ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 142

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Inside story'You are only as happy as your feet are'

Something is afoot: Volunteers fit IDF soldiers with US military boots amid Hamas war

Brother- and sister-in-law duo in New York and Modiin raise funds to ship and distribute durable, waterproof footwear to front-line fighters; so far, they’ve supplied 10,000 pairs

Sharon Wrobel is a tech reporter for The Times of Israel.

Volunteers in the US packing thousands of pairs of certified, army grade boots into duffle bags to ship and donate to Israeli soldiers during ongoing Hamas war. (Courtesy)
Volunteers in the US packing thousands of pairs of certified, army grade boots into duffle bags to ship and donate to Israeli soldiers during ongoing Hamas war. (Courtesy)

Hundreds of pairs of tactical military boots are lined up in rows according to size at a warehouse staffed by volunteers in Modiin, or sit packed in black duffel bags waiting to be picked up and given to soldiers for whom army-provided gear isn’t fitting the bill.

One of the volunteers there is Roei Peeri, 38, a senior medic in the IDF’s 98th Division operating in the area of Khan Younis area in southern Gaza. He told The Times of Israel that during the short periods when he is not on duty, he regularly drives to the warehouse and picks up dozens of pairs of boots, overfilling his Yaris, and distributes them to soldiers in his unit and other army units.

“The last time I put on army boots [provided by the IDF] was probably more than 10 years ago during some muddy winter training,” said Peeri, a reserve soldier wearing a shoulder holster. “When you are age 18 or 19 you can wear anything but today when I get called up to reserve duty it’s different – the boots are heavy, worn out and they kill my back.”

For the current fighting — which began when 3,000 Hamas-led terrorists burst through the Gaza border on October 7, under the cover of immense rocket fire, and killed 1,200 people across southern Israel — more than 350,000 reserve soldiers were called up. The Israel Defense Forces has been insisting that it has all the equipment required for the soldiers.

What began as a one-off donation of a shipment of 80 pairs of certified, military-grade boots by Avi Shakarov, a US wholesale footwear vendor, to Israeli frontline soldiers in the first days following the Hamas-led atrocities has in recent weeks turned into a massive civil operation. The grassroots initiative “Boots for Israel” is run by a handful of immigrants in Israel and volunteers in New Jersey and New York.

Realizing the immensity of the demand, brother- and sister-in-law team Yakir Wachstock in New York and Michal Wachstock in Modiin raised funds to order, ship, and distribute durable and waterproof boots to combat soldiers, reservists, and civil defense teams.

Roei Peeri, 38, a senior medic in the IDF’s 98th Division, picks up US combat boots for soldiers at donation site in Modiin, Jan. 8, 2024. (Sharon Wrobel)

“The unprecedented call-up which happened so quickly saw many reserve soldiers just leave with sneakers on their feet, or pick up whatever they had, even wearing just sandals and socks. And the army was in such chaos it was just not on their radar at all to be supplying highly durable boots,” said US-born Michal Wachstock, who immigrated to Israel from Los Angeles in 1995. “Often the footwear soldiers are given are very tough, sturdy boots that take a long time to wear in.”

Speaking to The Times of Israel as volunteers conversing in English and Hebrew entered and exited the warehouse in Modiin’s Ligad industrial zone, Wachstock recounted that in the first two and a half months of the grassroots initiative, most of the requests for boots from soldiers or their families came because their footwear was simply falling apart.

“We got tons of pictures of soldiers with tape around their boots, which is quite shocking,” said Wachstock. “The demand and need was so great that we just kept going, as they say that you are only as happy as your feet are.”

Wachstock, 49, VP of marketing at Tel Aviv-based startup Akooda, is one of many in the tech industry who took up a volunteering project to help in the war effort. The mother of three children, two of whom are currently in army training, said that in the first weeks the initiative was taking 40% to 50% of her time but her company was very supportive.

Nowadays, with help from “partner in crime” Lisa Salamanov, a social worker from Tel Mond in the north of Israel who immigrated  24 years ago, and a team of five volunteers, it’s taking 20% of her time, so she doesn’t need to miss as much work, she said.

