MOSHAV MASLUL, southern Israel — It all started with a lemonade stand. “I took my kids, and I said, let’s go buy some lemons and make lemonade for the soldiers driving by,” said Doron Elbaz, the owner of a farm next to Moshav Maslul, a small town near the Gaza border.
During previous conflicts, Elbaz had organized convoys bearing food for soldiers going into Gaza. But when the current operation started on July 8, it was still unclear what kind of troops would be on the ground and how many soldiers would be serving in the area. So he decided to start small, posting on Facebook that anyone driving past his farm was invited for a free cup of homemade lemonade.
“Where can we drop off our donations?” the question immediately began pouring in from across the country. Food, clothing, toiletries, meat, bread, underwear, tomatoes, shampoo, steaks, baked goods, toothpaste, socks – the people of Israel were ready to deliver, Elbaz said. Joined by a few volunteers, he started making 1,000 meals a day, for soldiers who came to rest a bit under the shade, or for soldiers who called and said, please, send us some fresh food, we can’t take the army food anymore.
Because of the security situation, Elbaz and his volunteers cannot travel to the soldiers’ individual bases along the border, though the soldiers will send a representative to pick up freshly-cooked meals. Gradually they started making more meals, as more donations – and more requests – poured in. Two thousand meals a day, five thousand meals a day.
Now 250 volunteers are cooking 30,000 meals per day. Twenty thousand meals are sent to troops and other people in the field, while he serves 10,000 in a makeshift camp set up outside of his farm where soldiers can come to relax or hang out. He estimates about 50,000 people come through his rest stop every day, including volunteers, soldiers, police, medics, and other people associated with the war effort.
At the rest stop, which is called “Everything is free for soldiers,” volunteers offer their services to help soldiers relax. A dozen masseurs have set up tables to offer free massages. A barber was offering free haircuts and free shaves. Two mothers were helping soldiers wash their clothes in a sink. Volunteers from the Jewish Agency poured ice-cold iced tea. Some volunteers pointed soldiers to the pile of free clothes and underwear, others directed the food line to ensure everyone got fed.
“Everything is possible to do for free and with love,” said Elbaz. “You just have to write it on Facebook.” Elbaz’s group where he posts donations that are still needed can be found here (Hebrew link).
There are a number of similar “rest stops” for soldiers at many intersections along the Gaza border.
“You feel like you’re doing something meaningful,” said Bar Azulay, a 17-year-old high school student from Beersheba who took a bus with two friends to volunteer for the first time on Wednesday. “I felt like I had to do something.”
“At the beginning of the war, I was really terrified of the sirens,” said Rivka Naham, an administrator at an elementary school in her hometown of Moshav Hatzar, an area which has been heavily hit by rockets. “I said, I just really have to come here, to do something. I came with a friend. We brought clothes for two days. That was on Sunday. What day is today? I’m staying until the end. If I’m not here, I don’t belong anywhere. I have to be here to help,” she said, tears in her eyes. “I don’t want to go home. Here you don’t feel scared because you’re doing something,” she said.
Naham said she wasn’t surprised by the response she saw from people volunteering at the rest stop and donating goods as a bakery truck pulled up into the parking lot packed with fresh pastries. “I see changes in Israel; even on the roads people are more patient,” she said. “If you give people the opportunity to help and support, they’ll do it, without any questions, and with their whole heart.”