On the day Hamas terrorists from Gaza poured across Israel’s border, slaughtering and wounding thousands of men, women, children, and babies, Dr. Roneet Lev wanted to jump on a plane to Israel immediately. As an emergency physician in San Diego for more than 30 years, she desperately wanted to rush to Israel to help save lives.
She was dismayed when her Israeli colleagues told her not to come yet. The Ministry of Health had to vet medical professionals before allowing them to serve with the Israeli Defense Forces. So, for two weeks Roneet was “not sleeping, extremely anxious,” while she contacted every organization she could think of that might help get her to Israel as a volunteer doctor.
While waiting, Roneet was told by an emergency physician in Israel of an urgent need by the IDF for video laryngoscopes. With Roneet’s support, Dr. Kristen Donovan, Executive Director of the nonprofit Center of Community Research, set up an Israel Relief Fund to assist Israel with this need. The fund raised the money to buy dozens of laryngoscopes, which Roneet managed to put on an El Al flight in time to be of valuable use when IDF troops first entered Gaza. Roneet calls Dr. Donovan a “righteous gentile,” one of many she met who were as committed to volunteering and helping Israel as were Jews around the world.
Over 11,000 medical professionals from 40 countries around the world signed up alongside Roneet on the Ministry of Health website to volunteer their services in Israel. Half of the volunteers were from the United States. The influx of hundreds of thousands of volunteers swelled Israel’s population by three percent during the early weeks of the war. This overwhelming response from countries around the world was in a sense reciprocal, as Israel is often first on the scene with medical assistance and field hospitals to help other countries struck by disasters.
It was Israel’s Emergency Volunteer Project (EVP) that finally arranged to get Roneet to Israel. The EVP is a disaster relief and rescue organization authorized by the government and the IDF to place “life-saving personnel from the diaspora into the thick of the action whenever and wherever Israel needs it most,” according to its website.
The EVP gave Roneet less than 24 hours to get on its dedicated El Al flight to Israel. Roneet’s friends, Karen Aaron at Congregation Adat Yeshurun and Debra Trestman at Chabad of North County Inland, quickly activated their networks and assembled two large duffle bags of supplies for Roneet to bring to Israeli soldiers. Roneet’s colleagues at Scripps Mercy Hospital graciously agreed to fill in her shifts while she was gone.
Upon her arrival, Roneet was given three days of training in Israeli medications, equipment, and medical protocols, including a training course in protocols of Military Trauma Life Support. Then Roneet was deployed to an IDF base near Gaza. There she trained troops in medical rescue and care in actual battle scenarios, such as rescuing injured soldiers from tanks, armored personnel carriers, and helicopters. The troops Roneet trained were not just doctors and medics, but ordinary soldiers who might have to provide emergency medical care during battle.
After her stint near Gaza, Roneet was sent north to Haifa. There she served as the only doctor for a Search & Rescue team of the Israeli Homeland Command. Their mission, in anticipation of Hezbollah rocket attacks that might cause buildings to collapse and trap people, was to protect and rescue the civilian population. Roneet organized the medical bags and practiced rescue interventions with the medics. The team participated in a joint mass-casualty simulation with Magen David Adom, Israel’s medical-relief organization. Roneet’s three years of experience with Life Flight in San Diego served her well in this mission, for which each minute could be critical.
Roneet was astonished and grateful for how supportive the community was to her and the soldiers in her Search & Rescue team. Families took turns cooking meals for the troops, neighbors offered to do laundry, and children gave soldiers artwork and hugs. Likewise, the soldiers who worked with Roneet were deeply touched to know that a doctor had come all the way from San Diego to support Israel. One soldier said to her, “Every base needs a Roneet.”
Roneet, in turn, was inspired by her team of reserve soldiers. Engineers, students, a veterinarian, a personal trainer, a computer programmer – they had left their homes, families, and jobs to sleep on mattresses in a school gym for the duration. To Roneet, her team was emblematic of the diversity and unity of the people of Israel.
Roneet was profoundly committed to her mission because her ties to Israel run deep. She was born in Israel to parents who had been expelled from Baghdad in the 1950’s after their ancestors had lived there for thousands of years. Her parents were longtime residents of Poway before returning to Israel to live. Roneet’s sister also lives in Israel with her family.
With these strong ties to Israel, her service with the IDF was not enough for Roneet. She returned to Israel in January to volunteer as an emergency physician with Magen David Adom. Roneet was dispatched from different MDA stations each day in the familiar yellow ambulances to treat civilians having medical emergencies. With medical services stretched thin all throughout Israel, her work for the civilian MDA was just as vitally important for saving lives as her work for the IDF.
Just before Roneet returned to the US from her tour of duty with Magen David Adom, she made an emotionally intense visit to Kibbutz Kfar Aza in the Sha’ar HaNegev region. The sister city of San Diego in Israel, Sha’ar HaNegev is practically on the Gaza border and is one of the communities hardest hit during Hamas’s massacre.
Twenty years ago, Roneet’s family had donated a medical clinic to Kibbutz Kfar Aza. At the time, this clinic had the only safe room for the entire kibbutz. On October 7, the first line of defenders of the kibbutz were prevented by the terrorists from reaching their weapons cache and were all murdered. During the 10-hour battle that followed, the terrorists tried repeatedly to break into the safe room of the clinic and failed each time. The safe room in the clinic that Roneet’s family had donated 20 years ago saved many lives that day. Many more lives were saved when the clinic was used after the battle to treat the wounded and injured.
Roneet feels that she is a different person now than she was on October 7th. Gone are the anxious days and sleepless nights, fretting over the fate of Israel and the Jewish people.
What made the difference for her was the palpable feeling of solidarity at every corner, with Israeli flags and signs reading “Together we will win” and “We have no other home.” Roneet was fortified by witnessing the tremendous resolve and the unity of the Jewish people in Israel and those coming from all around the world.
What conclusion did she draw from her experience serving Israel, a country at war with its terrorist enemies?
“Right wing, left wing, Netanyahu lovers and haters, religious and atheists, Sephardi and Ashkenazi, from Ethiopia or Russia – the Israeli people are steadfast in protecting their homeland. The survival of Israel and the Jewish people is assured. The people of Israel live. Am Yisrael Chai.”