US-born volunteers Michal Wachstock (middle) and Lisa Salamanov (right) receive certificates of appreciation from an Israeli army unit for their effort to provide soldiers with military boots during Hamas war, Jan. 8, 2024. (Sharon Wrobel)

“At the very beginning, I just randomly sent out a text message to one of my marketing groups — if they know soldiers who need boots, to get them in touch with us — and that message is still the one that is going around,” Wachstock said. “So we know who the soldiers are who need the boots, as they call us and tell us their stories and make specific size requests.”

Wachstock and her brother-in-law had to overcome a series of bureaucratic, logistical, and supply-chain hurdles relating to customs, nonprofit certification, finding someone to fly with each shipment and creating tracking databases, while coordinating efforts between New York, New Jersey, and Israel-based volunteers. Shakarov agreed to sell the US boots at cost of about $60 to $80 a pair, making no profit, while the shipping costs, including the price of the duffle bags and transport via El Al Airlines, amount to about $70 per bag.

“Initially, we were sending like two duffle bags with individual passengers, then three bags, and with every shipment we would get a little bit more sophisticated,” said Wachstock. “The first iteration was all in my backyard until the first rain, then we moved to my kid’s high school probably for a month before we had to move, and found this warehouse owned by a guy who wants to turn it into an industrial kitchen but in the meantime, because it has no electricity or water… he was willing to give it to us.”

With time, the Wachstock brother- and sister-in-law team established relationships with El Al  and customs to expedite the process, and they are now getting about 100 to 200 duffle bags a week with 12 to 15 pairs of boots in each to Ben Gurion Airport, where they are picked up and brought to the warehouse.

Since the first batch of footwear arrived at the end of October, they have distributed around 10,000 pairs of boots covered by donations that total about $850,000 mainly from individuals in the US, raised at funding events including a boot-packing event for singles in New York, a bat mitzvah packing and donation project, and high school volunteer outings.

“We have volunteers mainly in Yakir’s community in Holliswood in Queens who pack boots almost every day of the week and are putting personal notes for the soldiers in the bags,” said Wachstock. “At the warehouse in Modiin every night a volunteer does a shift between 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. so that soldiers or their relatives can come and pick up their orders.”

Volunteers sort and line up US-donated combat boots arriving from New York at Modiin warehouse, Jan.8, 2024. (Sharon Wrobel)

Of the 10,000 pairs of combat boots, about 43% went to soldiers serving in the south, 33% to soldiers serving in the north, and 24% to soldiers serving in the center of the country. Not all units are allowed to wear the US combat boots; the vast majority go to infantry commandos, and the rest to soldiers serving in home front defense and intelligence units.

“One story that personally moved me was when an American woman in her 80s, who has 11 grandsons of which seven are serving in Gaza, came in tears to pick up the boots for them,” said Wachstock.

Wachstock and her team of volunteers receive many video messages from soldiers expressing their appreciation.

“As a military doctor, I am saving soldiers’ lives. Your shoes saved my feet,” said a reserve soldier in one of the videos.

Peeri, who lives in Tzur Yitzhak, said proudly that he has helped to distribute around 850 pairs of boots to combat soldiers and reservists in need.

“In one incident I saw a 27-year-old Bedouin in IDF uniform and sandals,” said Peeri. “When I asked him why he was wearing sandals he answered that his army shoes were killing his back.”

Reserve soldiers receive US-donated durable and waterproof military boots during Hamas war. (Courtesy)

After asking what size he was, Peeri delivered a pair of the US boots to where he was stationed near Kissufim.

“That’s how we became friends and every time we meet, he brings us the best Arab coffee from Rahat,” said Peeri.

More than three months into the war with Hamas, demand for the black or beige boots remains steady, said Wachstock, with about 700 pairs going out per week and a waitlist of at least 3,500, many of whom have been in Gaza for 100 days.

“We definitely did not think that this project would be going on this long,” said Wachstock. “I’m wondering when we are going to end, when we are going to stop.”

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