Jerusalem, Israel - Nov. 27, 2023  - Near the end of summer, Matan Cohen left the Summit Chase neighborhood of Baltimore for an Israeli gap year program scheduled to start on August 30th. 

However, his learning and volunteering year in Israel plans changed drastically on October 7, 2023. As Operation Iron Swords broke out, he decided to stay in Israel and not leave like some others in his educational program. 

The Upper Galilee Leadership Academy, TUGLA, established in 1998, was initially in Kibbutz Ma'ayan Baruch located near the border fence with Lebanon. The Academy's stated aim is for its graduates to take on national tasks and challenges in the fields of security, society, and education. The current mechina was at Kibbutz Amir which was close to the Lebanon border and moved to Beit Zeira. Southern Israel was attacked by the deadly Hamas invasion, but the northern border has also been under fire from Hezbollah in Lebanon with residents having to move to safer locations. 

Matan making a funny face with his students

TUGLA programs usually consist of 300 participants, with 50 international young people coming from Jewish communities living abroad. One is the pre-military institute (Mechina) with the highest number of Jewish youth from abroad, compared to other Mechinot in Israel. The highly sought-after unique educational framework invites "youth, who have completed 12th grade, a rare opportunity to take a one-year "time-out" from the crazy race of life, with the aim of consolidating their personality, enhancing their abilities to be significant people to their environment and general self-improvement."

During normal times, Cohen would volunteer 1-2 days a week, but since the war started they have been volunteering 4-5 days a week.

The first place he volunteered was a kindergarten for children of doctors and other medical staff who were working overtime during the war. There were usually 45-60 kids, from ages 5-12. He would volunteer for 7 hours at a time. In general, though, he says they have 4 hours a day devoted to volunteering. 

Another place he worked as a volunteer was a banana farm. Many of the agricultural workers returned to their homes overseas when the war started, so the farmers in Israel needed help. The volunteers carry bundles of bananas on their shoulders from the trees to the tractor, each bundle weighing about 40-60 kg. "So it’s pretty difficult," Cohen added. 

He also helped at an avocado farm, clearing out all the fallen branches and organizing the area, and volunteered at a farm where every employee except for one left at the start of the war. There they covered rows of crops with a protective cover. Not only picking and selling the agricultural produce is important, but also preparing the fields for next season's plantings.

Matan laying the protective cover on a field

Not all the work is so physically demanding, they also help to pack clothes and food for families in need at Shachen Tov (Good Neighbor), a non-profit organization helping people in need since 1999. 

Not only Cohen is volunteering, but the 30 people who remained in his program, rotate between the volunteer placements. 

Also, the young people reached out and arranged a volunteering initiative themselves. At the start of the war, when the program was temporarily paused, Cohen started a  GoFundMe campaign with friends and raised about $14,000 which was divided and sent to Magen David Adam, United Hazallah, and Kibbutz Nir Oz.

While Cohen found it hard to say which volunteering was liked the best, "Working with the kids is crazy and a little stressful, but it is also very easy to find meaning in it because I can see the results of my volunteering right in front of me." 

The agriculture jobs were very physically challenging, but Cohen told BJL," which for me makes it more entertaining. Sometimes it’s hard to find meaning in picking bananas or moving around soil, but I know the farmers and the people who buy the fruits and vegetables need my help."

Packing clothes and/or food was the most boring, he added, but when "I finish the session and I see a massive pile of bags and boxes that will be sent to families in need, I feel amazing."

Half of the participants in the program are from Israel, the rest are from all over the world. From the US, he is the only one from Maryland, others are from New York, Florida, California, and North Carolina. Three participants are from England, 1 from Spain, 1 from Thailand, 1 from Germany, 3 from Canada, and 1 from the Netherlands.

Before the war, the program mainly consisted of educational lessons, workouts, volunteering, hikes, and leadership training. There was also a lot of focus on learning how to live together as a group, deal with differences, and work together to create a positive experience for everyone.

Now, they volunteer more but still maintain parts of the regular program. Most days they clean the facilities for an hour, volunteer for 4 hours, learn for 3-5 hours in the classroom, and spend the rest of their time on individual work, meals and just relaxing and having fun with each other.

"This is the first time in my life that I feel my actions and decisions have a meaningful impact on the world around me. The experiences I’ve had these past couple of months have given me new perspectives and values that will shape the rest of my life," stated Cohen summing up the experience.

The TUGLA website states their leading values include impacting responsibility and commitment, curiosity, education, and love of the people and the country. "A Zionist organization connected to the scenery and people of the Galilee, to Israeli society, to the heritage of the Jewish people, and to the pioneering story. At its center is an educational program for the formation of a Jewish-Israeli-Zionist identity."

I would like to conclude with a personal observation after communicating on WhatsApp with Matan Cohen for this interview. His father, Beth Tfiloh Hebrew teacher Zvi Cohen, and mother, Dr. Amy Freedman, should be extremely proud of their son's maturity and growth especially under these current difficult circumstances. 

Am Yisrael Chai!