Young adult trip to Israel leaves lasting memories

In March, JEWISHcolorado sent a cohort of young adults to Israel to engage in volunteer work in our partnership region of Ramat HaNegev. The trip also included experiences in places that have been most powerfully affected by the events of October 7. The trip was led by JEWISHcolorado Shlicha Nelly Ben Tal and Director of Jewish Student Connection and IST Jillian Feiger.

We talked with two participants after their return—28-year-old Chandler Irvin and 32-year-old Sam Shine.

Why did you feel strongly about going to Israel at this time?

Chandler: At our introductory meeting before the trip, one of the first questions was, “Why did you choose to come on this trip?” Everyone, in one way or another, said that when October 7 happened—and every day thereafter—we have felt helpless. Besides making donations to Israel, going on this trip was a way to feel like we were helping. In addition to volunteering at farms in Israel, we would have a chance to listen and physically be present. To me, the bare minimum we can do is show up and show our support, whatever that entails.

YAD Mission farms in Israel

Sam: Since October 7, I had made a number of donations, and I had gone to events, but I didn’t feel like I was doing everything I could to help Israel and its people. I felt that by going on this trip, I could have hands-on experiences. I could see what was happening in Israel for myself, instead of relying on what I have been seeing and hearing around me in the U.S. I wanted to actually bear witness to what has happened in Israel.

What does October 7 mean to you?

Chandler: Like many Americans, we woke up on October 7 seeing the news all over social media and television. It was horrific. There were no words. My wife Kate and I felt like we had been punched in the gut. It was particularly shocking that the terrorists were documenting their crimes and sharing them with the public on social media. We were not physically experiencing what was happening, but we still felt the horror. What we have personally experienced in the days and months since October 7 has been the rise of antisemitism in America.

YAD Mission in Israel

Sam: It was surreal to see images of what was happening on October 7, and it was heartbreaking. Israel is such a small country, so everyone would know someone who was personally affected. It felt very close to home. It felt like it was happening to Jews everywhere. I was only 10 years old when 9/11 happened, but I remember the feelings from that day and the ways people responded. This felt very much the same.

This was a very short trip packed with experiences. Which of those experiences had the greatest impact? Or to put it another way, years from now, which will stay with you?

Sam: This was a mission to volunteer in ways that would help Israel. One of our volunteer experiences involved picking snow peas and weeding asparagus in Nitzana, very close to the border with Egypt. The field workers usually are from Thailand, but they were evacuated after October 7, so the farmers would have been in real trouble if volunteers were not helping. They were very appreciative. It was the first time I had done farm work, and it really stayed with me. I felt like I was doing something—not just talking about issues, not just hitting the “Donate” button. It felt like, with my own hands, I could help in a small way and be productive.

Picking snow peas on the YAD March 2024 Israel Mission

Chandler: I will remember day two of the trip forever because we visited Kibbutz Kerem Shalom and we saw the aftermath of October 7. There are bullet holes in people’s homes, shattered windows, debris on the ground. And in the middle of it all, there are still sukkot standing, like they are frozen in time. It felt like a ghost town. Walking into a home that terrorists entered and then did terrible things to the family inside—you can only ask why human beings can do this to other human beings.

Sam: At Kerem Shalom, we were given a tour by Roni and Ofer Kissin, a couple that had lived there but were evacuated after October 7. I wanted to support them, but I really was not sure what to say so I just listened. They said that 95% of living in Kerem Shalom is heaven and 5% is hell. They told us about how they had had a big celebration for Simchat Torah the night before the attack, and then overnight, everything changed. In many ways, it felt like it was just the day after October 7. It just felt so recent, and I realized how fresh the pain still is.

Roni and Ofer give a tour of Kerem Shalom to JEWISHcolorado's Young Adult Mission

Chandler: We went to the Nova Festival site and saw all the memorials that have been created for the victims. You hear the raw number of how many died there, but it doesn’t hit you until you are face to face with pictures of every single person who was killed. Most of these people were my age. They were just going to a fun festival. That made it extremely personal. These weren’t just deaths. These were humans who did not deserve this, and I cannot imagine how terrifying it was. It was just so, so sad.

Sam: Nova Festival looks like a normal area and then you see the memorials. In the background, you could hear live artillery fire. That was the first time I was reminded that Israel is at war. In Tel Aviv, you can look at the posters of the hostages and you know there is a war, but you don’t see or hear it. At Nova, we walked around paying our respects with fighting in the background. I pictured myself sitting with friends at a music festival in Colorado, enjoying the music, and then suddenly everything turns into a nightmare terrorist attack. I could just imagine the panic.

Nova Music Festival Gorunds

Chandler: We met Efrat Almosnino. Her husband Liran z”l was killed on October 7 trying to fight off Hamas as a member of a civilian counterterrorism task force. She has five children under the age of 15. She doesn’t even really have time to grieve the loss of her husband because her children need her. Someone asked her, “How is it going not having your husband’s help?” And she said, “I don’t miss my husband for his help. I don’t need help with cooking, groceries, cleaning. I miss him because he was my best friend.” I will remember that forever.

Sam: Efrat said to us, “Everyone says to the children, ‘Your father is a hero’ but the children say, ‘Why can’t he be here with us?’ and I have to tell them that he died protecting others.

Would you encourage other young adults to make a mission trip like this one?

Sam: I think we are at a unique age. Many programs sending people to Israel are targeted to younger people. A lot of the events and fundraising for Israel seem to be geared toward older people. I feel in the middle. For people my age who are fresh in their careers, I think it’s important to maintain a passion for Israel and connect with other young adults and young Israelis—especially now.

YAD Mission meets with JFNA President and CEO Eric Fingerhut

Participants meet with Jewish Federations of North America (JNFA) President and CEO Eric Fingerhut

Chandler: My wife Kate and I have felt wrapped in love in the JEWISHcolorado and Temple Emanuel community since we moved here. But since October 7, there have been people who we thought were our friends who have hurt us with posts they have shared on social media. It’s shocking to see how fast misinformation can spread. Going on this trip and meeting young adults who share our same beliefs about the importance of supporting Israel and the Jewish community, we felt validated, we felt heard, and we didn’t feel so alone anymore.

Trips like these do not happen in a vacuum. JEWISHcolorado subsidized this trip with leaders Jillian Feiger and Nelly Ben Tal.

Chandler: Jillian and Nelly were phenomenal. Everything we did was so intentional. We weren’t just being shuttled around Israel. We were introduced to communities through the eyes of two people who love these communities and have friends and family members and connections that made what we did even more special.

Sam: Nelly and Jillian did an incredible job. They were respectful of the reasons that brought us to Israel, and they talked with us as issues came up. I just want to thank JEWISHcolorado for the opportunity to go and be hands-on and make a small difference.