When a group of Israeli army veterans arrived in New York to help with rescue efforts one week after Hurricane Sandy, they expected to take their cues from government rescue agencies on the scene.
Instead, in place after place, they found themselves giving the cues to volunteers seeking guidance. The government agencies seemed all but absent.
“I did not see anyone in Far Rockaway,” said Nathan Mann, one of 12 Israelis who came to offer relief assistance to the worst hit areas.
The delegation’s members were all alumni of Mechina Ein Prat, known in English as the Leadership Academy, a pre-army institute founded in 2001 in the West Bank settlement of Kfar Adumim. The Mechina, a division of Ein Prat, an Israeli Zionist and Jewish identity program for young adults, seeks to prepare recent high school graduates for service in the Israeli army’s elite units. The 12 volunteers, all Israelis, ranging in age from22 to 31, are now members of the army reserves after having completed their service. Many served in war situations or in relief capacities in northern Israel during the Second Lebanon War and in Sderot, a city in southern Israel that has been the target of sporadic rocket bombings from Gaza.
Finding little evidence of the presence of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Red Cross in certain neighborhoods, the Ein Prat members have helped organize volunteers in Far Rockaway in Queens, Coney Island and Sea Gate in Brooklyn and hard hit communities in Staten Island. Their efforts have included cleaning out wrecked homes and stores, bringing in emergency supplies, including food and water, and monitoring elderly residents who refused to be evacuated.
The communities they helped were among the hardest hit, and were in many cases home to large concentrations of Jews — a fact that was not incidental for members of the delegation. Back in Israel, Ein Prat’s mission is to strengthen young people’s Jewish and Zionist identity and sense of service to Israeli Jewish society.
“If this situation was in Israel, it’d be obvious for us to help,” said Tamar Steinberg, a commander in the Israel Defense Forces, where she led basic training and taught Zionist education programs for immigrant soldiers. “But here, it’s also our people, our community.”