EL AL FLIGHT 26—Dr. Dov Frankel settled into a seat on this overnight flight headed to Israel’s Ben Gurion International Airport from Newark, N.J. He had driven in from Baltimore, where the emergency-room physician had just worked his 12th straight shift to clear his schedule for the next two weeks.
With a last-minute ticket in hand, Frankel was on his way to volunteer at Barzilai Medical Center, a hospital in Ashkelon, Israel, treating people injured following the Oct. 7 attack on Israel by Hamas, a U. S-designated terrorist organization.
“I think my entire life was created for this moment,” said Frankel, 50, who arrived for the recent flight with barely enough time to get through the Israel national carrier El Al’s extensive check-in security process at Newark Liberty International Airport. He first made a pit-stop in Passaic, N.J., to give a blessing and say goodbye to his daughters and grandchildren who live there.
The war has prompted advisories from the State Department, warning people not to travel to Gaza, and to reconsider traveling to Israel and the West Bank “due to terrorism and civil unrest.” But many are still choosing to go, including everyday residents returning home despite the risk, students engaged in religious study and reservists called up by the Israel Defense Forces.
Some of the people shuttling to Israel are backfilling jobs left vacant by Israelis who have joined the war effort. Glenn Grossman, who owns a computer-networking business, recently returned home to Florida after working on a farm in the Negev Desert. A nonprofit arranged for him to volunteer there for a few weeks—picking olives and grapes—after some of the regular farm hands were called to fight.
“You feel that you’re filling a void,” said Grossman, 69.
Frankel and Dr. Barry Hahn, another emergency-room physician on Flight 26, made the journey as part of the Emergency Volunteers Project, a disaster-relief organization that coordinates with the Israel Defense Forces and Israeli fire service to provide volunteer emergency responders in times of crisis.
The organization has flown dozens of volunteers to Israel since Oct. 7, and has many others from its roster of medical personnel and firefighters on standby. A volunteer group of 20 firefighters pulled from across the U.S. left for Israel just days after Frankel and Hahn.
The effort it takes to coordinate the volunteers’ travel has had Scott Goldstein, a director with the Emergency Volunteers Project, working extended hours.
He and his team use a color-coded database to identify doctors and firefighters who have passed vetting and have the skills being requested, such as experience working in an operating room or handling hazardous materials.
One of the most important things Goldstein says he tries to assess during vetting is whether potential volunteers have political or religious beliefs they can’t set aside. Those people don’t make the cut.
“Religion has nothing to do with this program,” he said. “You’ve got to be able to treat everybody.”
Once they have a selection, they start calling people and figuring out how quickly they can coordinate with their bosses, colleagues and families to free themselves up for a two-week span in Israel.
Goldstein said Emergency Volunteers Project participants often have little notice of when they will deploy, for two reasons: because of the uncertainty that comes with flying into a war zone where the airport might close at any moment, and because the needs on the ground are constantly shifting, meaning certain types of volunteers might suddenly take priority.
Among those still awaiting their chance is Ophir Kretzer-Katzir, a tech executive who is a volunteer firefighter with the fire department in Tenafly, N.J. Kretzer-Katzir said he has his go-bag at the ready and is prepared to fly the moment the Emergency Volunteers Project tells him to go. His wife, Anat Katzir, meanwhile, is preparing for a separate monthlong volunteer stint in Israel to teach and work on farms in villages affected by the conflict.
Frankel and Hahn got their flight details from the Emergency Volunteers Project the day before they departed for their two-week stint at Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon, about 35 miles south of Tel Aviv and roughly 10 miles from Gaza, now the center of the conflict. Hospitals within Gaza City have been overwhelmed with injured patients and people seeking shelter even as the facilities run short on space and supplies.
Also on the flight was Dr. Anne Montal, a surgical resident at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, N.Y. She also headed for Barzilai, but as a volunteer with the Jewish Orthodox Women’s Medical Association. The 36-year-old said the nerves she felt getting on the plane settled the minute she sat in her seat.
“I don’t feel as helpless now that I’m going to do something,” she said.
While most passengers tried to sleep on the overnight flight, many made sure to awaken for Jewish religious prayer and observance times, which were listed on the in-flight tracker.
Frankel was among a group of men who stood in the rear kitchen galley for their morning prayers, which involved donning head coverings and prayer shawls and strapping small leather boxes to their foreheads and arms.
As the men prepared, flight attendant Shlomit Marciano approached with a request to which they assented.
“My friend is kidnapped in Gaza,” she said. “Maybe you can pray for her? Her name is Noa.”
Not long after, Hahn, a 51-year-old doctor at Staten Island University Hospital in New York, stood in one of the plane’s galleys recounting how he had been visiting two of his adult children who live in Israel when rockets began exploding on Oct. 7. Recalling the moment when he left those children to return to the U.S., Hahn started to choke up.
“I just needed to go back,” he said. “I’m an American but these are my people. These are my brothers and sisters, my cousins. My daughter and my son.”
At Ben Gurion Airport a few hours later, Hahn reunited with his 21-year-old daughter, Mia Hahn, who rushed to embrace him just outside the baggage claim area. Not long after, he and Frankel were in a car headed for their lodgings.
When they arrived at Barzilai the next day, the doctors said they were handed badges, given a tour and thrown so quickly into treating patients they didn’t initially have time to change out of their civilian clothes. Hahn said shrapnel wounds were prevalent throughout their volunteer stint.
“Our job was to take care of the wounded soldiers and Palestinians,” Frankel said, adding that Palestinian patients from Gaza often arrived with fear on their faces. He said he tried to put them at ease by speaking the few Arabic phrases he knows, like “Hello, how are you?” and “Where is it hurting?”
Outside, the sounds of war resounded—a constant boom, boom, boom as Israeli forces advanced into Gaza or rockets were fired back toward Israel.
Despite the long hours and the tension of working so close to the front line, Frankel and Hahn said they would return to Barzilai if needed.
“I’ve never been more fulfilled in my life, professionally, medically, ever,” Frankel said.
Write to Erin Ailworth at [email protected]News Related