From the JCC to Israel: Heeding the Call to Help

November 14, 2023

Howie Cohen, a member of the Stoler Early Learning Center and J Camps nursing team since 2017, recently returned from spending three weeks in Israel as part of the Emergency Volunteer Project (EVP). He shared a bit about his personal journey and recent experiences.

  1. Besides your current job, what is your history with the JCC of Greater Baltimore?
    I grew up at the Park Heights JCC, spending many hours in the gym and on the swim team with my sister. My siblings and I also spent many summers at Camp Milldale.
  1. When you are not working at the JCC, what do you do?
    I am a retired Fire Fighter/ Paramedic from The Anne Arundel County Fire Department and have been a member of the Pikesville Volunteer Fire Company for over 30 years. I have been with the Washington Capitals as the team medic since 2015, as well as working with the ELC and J Camps since 2017. On my time off, my wife and I have a large vegetable garden and 2 dogs to take care of. I golf and still ride the fire truck at the Pikesville firehouse. 
  1. What made you decide to travel to Israel to help?
    Why I traveled to Israel is a complicated question. I spent a year on a kibbutz as a teenager working as a volunteer. My wife, Martha, and I also hosted 15 Shlichim over the summers for J Camps at our home. These Israeli girls spent countless hours with us forming strong bonds. We have followed them through their college years, and some have gotten married and have kids of their own now. I have always felt a strong personal connection and bond with Israel and the people who live there. Additionally, anyone who knows a fire fighter knows there is a brotherhood that connects us all. We come to each other’s needs when called.
  1. Describe your experiences in Israel.
    When the attack happened, I knew I would go to help. I went equally as a Jew and a first responder. I belong to the Emergency Volunteer Project, A nonprofit that supports Israel in times of need, with food, medical and fire fighter support. I was able to go in 2016 to help with the devastating brush fires along with hundreds of others.

    This time I was back 5 days after the attack. I spent a week in a Jerusalem fire station and two weeks with an IDF medical Corp unit. This was a wonderful experience under difficult circumstances. The overwhelming gratitude shown to all those who flew over was amazing. The call to help came from all walks of life and backgrounds. Everywhere I went the people greeted us with questions of why you are here and how happy they were to know they weren’t alone in the world. 

    I spent most of the time the first week in a fire house filling in for a firefighter who was called up to reserve IDF duty. Close by was a school where evacuees form the south were living. We took a fire engine to have a show and tell for the kids and were able to bring some fun to an otherwise scary situation for them. 

    I then joined doctors, nurses, and other Paramedics in training on a military base for our role in forward evacuation units in the IDF. This was the first time in IDF history civilians have been embedded in the IDF to help in their medical teams. I was then moved near the Lebanon border with three other volunteer doctors to join a unit of thirty IDF reservist to staff five ambulances. We were housed at a Kibbutz where the residents had been evacuated south and we lived in the school buildings. Sleeping on the floors of the preschool around all the toys and learning was surreal. We read messages on the white boards and played games that had been left, imagining as if the kids were just outside playing. Our two weeks was spent training, helping injured solders, eating, and sleeping in the classrooms together.

    Despite the horrific tragedies occurring around us, it was truly a beautiful place. The Jordan River flowed through it, the fields were full of fruit, but just over the hills 5k away was Lebanon. When it was time for us to leave, we all wrote a note to the kids on the white boards thanking them for letting us feel safe in their classrooms.

    The IDF medical unit is still there. After nearly a month it was time for me to return home. The two days before I left, I was able to visit with many of the girls who stayed with us during J camp summers. A much different emotional finish from the first three weeks, made this visit to Israel a roller coaster experience. 

    I will certainly return when my turn comes up again. I have learned as a volunteer in different organizations that when you help others, you get back 10-fold back as to what you give.

Sign up for our newsletter