Noah Dorfman of San Rafael picks produce on an Israeli farm that’s short on workers due to the war. (Photo/Courtesy Noah Dorfman)
Noah Dorfman of San Rafael picks produce on an Israeli farm that’s short on workers due to the war. (Photo/Courtesy Noah Dorfman)

‘They needed us’: Bay Area volunteers drop everything to help in Israel

Dr. Rachel Blumberg typically spends her days stabilizing fractured bones, diagnosing appendicitis, treating strep throat and tending to the many other ailments that land patients in emergency rooms.

For two weeks in November and December, however, the San Francisco ER doctor found herself worlds away from gurneys and X-rays — on Israeli farms planting cucumber sprouts, pruning strawberry bushes and picking peppers. Many Israelis who worked in agriculture before the Oct. 7 Hamas terror attack have been called up for military duty. Foreign farmhands, mostly from Thailand, have fled the country by the thousands, and Palestinian workers from the West Bank and Gaza are still blocked from entering. Those workforce reductions have led to a severe labor shortage during key harvest months.

“They needed us. They really did,” Blumberg said. She’s one of the Bay Area residents of all ages, one as young as 16, who have dropped their lives here to offer wartime assistance on the ground in Israel. But the beleaguered farmers needed support beyond their fields, said Blumberg, who traveled 7,400 miles to volunteer on a trip organized by Birthright Israel.

“We brought hope, we brought solidarity,” said the 40-year-doctor, who had never been to Israel before. “I would find an excuse to talk to people, and then I would give them a big long hug just to let them know: We’re here. We’re here for you.”

Birthright is best known for its free 10-day educational trips to Israel for diaspora Jews between ages 18 and 26. Since Oct. 7, it’s one of the organizations that has sent volunteers there to take on tasks such as harvesting crops, packing supplies for military personnel and displaced families, tutoring students and visiting injured soldiers and their families. Other groups arranging volunteer trips include Jewish National Fund-USA, Israel Food Rescue and Masa.

Like so many fellow Jews, Blumberg has continuously followed news of the war and rising global antisemitism since the October attack that left 1,200 dead and an estimated 130 still held hostage in Gaza. Before traveling to Israel, “I felt so alone and so alienated,” said the physician, who feels culturally Jewish but isn’t currently affiliated with any Jewish organizations. “I was like, ‘I just want to be around other Jews.”

Dr. Linda Oberstein dons protective gear while visiting Kibbutz Aza during a mission organized by American Friends of Sheba Medical Center. (Photo/Courtesy Linda Obestein)
Dr. Linda Oberstein dons protective gear while visiting Kibbutz Kfar Aza during a mission organized by American Friends of Sheba Medical Center. (Photo/Courtesy Linda Oberstein)

Another Bay Area doctor, Linda Oberstein, returned last week from the first Chaverim L’Hachlama (Friends of Healing) mission organized by American Friends of Sheba Medical Center, the largest hospital in Israel and the facility where a large percentage of injured Israel Defense Forces soldiers go for rehabilitation.

Her group of 50 met frontline Sheba Medical Center physicians to learn about heightened medical needs during wartime. And they visited with injured patients and their families. Oberstein recounts talking with one mother whose son, an IDF soldier, got shot on Oct. 7 when terrorists stormed his army base near the Gaza border. His wounds were so serious that his leg was ultimately amputated. He is now undergoing rehabilitation.

His mother “thanks God that he’s alive,” said Oberstein, a 58-year-old retired primary care physician who lives on the Peninsula. “She feels so grateful and so lucky that she’s able to hug him. That’s what keeps her going.”

Friends of Healing mission participants from across the U.S., as well as South Africa, also visited Kfar Aza, one of the kibbutzim along the Gaza border ravaged by Hamas. ”There’s still the smell of burning,” said Oberstein, who last visited Israel more than 20 years ago.

Interacting with people who’d experienced unimaginable horrors, Oberstein, who’s currently a chaplaincy fellow at Stanford University, leaned on skills honed in chaplaincy training: listening intently and allowing people the space to talk about, or not talk about, their trauma. She witnessed both pain and remarkable resilience, with some injured soldiers expressing eagerness to return to their units as soon as their doctors gave the green light.

Then there was the appreciation, from doctors, nurses, patients, families and beyond.

“They said, ‘Thank you for coming, thank you for visiting, thank you for being here,’ over and over everywhere I went,” Oberstein said.

Blumberg had the same experience with the Israelis she met and worked with. “They thought we were wonderful, they thought we were selfless,” she said.

Dr. Rachel Blumberg plants tiny cucumber sprouts while volunteering on a labor-strapped moshav in Israel. (Photo/Courtesy Rachel Blumberg)
Dr. Rachel Blumberg plants tiny cucumber sprouts while volunteering on a labor-strapped moshav in Israel. (Photo/Courtesy Rachel Blumberg)

And “they thought we were a little crazy,” she added with a laugh.

Like Oberstein and Blumberg, Noah Dorfman, a 28-year-old San Rafael resident, felt an ineffable pull to get on a plane to Israel. At home in the Bay Area, closely tracking news of the Hamas terror attack and the ensuing war, “I felt pretty useless,” he said. “After the largest loss of Jewish life since the Holocaust, I just wanted to help.”

Dorfman, a Birthright alum, harvested crops and weeded fields on moshavim in central Israel alongside Blumberg and about 20 other Birthright volunteers. He felt safe in Israel, he said, though sirens sounding in Tel Aviv just hours after the delegation’s plane landed sent them running to a bomb shelter.

“I had never experienced a rocket attack before,” he said.

Dorfman works at Nvidia as a program manager for a team focused on maps for self-driving cars. The company has a very personal connection to the war, with more than 3,000 employees based in Israel, according to its LinkedIn profile.

One of them, engineer Avinatan Or, was among those kidnapped by Hamas from the Nova music festival on Oct. 7. A viral video shows Or being taken captive as his girlfriend, Noa Argamani, desperately reaches toward him while terrorists speed her toward Gaza on a motorbike. Neither has been released.

Knowing that a co-worker is held in Gaza has made the crisis all the more immediate for Dorfman. But the reality of the hostage situation hit him with new urgency when he witnessed the agony and desperation of the abductees’ families and friends up close in Israel.

“Walking past ’Hostages Square’ in Tel Aviv, you’re 5 feet away from people whose friends and family are being held hostage,” he said. “That was a very emotionally powerful experience that I still don’t really know how to describe.”

Just days after returning home from Israel earlier this month, Dorfman said he already wanted to be back. “I wish I could have helped more.”

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.