A Florida father and his son packed up their bags and headed to Israel following the October 7 terrorist attacks to spread joy and offer humanitarian aid to those affected by the ongoing conflict.
When he first arrived at the airport in Israel, Joseph Waks was immediately escorted to a bomb shelter as missiles began flying nearby and sirens blared throughout the building.
“I’m from Miami and originally Australia. We’ve never had sirens before. For me, it was a shocking experience. And now, unfortunately, I became part of those that are used to it,” Waks said.
Speaking to Fox News Digital from the Golan Heights nearing the three-month anniversary of the October 7 attacks, Waks introduced his son, Mendel, who joined up with the Golani Brigade and is now the youngest reservist in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). When he is not completing his duties for the army, Mendel travels around Israel with his father to meet with those impacted by the war.
“We try to make sure that they know they’re not alone and that we have their back and that people have their backs. Not just Israelis, but the whole world and not just Jews around the world,” he said.
Following the October 7 attacks by Hamas, Waks and Mendel met up in New York City. They admitted they were shocked by antisemitic demonstrations happening throughout Manhattan.
“We thought that people were coming out to support Israel. We didn’t understand that there were people out there literally chanting ‘Death to Israel’ and ‘Death to the Jews.'”
The outcry against Israel was a turning point for the family. Despite the negative connotations of some protests, Waks and Mendel said it only served to bring Jews around the world together.
“There’s no such thing as left, right, religious, not religious. Everyone’s in this together because when you’re fighting for your very survival, it doesn’t matter your political beliefs,” Waks said. “That’s the way that the Jews took that, you know, that negativity, the evil, and they’ve switched that into the positivity and the unification.”
That unity extended back home to Florida. When Waks revealed he was traveling to Israel, his neighbor, Bill, brought him a box of pins that had the Israeli and American flags conjoined. With tears in his eyes, he told Waks, “Tell the Israelis that we support them, that we love them.”
Waks would later hand these pins out to kids around Israel, telling them, “This guy’s my next-door neighbor that’s not Jewish, and he wants to let you guys know that we support you in America.”
Waks and Mendel have also forged a closer bond during their time together in Israel.
“When people see my father, there’s an instant smile on their face,” Mendel said. “It looks like they just got $1 million, you know what I mean? They literally look the happiest I’ve ever seen.
He recalled seeing his father play with children across the country, bringing toys to the youth and handing out cigarettes to soldiers.
“They’re giving us more than we’re giving them every single time,” Mendel added. “I’m happier on those days than when I’m doing almost anything else. That’s one of the most rewarding experiences you can have. And it brings you closer to your father. I look at him with a completely new light.”
After the war began, Waks and Mendel rented a car, went down to the border and started meeting people one after another. One of these people was Ori, a little boy whose father and brother were both killed on that fateful day in October. They met in the middle of the city street and were quickly invited to the boy’s home.
Waks and Mendel soon learned that he has two brothers in the army serving now. On October 7, Ori’s oldest brother and father heard gunshots. They grabbed pistols from the car, helped open a bomb shelter and ran off to save others in the town. They were later killed by rockets.
Waks and Mendel have grown close with Ori and many others in the country.
“There’s not a single home in Israel that doesn’t know somebody that was killed, that was a hostage, or that was injured. Every single person is involved,” Waks told Fox News Digital.
The family has gotten used to putting on a poker face amid the tragedy. While the gift of new relationships is invaluable, the trauma impacting Israelis is not lost on Waks and Mendel.
“We have to be the strong ones because we’re the ones that are supporting them. So, we never go down. We’re always the strong people that come into the homes with the positive energy, the excitement, letting them know how much we love them,” Waks added. “And then, sometimes at home, we break down.”
During the first two weeks in Israel, Mendel and Waks stuffed their car full of toys, essentials, and food. They went down south, went to malls and started giving out everything they could. At 12:30, they would come home exhausted and repeat the process the following morning.
Whenever Mendel gets time off from the army, he and Waks again pack up their car and try to help the people of Israel. Through donations, they have also helped raise millions of dollars for those suffering.
Throughout their journey, the father and son are often reminded of a quote from Rabbi Hillel as they become part of the larger story, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”
Families that meet Waks and Mendel frequently ask them the same question, “Why did you come here?”
Their answer is simple: “I come to Israel during times of peace; I’ve got to come here during times of sorrow.”