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At JFK, well-wishers bid Israeli soldiers — and would-be soldiers — farewell

A group of volunteers from Brooklyn made sure those headed toward war had a friendly send-off

Israeli soldiers and aspiring soldiers —some of whom did not have to leave the relative safety of New York — lined up at the EL AL counter at Kennedy airport Monday to hop one of the few flights headed toward an Israel reeling from a massive attack by Hamas

Among the 30 or so young men gathered in the late morning, all between the ages of 24 and 35, was one who decided to join the Israeli Defense Forces on Sunday, the day after the attack began.

Though Israeli soldiers do not usually share their names for security reasons, the would-be soldier’s brother-in-law, Ephraim Tropp, who accompanied him to the airport, said his relative, 25, “has previously fought in the army and he’s trying to go back to step up.”

“I’m hoping and praying that they will be safe and that everyone who’s leaving will soon come back,” said Tropp, 34.

Travelers anxious to make it to Israel lined up at JFK, hoping to return to their families — and their army units, many of which have already deployed. Photo by Camillo Barone

An IDF reservist, 25, who had not yet been called up, said he had come from his home in Giv’at Shmuel, just east of Tel Aviv, to New York to spend the High Holidays with American relatives. “I have friends who were injured in the Hamas attacks,” he said. “I knew from the beginning I had to go back.” 

Hamas’ surprise attack and Israel’s retaliation, which has so far resulted in the deaths of more than 800 Israelis and at least 560 Palestinians, have shocked Israel and the world. Few flights are departing to Israel from anywhere. El Al, Israel’s national airline, is one of the few that is still carrying passengers to Tel Aviv.

The snack brigade

Next to the El Al counter a group of about ten Jewish volunteers from Brooklyn had set up two tables outside the security checkpoint, laden with Kosher food, water bottles, flashlights and other offerings for the departing soldiers.

They wanted to make sure the soldiers going back “to defend our borders,” were well supplied, said Yoni Nirenberg, 25, who coordinated the effort. “We mobilized the community last night at 11 p.m. and by 7 a.m. this morning we had people coming with cars filled with food from Costco.”

The soldiers snacked, mostly in silence, sitting on the floor or in the check-in line.

“At the moment our feelings are raw because some of us have friends that are either murdered or kidnapped in Gaza,” Nirenberg said, adding that he personally knows two people abducted by Hamas and a person killed Saturday, all of them 19 or 20.

One passenger, 26, who gave his first name as Jona, said he is a French industrial engineering student at Ariel University in Israel, and was in the U.S. on vacation, but decided to return to Israel as soon as he heard about the Hamas offensive.

“The situation is really very complicated, but when problems arise in Israel we have to fight for what is most important, for the good of all,” he said. “Israel is not just a country, it is the home of all Jewish people. I have friends in the army who are fighting on the Gaza border. I want to join them.”

Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled the last name of an interviewee. He is Yoni Nirenberg, not Yoni Niremberg.

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