Monday, September 8, 2014

Letters and Packages, of Tanks and Thanks

...We rarely see the end result of an act of kindness, but can rest assured that every such deed, large or small, changes lives and propels the world forward.

Rena Bierig..
Israel Hayom..
08 September '14..

I stood outside Beit Gesher in Jerusalem waiting to meet a total stranger. The funny thing about Israel is that even though he was a stranger, I felt as if was about to meet a long-lost cousin. I noticed a man walking towards me.

Rena?" he asked. I smiled. "Aner?" I knew it was him right away.

Our meeting was the result of the true power of hessed (acts of kindness) and the importance of gratitude.

It began in July, when the teenage participants of GIVE (Girls Israel Volunteer Experience), a five-week hessed-focused summer program organized by the Orthodox Union's NCSY youth organization, arrived in Israel to a drastically revised itinerary. As an adviser on the program, it was my job to explain to the girls how our summer together would unfold.

As Operation Protective Edge rolled on, we retained most of the programming but changed locations to ensure our safety. We also tacked on several activities to assist with the "war effort," projects intended to buoy the spirits of soldiers serving on the front lines in Gaza and families in the direct line of fire.

At one point, we were based in the beautiful city of Safed. As the day began, our head counselor informed us that we would be spending the afternoon assembling care packages to be sent to soldiers on the Gaza border. The girls were very excited by this task and packed the bags quickly. But they slowed down considerably when it came time to draft letters of thanks to accompany the packages.

Though the activity was intended for the girls, I felt compelled to write a letter of my own.

Over the last year, I completed my national service, and I hope to make aliyah in October. I felt a need to connect with the brave young men and women who were keeping us safe, many of them not much older than me. I felt a need to give of myself and contribute to the national effort to protect and secure our land.

And so, I wrote a letter, mostly in Hebrew with a little English at the bottom. I signed my letter with the Hebrew phrase "ad matai," which translates as "until when" but is used in the Israel Defense Forces to connote that one's service is never truly done. I also included my name and cell phone number.

We sent the packages off in a truck headed for the Gaza border, hoping that our notes would put smiles on the faces of the soldiers who received them. We never could have imagined what would happen next.

Almost two weeks later, I received a phone call from a number I didn't recognize. The caller introduced himself as Aner, a soldier stationed in Gaza. He explained that had received my note, and he was calling to thank me for the care package and my words of inspiration.

As we talked, Aner told me how much he enjoyed the snacks, and how he stowed them in his tank. Our small package had made a huge difference in his service. But he was most grateful for my letter, which gave him strength on a daily basis.

I was stunned by how much the letter meant to him, and beside myself when he suggested that we meet after he was released from duty so that he could thank me properly. I told Aner that I would be happy to meet him, but only so that I could thank him for risking his life to protect mine.

I also mentioned that I was an adviser on a summer program for a group of teenagers from America who would not have been able to tour the country without Aner's protection. Our conversation reached its natural conclusion, and we said goodbye.

Some time later, I received a text message from Aner's number. He was relaying a "thank you" from his wife. At that point, it dawned on me that an important teaching opportunity laid in front of me. I wrote back that it was our last night on GIVE and asked if he could come speak with the girls about his army experience and how their packages had made a difference.

After checking with his wife, he agreed to come to speak with us for a few minutes. And that brings us back to Beit Gesher and my first face-to-face encounter with Aner.

As we entered the building, Aner took out his phone to show me a picture. I assumed it would be a cute snapshot of his new daughter or an inspiring photo of his unit outside their tank. Instead, it was a picture of my letter on the bright yellow construction paper taped to the inside of his tank. It was hard to believe that something that took me less than three minutes to scribble was a cherished keepsake.

We talked briefly about how my father had also served in the IDF's tank division and my aliyah plans before discussing our presentation game plan. I told him that I would briefly lay out the background of the story and then signal for him to take over.

In the end, everything went off without a hitch, and the girls responded just as I had hoped. All 73 of them stared with rapt attention throughout the two-part, off-the-cuff presentation. And all 73 of them gave my new friend Aner and me a standing ovation when were done.

For five weeks, the GIVE staff tried to explain to the girls the importance of a simple act of kindness, and we involved them in several different hessed projects to drive the point home. But nothing compared to meeting Aner. He was living, breathing proof that an act of kindness can make a serious impact on the recipient, his family, and the entire nation.

My hope is that this episode inspires the GIVE girls -- and everyone else who hears this story -- to embrace their roles as doers. We rarely see the end result of an act of kindness, but can rest assured that every such deed, large or small, changes lives and propels the world forward.


Rena Bierig, of New York, served as an adviser for NCSY's GIVE program.

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