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Rabbi volunteers in Israel’s battered South
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Rabbi volunteers in Israel’s battered South

During the conflict with Gaza, Rabbi Bennett Miller, right, helped build student housing in Sderot.     
During the conflict with Gaza, Rabbi Bennett Miller, right, helped build student housing in Sderot.     

As Israel battled Hamas in nearby Gaza, Rabbi Bennett Miller was among a group of volunteers who helped build apartments for college students and pick vegetables in Israel’s embattled South.

Miller, senior rabbi at Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick, was in Israel in early August. He assisted the Ayalim Association in building 150 student apartments at Sapir College in Sderot. The Be’er Sheva-based Ayalim brings volunteers from around the world to live, work, and study with young Israelis in the Negev and Galilee regions. 

Miller also picked celery, eggplant, and onions on a Be’er Sheva farm as a volunteer for Leket, Israel’s national food bank, to be distributed to poor Israelis. “I felt as many of us as possible in the American-Jewish community needed to be in Israel in solidarity with Israelis,” he said.

Miller is national chair of ARZA, the Zionist arm of the Reform movement. He represents the movement on the allocations committee of the Jewish Federations of North America’s Stop the Sirens campaign to meet urgent needs in Israel resulting from the conflict.

On his own, the rabbi distributed toys he had brought to youngsters at a day care center and visited a seniors’ center, both in Be’er Sheva.

“American Jews should be going regularly to Israel now because doing so does three things,” said Miller. “First, it lets others know Israel is safe and there’s no reason everyone shouldn’t go. Second, if we can help in any way to reduce the trauma of Israelis caused by being under siege for 50 days, we should. 

“And number three, we are helping in our own way to have a positive effect on the Israeli economy, which has been devastated by the loss of tourism.”

Miller participated in the Ayalim project as part of a group from throughout the United States representing ARZA. He said his specific duties were adding wallboard and “shlepping” fiberglass insulation. 

“It was hot,” he acknowledged, but on the up side, “They gave us ice cream.”

Ayalim was founded in 2002 by five young Israelis recently released from their army service who envisioned Israel’s next generation operating in the spirit of the country’s founding pioneers. It now has 14 active student and entrepreneurial villages in which residents volunteer to help in often impoverished neighborhoods.

Three hundred students will live in the Sapir apartments, which were constructed in abandoned buildings and shipping containers. In return for subsidized housing, the students must volunteer 500 hours annually in Sderot. One of the organization’s goals is to bring young people back to the community, which has a disproportionately elderly population resulting from a decade of being targeted by rocket fire from Gaza. 

“Ayalim called it a village, but it was more like rehabbing a neighborhood,” Miller told NJJN. “This is what Ayalim does; it rehabs neighborhoods all over the country into which college students move.”

Miller said he is returning to Israel Oct. 19 as leader of an ARZA mission. The following week a combined 100-person mission of the Jewish federations of Greater Middlesex and Monmouth counties will also visit Israel.

“Throughout our time there we all heard one constant refrain,” said Miller: “‘We are so glad you came and we are grateful for your support.’” 

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