| Magazine Feature |

Shining a Light into the Darkness    

At a time when Israel needs public relations ambassadors more than ever, several volunteers have stepped up

When the war broke out in Israel on Simchas Torah, Klal Yisrael responded  immediately, from all corners of the world. Even as IDF reservists answered the call, there were still countless others who wanted to do their part, using whatever resources they had at their disposal.
Fundraising operations were set up, and donations of money and goods began pouring in, in record numbers. There were groups doing everything from housing and feeding displaced families to tying tzitzis for soldiers who had never donned them before. Others dug deep into themselves and found ways to use their innate abilities to showcase Israel’s best qualities for a world quick to condemn.
Meet three people who aren’t part of Israel’s official hasbarah team, but are making a significant difference in the broader war effort, one speech, one word, and one picture at a time.


Alex Schwartz

A Call to Arms 

IS it any wonder that Alex Schwartz felt the need to contribute something really significant when he learned about the October 7 terror attacks?

Turning on his phone after Simchas Torah ended, Schwartz was horrified to see videos of Hamas terrorists pulling ambushed soldiers out of an Israeli tank and killing them. The 27-year-old Israel Defense Forces reservist’s world further imploded as he zoomed in on the side of the tank in the footage. He saw markings that identified it as belonging to Platoon V, 77th Battalion, 7th Armored Brigade — his former unit. Schwartz was left with the terrifying knowledge that the murdered soldiers were his close friends.

“That was my platoon, my community,” says Schwartz, who now lives in Parkland, Florida. “On the first day of the war, about 30 out of 80 soldiers in our battalion were either killed, abducted, or wounded.”

Like so many other reservists, Schwartz was ready to head for the front lines as soon as the war broke out. But it quickly became clear that he would be staying in the United States, at least for the time being.

“In the Armored Corps, there are only four soldiers in a tank — you can’t just add another rifle,” explains Schwartz. “They told me to just sit tight, and if they needed me, they would call me. I knew there was no way I could just sit on my hands here, with everything that was happening.”

While Schwartz was born and bred in Los Angeles, his love for Israel runs deep. Like so many other high school graduates, he went to Israel for a gap year of studies, but ended up staying for five, enlisting in the IDF and spending two years with a historic unit that has fought in all of Israel’s wars. Serving primarily on the border with Syria during its civil war, Schwartz was part of a team that brought civilians with shrapnel wounds into Israel for treatment under the cover of darkness. Most of them were children under 15.

Schwartz was ready to make aliyah after being discharged from the IDF. He was taking classes at a technical college when Covid completely disrupted his studies, leaving him quarantined in his dorm. With no other choice, he flew back to L.A. and continued his education online. He supplemented his studies with a hands-on marketing project that opened his mother’s professional pastry chef business up to new opportunities, with a direct-to-consumer brand called Cookie Chips.

“I wanted to build something for the Covid age, that people could do from home,” explains Schwartz. “It was a baking mix that was something a professional pastry chef would use, using ten internationally sourced artisan ingredients, packaged for the modern home baker.”

Schwartz had no idea that just a few years down the road he would be called upon to use that same branding expertise to aid the IDF. After graduating from college with a custom-tailored business degree with a concentration in computer science, he started an MBA at the University of Florida’s Warrington College of Business, while also diving into a two-year Chabad semichah track. Schwartz was planning on making aliyah in April 2024 after completing his MBA, and he filled his spare time volunteering as an active participant in Jewish Parkland, a mostly secular neighborhood that he describes as “a real classic kiruv community.”

In addition to serving as the shul’s gabbai and authoring its newsletter, Schwartz has been assisting Rabbi Mendy Gutnik at Chabad of West Parkland. Many people there lost children in the 2018 mass shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School.

“Being the assistant rabbi has been my life for the past two years, with a singular focus on school and semichah,” says Schwartz. “But then October 7, Simchas Torah, happened, and I don’t really need to say more.”

Schwartz felt the call to duty deeply and he contacted his IDF unit, telling his commander that he still had all of his equipment and was ready to return to Israel. Finding out that he wasn’t physically needed was difficult for Schwartz, so he channeled his energy in another direction. Utilizing his knowledge of what soldiers need in battle and the marketing skills he gained from the Cookie Chips launch, he created Project Iron Support, an organized campaign to supply medical and material aid to reservists, starting with his own unit — the 7th Brigade. From his personal experience as a lone soldier, Schwartz understood that having new equipment, fresh supplies, and the knowledge that people are supporting your efforts makes a world of difference.

In the early weeks of the campaign, Schwartz sidelined his MBA studies in favor of spending 15 hours a day launching Project Iron Support, leveraging all of his contacts to make his dream a reality. A registered 501(c)(3) under the auspices of Chabad of Parkland, Project Iron Support is a private campaign that isn’t affiliated with the Israeli government or the IDF, but is run in coordination with the Israeli Ministry of Defense. All donations are tax deductible, and every dollar goes directly to supply reservist units with government-approved equipment — averting the problems that occur when well-intentioned people send items that don’t appear on Israel’s official supply list. Unfortunately, many of those items are thrown out, notes Schwartz.

