundred rockets were shot at Israel in just 24 hours. Although I knew I was safer in America, my heart was in Israel, where I wished to stand with the people of Israel. There are not many places toward which I would gravitate when war breaks out, but Israel is that place for many.
This time, I am in Jerusalem during a period of great conflict. Still, I feel a yearning to support and protect what I view as my home and my people. But again, I am not a soldier and it is likely that those reading this are not soldiers either. Nevertheless, many of us feel the need to act, to support the people of Israel.
Last weekend, my group and I were supposed to spend Shabbat in Yerucham, a desert town in southern Israel, but our trip was canceled due to rocket fire from Hamas. Undeterred, a small group of friends and I decided to turn our frustration into a campaign to support those who are defending Israel. Little did we know that this sense of presence would be spread globally in just one weekend.
Teaming up with a group of Jews in New York, we created, overnight, a new charitable organization, Challah For Our Soldiers. The premise: bake and sell challah (a braided Sabbath bread), and for every challah we sell, we donate another to an Israeli soldier.
Four of us picked up flour, honey, oil, and eggs and headed for the kitchen. Just as we were running low on supplies, reinforcements arrived. A woman from One Family, an organization that offers support to victims of terror in Israel, provided much needed ingredients, uplifting music, and words of encouragement as we baked challah until 4:30 in the morning.
On Friday afternoon, we headed to Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem, set up a table with even more friends, and our flash venture began. Walking up and down Ben Yehuda, we gave soldiers in uniform free challah, and thanked them for their service. We collected donations from individuals, and those who gave 30 shekels or more received our freshly baked challah.
Even though we barely made a profit after the purchase of all the baking ingredients, we felt an overwhelming sense of success and presence. Each and every soldier who received challah seemed both surprised and comforted by the gesture. We noticed that we got the most donations from friends of soldiers who were walking with the soldiers as we offered them challah.
The next week, still invigorated by the smiles from soldiers with whom we shared challah, we decided to continue the venture. Thank Israeli Soldiers donated our ingredients and again, some of us baked until the sun rose.
We have baked more than 300 challah loaves and counting, more than1,000 people have been to the website, and we have received a plethora of generous donations. Somehow, the word of our organization got out and many more groups followed our lead. In just two weekends, 18 cities in the U.S. and Israel participated in Challah for Our Soldiers – and we have no idea who the leaders are in some of these cities. The movement grew organically on a grass roots level, without our personally asking for help. We have seen the desire there is to unify around the world to do something for those who fight for Israel.
The choice to bake challah for the soldiers was not an arbitrary one. We eat challah on Shabbat, a time when we turn off electronics, take a break from work, and avoid the mundane to just be present. The rising loaves of challah remind us of the fullness of our lives and our ability to rise from difficult times. We dip the sweet challah into salt, which also reminds us that bitterness and sweetness are intertwined throughout life. These paradoxes show that life is full of ordinary and holy, rise and fall, salty and sweet. But it is through our actions, like baking challah, that the mundane becomes spiritual.
Right now, we are in the midst of a quickly escalating battle that necessitates thousands of soldiers interrupting their lives, and answering the call of duty to faithfully protect the Jewish people. Although we are ordinary citizens and not soldiers, we have the ability to sweeten and uplift. By baking challah and sharing it with our soldiers, we are present.
Eliana Rudee is a contributor to the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity. Follow her at @ellierudee