By Liel Katz

Shelley Barkan has always been strong-willed. Born in South Africa, she was just 12 years old when she told her parents she would be leaving them to go live in Israel. And she was true to her word. As soon as she finished University in 1984 she made aliyah in a Habonim garin of twenty people, starting their journey at Kibbutz Hanita, a settlement in the North of Israel on the border with Lebanon. 

Hanita was a fitting start for this woman with the heart of a pioneer – one of 52 settlements set up overnight under Operation Tower and Stockade in 1938, it was erected in defiance of British Mandate restrictions on the building of new Jewish settlements in then Palestine. It was in this immutable settlement that she met her husband and began her life in Israel. 

Shelley has lived in the North in the thirty years since, eventually settling in Shlomi, a town just kilometres away from her first home in Hanita. There she has been kept very busy – as a mother of two, high-school teacher, and caterer, she is the embodiment of the matriarchal spirit, caring for, growing, educating, feeding, and nurturing her family and community. And when Israel was attacked on October 7th, Shelley was ready to extend her support to the soldiers in the North. 

In the aftermath of the massacre on that Black Shabbat, the Northern border communities found themselves in the crosshairs of relentless assaults orchestrated by Hezbollah and Palestinian factions operating from Lebanon. Sirens rang out several times a day, and residents were repeatedly forced into shelters by ongoing attacks. 

Between the rocket fire and frequent escapes to the bomb shelter, Shelley was busy cooking for the soldiers – 600 requests for meals came in the first week of the war alone. 

But it soon became clear that this escalation in the North – aimed at distracting Israel from its ground invasion of Gaza and psychologically unsettling the population – was not going to end any time soon. On October 16th, in the shadow of this ongoing provocation by Hezbollah, the government ordered the evacuation of 28 border communities in the North. Shlomi was among them. 

Shelley looked on as her neighbours and friends left their homes and community until only 200-300 of the 7000 residents of Shlomi remained. As hundreds of thousands of Northern residents made their way toward safety they were being replaced by IDF forces ready to prevent infiltrations and deal with the threat from Lebanon. Watching these soldiers readying themselves to defend and fight for Israel, Shelley knew that some people would have to stay to feed and support them. She was determined to be one of those people.

So instead of moving to safety, Shelly remained in her home. Nobody could stand between her and her duty – not even Hezbollah.  

With the help of the mayor of Shlomi, she commandeered a catering kitchen left empty in the wake of the evacuations and began rallying a civilian army of volunteers and supporters, including her sister in Los Angeles who raises much-needed funds for the kitchen. As the demand for meals grew she partnered with Birkat Margarit, a non-profit organisation founded by ex-Knesset member Yitzhak Vaknin that feeds families and scholars in need. Yitzhak lives in nearby Ya’ara, and with his daughter Leora, they help Shelley with the supply of food, fundraising, and finding volunteers to cook and deliver. 

The kitchen is staffed entirely by brave volunteers who risk their lives travelling into the evacuated Shlomi, where they cook between 2500 and 3000 meals for soldiers every week. Shelley runs a well-organised operation – the Rasap (logistics manager) for each unit fills in an Excel spreadsheet every Tuesday, detailing their requests for that week, including the number of vegetarian meals needed. The kitchen then prepares the meals ready for collection on Friday morning. 

For many of our soldiers, this will be the only hot meal they have all week. “It is the only little bit of home they have,” says Shelley, and it is clear that her mission is not simply to supply them with food. She wants to bring the embrace of home a little closer to our children, who are serving their country far from their families, from their mothers’ kitchens. Shelley stayed behind so that a little bit of home could stay with our troops, and in doing so she has become a true beacon of warmth and light in the darkest of hours.