With many campaigns already focusing on clothing and similar essentials, Schwartz headed in a different direction. In addition to sending bulletproof vests, ballistic goggles, flame resistant coats, and command tents, Project Iron Support has sent Garmin Alpha 200 GPS trackers that are placed on vests worn by military dogs who search Hamas’s underground tunnel network. The campaign has also bought Butterfly iQ+ handheld ultrasound machines, a mobile iPhone-compatible device that can detect internal bleeding wounds and is said to improve outcomes by nearly 50 percent.

One of Iron Support’s earliest contributions aimed to protect tanks from explosive devices that Hamas terrorists were planting on their exterior shells. While newer IDF tanks have cameras providing full visibility, older models had blind spots that were being exploited by Hamas, with deadly results.

“We MacGyvered it,” says Schwartz, referring to a fictional character known for his ability to use random items to survive tricky situations. “We took security cameras that give you a 360-degree view and affixed them outside, so people in the tank could see if anyone is coming and take appropriate action.”

Project Iron Support raised $30,000 in its first month, doubling that amount over the next four weeks, and Schwartz has been hard at work on another important facet of the campaign — raising awareness. In addition to being featured on television, radio, and magazine outlets, Schwartz spoke at the Florida Freedom Summit, which drew heavy hitters such as former president Donald Trump and presidential hopeful Nikki Haley. Schwartz also met with Florida’s Republican Caucus, giving the 67 party chairmen a private presentation on his efforts and on the ongoing situation in Israel.

“I am trying to deliver the message and rep my friends as best I can,” says Schwartz. “I realized that they need support. It wasn’t just about the money, it was also about hasbarah, spreading the message of what Israel is facing.”

Schwartz penned an op-ed that ran in a Gainesville newspaper explaining the situation and how Americans can help. It got a significant positive response, a reaction he has seen many other times. Time has shown Schwartz that while Jewish communities are very much in tune with the goings-on in Israel, things are vastly different in the world at large. He has seen this for himself when making public presentations. People are stunned to see footage of Gazans asking Israel to free them from Hamas.

“I stand up there in my tanker jacket, with my kippah, giving a professional slideshow showing the operation on the ground and the history of the conflict,” notes Schwartz. “I show pictures and video of October 7, and how people are being abused by Hamas. They see footage of humanitarian trucks being shot by Hamas as they try to deliver food. People are shell-shocked to see what is going on.”

Schwartz enjoys doing Q&A sessions during his presentation in order to provide answers and dispel misconceptions, and has had senior IDF officials, including Israel’s former minister of national security, Brigadier General Avigdor Kahalani, joining him onstage to address audiences as well. The most surprising responses he has gotten from the everyday Americans who come to hear him are admissions that their children are being brainwashed in college, and requests that he talk to them to set them straight. This has led to additional invitations to speak throughout Florida and beyond.

After spending several weeks in Washington, D.C., meeting with policymakers, Schwartz began to change his focus as he prepares to rejoin the IDF on the ground. Given that reality, he’s pivoted from Project Iron Support to focus more on messaging, although he is encouraging further donations to be used to purchase additional supplies for reservist units. Schwartz, who had never spoken publicly before, often feels like he is suffering from impostor syndrome when he does.

“I feel like, who am I to be doing this?” says Schwartz. “But this really isn’t about me. It isn’t my business or my company. It’s a bigger mission that keeps you grounded and gives you confidence to meet people, shake their hands, look them in the eye, and tell them why you are doing what you are doing, knowing that you have the entire IDF and the Jewish People on your wings, carrying you.”

“I’m not trying to be Friends of the IDF 2.0,” adds Schwartz, referring to the American organization that raises money for the Israeli army. “I’m just trying to help my friends in Tzahal.”

The Unofficial Meira

Waging War with Words 


he doesn’t mince any words, and  her updates, insights, and commentary on the ongoing war in Israel aren’t embraced by everyone, but that is more than okay with Meira Cowland-Kolatch.

The 25-year-old communications strategist’s frequent updates on her WhatsApp channel and Instagram fly unabashedly in the face of the woke and progressive narratives being circulated by much of the mainstream media as well as by the masses. Instead, Meira has been churning out content with a laser-sharp focus on the plight of the hostages and their families, Hamas’ brutality, anti-Semitism, and the double standard of justice that casts Israel as the aggressor for defending itself against bloodthirsty terrorists who want nothing less than its complete and total annihilation.

London-born, Meira grew up in Har Nof and was married this past summer. She and her husband had been planning to live in Ashkelon, roughly a dozen miles from Gaza, but with construction on their new apartment experiencing multiple delays, the two decided to go away for a honeymoon, with plans to return and move into their new home after Succos. Those plans were put on hold when the unthinkable happened on October 7.

