'The way we behaved last year came at a high price'

With an ambitious civic agenda, Brothers and Sisters in Arms says it’s here to stay

The protest group founded by reserve soldiers last year wants involvement in education, community and employment issues, to strengthen democratic values in society

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

Reserve soldiers from Brothers in Arms take part in a protest outside the Supreme Court in Jerusalem against the exemption of ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students from military duty, February 26, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Reserve soldiers from Brothers in Arms take part in a protest outside the Supreme Court in Jerusalem against the exemption of ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students from military duty, February 26, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

It was late in the day at the Brothers and Sisters in Arms complex in central Israel, but seamsters still sat at sewing machines working on repairs to soldiers’ uniforms.

A kindergarten and school created by the organization to serve 500 children evacuated from the northern city of Kiryat Shmona had emptied as children had gone “home” to their temporary housing between Herzliya and Ramat Hasharon, but one office was full of computer equipment being repaired. Another had piles of first-aid kits — 3,000 of which have been handed out to kibbutzim in border areas, including the West Bank.

The door of a fourth room was labeled “Families of Reserve Soldiers.” This unit tries to meet the needs of families whose (usually) menfolk are in military service by finding them a babysitter, a dog-walker, and the like.

The Brothers and Sisters in Arms organization was created by reserve soldiers last year to protest the government’s attempts to reform the judicial system by weakening the courts. Many of its founders hold senior ranks, served in elite units, and have impressive post-army CVs.

Months of noisy street demonstrations came to an immediate halt on October 7, when thousands of Hamas terrorists poured into Israel’s mainly rural Gaza border area, massacring 1,200 people in circumstances that included rape, mutilation, and burning people alive. The terrorists also kidnapped 253 people to the Gaza Strip.

Within hours of the October 7 attack, members of Brothers and Sisters in Arms sped south to battle the gunmen, rescue residents under fire, and later help evacuate entire communities.

With the government caught off guard and paralyzed at the time, the organization instantly metamorphosed into a support infrastructure.

Volunteers help to sort and pack donated items at the Civilian Operations Hub, Expo Tel Aviv, October 19, 2023. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

In those early days, thousands of civilians poured into the Tel Aviv Expo to help the war effort.

With military discipline, Brothers and Sisters in Arms and a handful of other organizations created a network of volunteers — an estimated 15,000 in the early weeks — to identify the dead and the missing, find transport and accommodation for survivors, and collect and distribute everything from food, clothing, and toys to medical supplies and even furniture and appliances for mourning tents. The hangar at Expo Tel Aviv that the organization rented for donated supplies stayed open till February.

Ronen Koehler, one of the activist organization’s founders, said that since October 7, the organization had raised around NIS 130 million ($36.4 million).

Over the past five months, he explained,  it has been busy helping evacuees from the south, and the northern border, who have been staying in hotels and private accommodations all over the country.

Now, it is turning its attention to those Gaza border residents who are starting to go home. Around 100 to 150 volunteers, Koehler said, turn up daily at the Glilot offices that The Times of Israel toured.

In the long term, he said, Brothers in Arms wants to bring its influence and its commitment to democratic values to bear on education, community, economic, and employment issues, to strengthen what he called the country’s “social infrastructure.”

“We’re here to stay,” Koehler said.

Former submarine commander Ronen Koehler stands in front of a sign saying ‘Brothers in Arms: Civilian Situation Room,’ at the Brothers in Arms offices in Glilot, central Israel, on March 3, 2023. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

In another office at the Glilot complex sat Ayelet Yagur, surrounded by children’s books, toys, and play equipment. These were returned from hotels that families evacuated from the Gaza border had left, and will go on to kindergartens in the border villages to which these people are returning or to temporary accommodation where they will live until their homes have been rebuilt.

“We’re doing lots of field visits and are in contact with the educational teams in the kindergartens,” said Yagur, who formerly managed the Long School Day, an afternoon informal education program, in kindergartens in Ramat Hasharon in central Israel.

“We build a kindergarten design plan that fits with the team’s pedagogical approach,” she said.

Ayelet Yagur sorts children’s books, toys, and play equipment at the Brothers in Arms offices in Glilot, central Israel, on March 3, 2023. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

Looking ahead to the needs of the Gaza border, as evacuees start to return, Brothers and Sisters in Arms are working with local education departments to help clean schools and kindergartens, and even find teachers.

Volunteers recently equipped and furnished a whole school at Kibbutz Gvulot, close to the Gaza border, to serve children from area kibbutzim.

Support for hotel evacuees

Koehler is a former submarine commander who became an organizational consultant and worked in several top Israeli companies. Like many of his socially minded peers in Brothers in Arms, he was already involved in civic society before the war, having established an association for navy veterans who help one another and mentor marginal youth. He also heads a marine youth group in Tel Aviv.

He credited his wife, child psychologist Talia Koster, with getting Brothers in Arms to start their involvement with the hotels where evacuees were being sent, especially in Eilat, on Israel’s southern tip, and the Dead Sea.

