Charley Smith, MN-Israeli, Talks Grassroots Israeli Aid Efforts

On Saturday, Oct. 7, Charley Smith, a former Jewish professional from Minnesota now living in Israel, thought he was waking up to a normal morning in his Kfar Saba home.

His 2-year-old son usually wakes up between 5 and 7 a.m., after which Smith tries to get him back to sleep while his wife sleeps with their youngest child, a newborn just a few months old.

This time, Smith was woken up by sirens. Hamas, the Iran-backed terrorist organization that controls Gaza, was firing rockets at Israel again – a usual happening that many Israelis were accustomed to.

“I go to my wife and I go, ‘What do you think…should we go to the shelter?” Smith said. “She’s like, ‘ah, it’s probably nothing.’ And so you know, we go back to sleep.”

Later, they woke up to the reality that this was not just another typical rocket attack. Hamas terrorists had invaded Israeli communities around Gaza, going home to home to brutally murder over 1,300 people and taking at least 200 hostages back to Gaza.

Desperate Israelis called into the news, some of them while hiding from Hamas, others asking for information about missing family and friends. Videos, photos, and messages circulated on messaging apps WhatsApp and Telegram of Hamas militants, including of them massacring people at an Israeli music festival.

“We continued to see the horrors of what was happening and kind of understand the gravity of the situation,” Smith said. “We had friends and friends of friends who were at that nature party, the music festival, so it was one of those things.”

Before Smith moved to Israel, he felt helpless every time something happened in Israel. But now, even with the strain and pressure of watching his nation under attack, Smith knew he could offer aid.

In a group chat with other Minnesota Jewish professionals – alum of the now-defunct 248 Community Action Network, a Minneapolis Jewish Federation-sponsored program – Smith replied to others looking to help.

“I said, ‘If you guys want to send me some money, there’s people buying aid on the ground here, and I will just take that money – because it’s hard for Americans getting money directly into the hands of Israelis,” he said.

“But I have American bank accounts, I have Israeli bank accounts, I said, ‘I’ll figure it out. So just send me the money, and I’ll figure it out.’”

A week later, Smith had raised over $6,000 and given it across Israel. The money has gone to everything from purchasing rescue equipment for Rehovot, Minneapolis’ sister city, to ordering masses of pizza for Israeli soldiers guarding the northern border.

Smith is part of a grassroots civil society aid effort in Israel that erupted after the Hamas attack, offering support for survivors, evacuees from Israel’s south, and Israelis suddenly called up to reserve army duty. It’s times like these that you see the best and the worst of humanity, Smith said.

He mentioned a story of one Israeli whose apartment mate was taken hostage by Hamas – and her landlord allegedly harassing her to make up the rent of the hostage.

“That’s a despicable thing to hear at this time,” Smith said. “But on the flip side, you hear the other thing, where [Israelis] are opening up their homes to people from all over the south.”

All sorts of issues require attention from Israeli aid groups – like what to do with all pets and animals displaced by the Hamas attack.

“Where are they going to go and who’s going to take care of them?” Smith said. “And again, seeing all the people rise up and help with that is a very beautiful thing.”

But he made clear that, while the aid efforts were a symbol of Israelis’ resilience in difficult times, “candidly, it’s just shitty that we have to, that’s the frustrating thing.”

In a way, Israelis have no choice but to come together. In such a small country, everyone is connected somehow to the Hamas attack. Everyone knows someone who was killed, or taken hostage, or who survived the attack, or who is in the army reserves now waiting to strike back at Hamas.

The aid effort is difficult to maintain amid such loss and pain, and as everyone waits for what comes next.

It’s a heavy “pressure that exists on a day to day basis…while your country is under siege, and you’re about to engage in a military operation that’s likely going to lead to the death of many innocents, and also many of our own soldiers who are our friends, brothers, sisters,” Smith said.

Managing that is particularly difficult for parents, including those single parenting while their spouse goes to the reserves. Smith’s children are too young to truly understand what’s going on, and there’s no usual childcare available.

“The hardest part is trying to be a good parent and trying to maintain the patience and the understanding that they don’t understand,” he said.

But Smith’s connection with Minnesota is a bright spot. He said he’s received many messages of support from friends, family, and a wider circle of people he went to high school with.

“Seeing the amount of support that we’re having just from the general community in Minnesota is incredibly heartening, and it means the world,” he said.

And to Minnesota Jews who feel, as Smith once did, like they aren’t doing enough to help Israel, he has a message:

“I need to tell you that you are [doing enough to help] – and I need to tell you that you are heard and you are seen and that as somebody living here, it means the world to me to know that we have that kind of support,” he said.

To donate to help Israel, Smith points people to the Minnesota fundraiser for United Hatzalah, a medical and first responder organization in Israel.