Born into a family with deep roots in Minneapolis, Jeff Burstein’s time is divided between two things: managing Brothers Deli, the restaurant he’s owned for the last 22 years, and spending time with his grandchildren. However, his strong ties to Israel, dating back to his time on a kibbutz in the 1970s, recently called him to action.
Burstein, a lifelong Minneapolis resident, recently returned from a four-day volunteer mission trip to Israel, sponsored by the Jewish National Fund, which is leading monthly volunteer opportunities through August 2024.
“I didn’t just want to stay home and read about it,” Burstein said about his motivation to go. Powered by a blend of familial ties, friendship, and a deep-seated love for Israel, Burstein sought to do more than offer financial support. He wanted to be physically present, and this desire led him to contact various organizations, eventually connecting with the JNF.
Despite initial challenges in getting responses, Burstein’s persistence paid off. The JNF returned his call, offering him dates for a volunteering mission. On Dec. 23, he flew to Israel to join 70 other volunteers.
Over the next four days, the mission’s itinerary was packed, starting with lemon picking at a kibbutz to replace workers who were called up for their reserve duty.
The lemon picking was a call-back to his kibbutznik past; Burstein humorously noted the difficulty compared to his past experience picking pears at Kibbutz Ruchama in 1970 that “[lemons] are harder to pick than pears.” The work was well worth it, however, as the group’s efforts contributed to a harvest of 36 tons of lemons, preventing a devastating loss for the farm. “If those lemons weren’t picked, it would have all been wasted.”
The group then visited Kibbutz Revivim, which Burstein said is acting as a temporary burial site for some of those lost during the attack on October 7. They honored the victims with Jewish traditions, reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish and placing stones on graves.
Much of the trip involved preparing and packing various practical items for soldiers and displaced Israelis. The volunteers spent hours packing care packages with items like sweets, soap, and notes for soldiers in the Negev. Burstein and his group also visited a military base where they packed over 400 cases of clothing.
In a Druze village, Burstein’s culinary skills were put to use as he, along with three others from the group, cooked 400 hamburgers for frontline soldiers. While there, the volunteers had the opportunity to connect with the operators of the restaurant – a local woman and her son. Burstein acknowledged that the financial hardships faced by the owner were reminiscent of the struggle he faced as a business owner.
“Some of us gave money to the woman who owned the restaurant because we know what it was like going through COVID as a restaurant owner,” he said.
Along with providing practical support during his time in Israel, Burstein shared that one of the most impactful parts of the mission was witnessing the gratitude of Israelis. He recounted the emotional reactions of locals, including a shopkeeper who tearfully expressed her fear that the world had forgotten them.
“They cried.” The soldiers cried. The lady in the shop cried … they had felt abandoned,” Burstein said. “They said, ‘Oh my god, they didn’t forget about us.’ That’s what they said. ‘You didn’t forget … we’re not alone.’”
The theme of solidarity continued as the volunteer group visited Schneiderman Children’s Hospital, where they learned about the trauma endured by children and their ongoing daily struggles. Burstein also recounted a particularly poignant visit to a hotel, which he reported was providing temporary shelter to residents of a nearby village. Burstein described how the villagers, especially the children, had adapted to their temporary environment.
The hotel had established small nursery schools and play areas to offer some semblance of normalcy for the kids. While there, Burstein was able to put his skills as a grandfather to use.
“There were a lot of kids there and I like kids,” he said. “I started playing with them and teaching them.”
Reflecting on his interactions with residents from various parts of Israel, Burstein said this is the story of a country uniting.
“It’s a country where people live for each other,” he said.
Burstein hopes his story will inspire others to volunteer. He himself has plans to return to Israel in June with the JNF.
”If there was ever a time to volunteer, it’s now,” he said. “Go for it. Don’t be afraid, because when you come home, you’re gonna be a better person for it. We really are all one.”