A few millennia later, the Hashmonaim (the family of Maccabees) are back to helping Jews in trouble. Or rather, six Israeli teens, from the modern towns of Hashmonaim and Beit Shemesh, have come to New York during their Chanukah vacations to assist in post-Sandy soup kitchens, cleaning shoreline wreckage, and showing solidarity, one Jew to another.
Along the way, the three boys and three girls, each a 15-year-old high school freshman, informally shared their experiences with students in 15 local public schools and Jewish day schools, synagogues and teen programs, with the aim of showing that “we’re not that different,” except one group will likely be in uniform, even in a war, before too many more years go by, and the other group likely won’t.
The visit was arranged by Stuart Katz, 49, who was born in Panama and raised in San Diego, before making aliyah two years ago, by way of North Woodmere, L.I.
In November, Katz flew to New York to help in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. “When I lived in the States, every time something happened in Israel, I’d go to Israel, to see what I could do to help. Now, ironically, the table’s turned, so when the hurricane hit New York I felt I should be back here, to do what I could.” He worked in the Sandy cleanup and with humanitarian assistance until the Gaza war, “when I cut short my stay, to return and be with my family.”
Katz promised his daughter, Dafna, he would take her back with him to the Sandy cleanup, and “I told a few of my friends,” said Katz, “and their kids wanted to come along, too.” Katz, who runs the Israel-based TAL Tours, took care of the arrangements, with the teens paying only for airfare, while being housed in private homes in Riverdale and North Woodmere. The teens helped with the cleanup in Long Beach, Far Rockaway, and in a soup kitchen in Bay Ridge, where they also helped prepare food for the needy.
“We met some people in Long Beach,” said Katz, “who were about to walk away from their homes and turn their keys in, very sad. There’s so much to be done.”
With Israel in the news because of war and Palestinian diplomatic gains, and with most American schoolchildren, particularly in public schools, not really knowing who and what Israelis are, Katz told his teens, “We couldn’t only volunteer [with Sandy] and ignore what was happening with Israel. But we’re not talking politics, because we’re not equipped to; we’re not in the government and we each have our feelings on whether the cease fire should or shouldn’t be.” Instead of making a presentation, the teens just shared pizza and Chanukah’s jelly donuts with the American kids and made mostly small talk. That was important enough, when “some kids here,” said Katz, “thought Israelis lived in tents.”
In the Rockaways and Long Beach, some who once lived in beautiful homes, were now living in accommodations little better than a tent. “We’ve been cleaning up backyards,” said Dafna Katz, “taking down walls, carrying people’s [ruined] belongings, chairs, photographs, from the back to the front of the house,” waiting for the garbage trucks. “It was really sad to see what comes out of peoples homes.”