Illustrative: Israeli evacuees from the Gaza border area get temporary shelter at a hotel in Eilat, October 17, 2023. (Aris MESSINIS / AFP)

Koster had traveled to Eilat as part of a 15-member clinical delegation. “At the end of the day, she called and said, ‘You don’t know what’s happening down here. Where are you?'” according to Koehler.

“I sent a message to veterans of the navy and the [Israeli equivalent of the] Navy Seals asking for volunteers to go to Eilat and the Dead Sea,” Koehler recalled.

“It was the Sabbath. Despite this, Ori Lahav [the ex-navy co-founder and CTO of the web-based recommendation platform Outbrain] volunteered to go to Eilat, and [professional strategist] Irad Yuval from the Navy Seals went to the Dead Sea. On Saturday night, they reported that there was much for us to do there. By Sunday [October 15], we had set up an evacuee situation room.”

That kickstarted a large volunteer effort to help with needs that the state bureaucracy was never designed to meet, and where government ministries were absent.

Brothers in Arms volunteers set up a kindergarten in a hotel in Tel Aviv. (Adi Eckstein)

The activities included acquiring dozens of washing machines and dryers and creating laundry rooms, and building 190 hotel-based kindergartens, along with community centers for teens, and activities for seniors.

The group helped to keep bored youth out of mischief by building a sports area on the beach in Eilat and bringing artists to perform daily at the Dead Sea

It built a special needs school at the Dead Sea — in just five days.

And it has provided 4,000 days of volunteer help to date for factories short of workers and continues to send hundreds of volunteers every day to help farmers left without their Thai and Palestinian farmhands.

A volunteer with Brothers for Jobs, a subgroup of Brothers in Arms, helps a woman living in a hotel to find work. The sign says, ‘Hundreds of jobs are waiting for you.’ (Daniel Herzliya)

In the hospitals treating wounded soldiers, it has procured small items that make a difference — a guitar here, a subscription to a computer programming course there.

It is also helping people to find jobs. Together with the Jewish Agency and the Israel Business Forum, it has raised around NIS 10 million ($2.7 million) to help those whose businesses have run into trouble because of the war.

Brothers in Arms volunteers help on a farm. (Brothers in Arms Civilian Situation Room)

As conflict between the IDF and the Iran-backed terror group Hezbollah warmed up along the northern border, and northern communities were evacuated as well, volunteers organized a northern situation room that can call upon 1,000 volunteers, Koehler said.

It collected metal frames from hundreds of sukkot — the temporary “dwellings” Jews set up for the Feast of Tabernacles — and fitted them with tarpaulin to protect troops from the rain.

According to Koehler, tactical equipment including bulletproof vests and helmets and protective goggles has been distributed to community security teams all over the country, while volunteers with a background from the Shin Bet internal security services are training the teams.

One of the lessons from October 7, according to Koehler, was: “Where there was a well-trained security team, the communities were saved.”

A change of approach

Over a year ago, Brothers and Sisters in Arms became a government bête noire for opposing both planned changes to the judiciary and exemptions from military service for ultra-Orthodox Jews.

According to Koehler, coalition politicians constantly try to get the organization’s charitable status reversed. But government officials have reached out for help and relations with local authorities are warm, Koehler said.

The Brothers and Sisters in Arms protest group hangs a banner under a statue of Zionist pioneer Theodor Herzl reading, ‘This was not what I meant,’ July 18, 2023 (Tali Melamed)

“The position taken by Brothers in Arms on this government can be hard for people on the right to digest. But such deep relationships have been established with the mayors, who see that we’re good guys, that we’ve set up a Going Home department,” he said.

Koehler claimed that Brothers in Arms’ strategy had become softer since the anti-judicial reform protests.

“We understood that the way we behaved last year, while it was very effective, came at a high price,” he said. “We want to prevent being in a place where people think we’re not on the same side. We believe some things can be done with more discussion and less extremism. We were dragged to the extremes. The government refused to talk.”

Brothers in Arms volunteers call for ultra-Orthodox Jews to enlist in the IDF

These days, the organization is trying to secure a cross-party agreement on two critical issues — early elections and drafting ultra-Orthodox young men, who are currently exempt from military duty, into the IDF.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has refused to take responsibility for the October 7 fiasco, and has said the next elections will take place “in a few years,”  as scheduled, because wartime is “not the time for politics.”

On the streets, said Koehler, the group’s current activities were characterized by hanging banners at junctions and holding gatherings.

“We’re on the streets, but we’re for, not against. We’re not blocking roads. The strategy has completely changed,” Koehler said.

Leaders of the Brothers in Arms protest group speak at a press conference in Herzliya, July 22, 2023. (Tal Schneider/Times of Israel)

“We’re all army people,” he said. “We understand that we have enemies and that Israel will need an army for many years. But we believe we have to find a solution with the Palestinians.”

He went on, “Being a citizen is about more than paying your taxes and voting every four years. It’s not about Bibi [Netanyahu]. It’s about people being involved.”

Most Popular
read more: