Finding Meaning Amid the Ashes

By: Gabriella Gomperts  |  May 11, 2024

By Gabriella Gomperts, Features Editor

At a Starbucks in Midtown Manhattan, Shira Cederbaum recounts her past few months while sipping an iced coffee. The nineteen-year-old from Woodmere, New York had set off in the beginning of January to Israel with one express purpose: to help those in need. “It was crazy,” she said, “but also super meaningful.” 

Cederbaum attended Stern last year as a true freshman but decided to take a gap semester to visit Israel. These plans were abruptly changed because of October 7, so she got a job as an assistant teacher in a nursery school at her local JCC. She decided to take off another semester to volunteer, leaving January 3 with a few friends to start volunteering with Sachlav, Birthright’s volunteer program, in central Israel. 

During her first month volunteering, Cederbaum was based in Tel Aviv, where she spent most of her days picking oranges or sorting through donated clothes. The farm where Cederbaum volunteered had lost most of their Thai and Palestinian workers right after the war started, and were reliant on volunteers to salvage as much of the fruit as they could. 

Her favorite part of Sachlav was picking strawberries at Moshav Achitav, where she loved working with the farmers and eating the “very yummy merchandise.” 

Next, Cederbaum spent a week with Livnot, a program in Sderot that helped facilitate rebuilding in parts of the community that were destroyed. They fixed houses, painted schools, and prepared the neighborhood for residents who had been evacuated, to return. The program also brought volunteers to visit sites that had been attacked on October 7, like the Nova Festival location and some of the Kibbutzim in the south. 

On the second day of this program, Livnot brought the volunteers to Shuva, an outdoor rest stop for soldiers. The location of this rest stop is the closest to the Gaza strip that isn’t in direct danger, and soldiers at this location will wait for the call to go into Gaza. Shuva is run exclusively by volunteers who provide everything the soldiers need. They have a 24 hour policy, meaning if a soldier needs something specifically, they aim to get it to them in under 24 hours.

Cederbaum knew she wanted to volunteer at Shuva when she visited. “I asked the guy in charge how I can volunteer, and he said to take his number and text him when I want to come,” she said. “So after Livnot, I texted him if I could come that day and he said sure.” She spent two weeks volunteering at Shuva, where she helped organize meals and spent time talking to soldiers. “They just want to talk to someone their age about anything besides the war,” she said. “One guy showed me pictures of his trip to China for over an hour.” 

According to Cederbaum, the most meaningful part of the program she took part in was with Livnot repairing houses. Volunteers were able to speak to the survivors and hear about their experiences. “The owner of the house [we were repairing] came to speak to us and told us his story. His brother was killed on his porch, right where we were working.” 

Volunteers lived in houses that were permanently evacuated by survivors. “The house we were staying in was owned by a family that evacuated and then left Sderot for good,” said Cederbaum. “They just said, ‘we can’t come back.’”

Being able to speak with the people she was helping made working in Sderot meaningful. “It felt like I was making an actual difference to hear what everyone there had been through, and to know that we were making a difference,” she said. 

“Honestly the most meaningful part to me were the friends I made,” said Cederbaum. “I met people who I never ever would have connected with and now they’re some of my best friends.”