“I knew within half an hour that there definitely wouldn’t be any clear English reporting coming out,” says Meira, who has since returned to Israel.

Drawing on her extensive media and communications background and her innate feel for politics, Meira began combing Telegram for accurate news as the situation continued to unfold. With multiple friends messaging her for updates, Meira decided it was easier to share whatever information she had on Instagram, where it would be readily visible. She released the first of what would turn out to be many videos on October 8, describing how Hamas had jumped at the opportunity to slaughter hundreds of Israelis, in stark contrast to the IDF, which warned Gazans to evacuate before upcoming bombings.

“We gave them time to get out because we are humane and they are not,” said Meira in the video, which quickly went viral. “They never have been, and we, the Israelis, have known that this whole time. Stop thinking that these people are so innocent and sweet and kind. That is not the case.”

Meira’s content is short and to the point. Other Instagram accounts are rife with photographs and graphics; her posts appear as stark white letters on a black background. It was a format she chose because of time constraints in the early days of the war when the situation was constantly changing. Her messages have continued in that genre, appealing to followers who often don’t want to see images of the war. A dedicated WhatsApp channel soon followed for those who don’t use social media. Meira estimates that tens of millions of people have turned to her platforms, all called “TheOfficialMeira,” for accurate, verified news updates, as well as ongoing analysis of the war, with an official MeiraK website launching in late February.

Meira’s social and political commentary counters the continued media effort to divert the spotlight away from the innocent Israelis kidnapped, tortured, and killed in an unprovoked attack. While she has received some ominous threats from those who don’t care for her messaging, the enthusiastic kudos far outweigh the negative responses.

“I get dozens of messages a day from people saying this channel is a lifeline, and how much they appreciate it,” says Meira. “I’ve also received messages from pro-Palestinians who have changed their mind because of my reporting, and that’s honestly the most important thing to me.”

When people with no credentials publicly bash Israel for its efforts to eradicate Hamas, Meira stands ready to set the record straight. When multiple singers called for a cease-fire on February 4 during the annual Grammy awards show, Meira was quick to chastise them.

“Don’t you just love the idiots performing at the Grammys being like ‘cease-fire now’ and not realising that it’s H@MAS who have rejected the cease-fire deal like a bajillion times now,” posted Meira. “Stick to music, people. Or at least, get your facts right.”

Media reports applauding Hamas’s humanity in releasing three groups of hostages in November and suggesting that the terrorists had treated their prisoners well had Meira chiming in once again. Her November 30 post presented a very different view of the situation.

“Hamas marked two young hostage boys with an engine exhaust pipe so that they could be identified if they escaped,” observed Meira. “Children. Marked. Burnt. They drugged them as well. Stop thinking H@mas are nice because they hand hostages bottles of water during the exchange.”

Meira typically posts twice a day, her content varying between stories, videos, and other material. She doesn’t hesitate to warn her audience that while Hamas has Israel in its crosshairs today, Western civilization is undoubtedly next on the terror group’s agenda.

“Don’t love the idea of stabbings and car rammings becoming your new norm?” queried Meira in mid-January. “Great, it’s time to start supporting Israel in its fight against radicals.”

While Meira may not be wearing a uniform and her weapon of choice is her phone, there is no doubt that she too is a soldier in Israel’s ongoing conflict.

“There are a bunch of wars going on,” explains Meira. “There is the physical war, the anti-Semitism war, the online war, the mental health war, and the morale war. I can help the people who are going through the war by providing them with information.”

Still, there are some posts she wishes she didn’t have to share.

“The hardest part by far is writing the names of IDF casualties,” notes Meira. “Every time I post, I know someone in my audience will know them, and it’s heartrending to have to do it, every single time. It never gets easier.”

In addition to her day job, Meira’s efforts on TheOfficialMeira have become a second full-time responsibility. In a Rosh Chodesh Adar post, she expressed hope that better times are ahead.

“In Judaism, every month has a deep significance. This month is focused on happiness, and hidden miracles that lead to redemption.

“The story of Adar is the story of Purim, when it seemed like the Jews had no chance and the whole world was against them. And then G-d intervened and the story was flipped on its head and we were saved, becoming some of the most important and respected people in the nation.

“We are going to be okay. I feel it in my bones. Adar is here. Miracles are coming.”

Those words proved prophetic. Just days later, Meira finally had the opportunity to share good news, announcing that Israel had liberated two hostages in the Gazan city of Rafah, 60-year-old Fernando Simon Marman and 70-year-old Louis Har.

“I have waited so long for some sliver of good news, and getting to do that was honestly the best moment of this war,” says Meira.

And amid Meira’s multiple February 12 posts on the freed hostages that praised the IDF, and criticized those who have been pressuring Israel not to enter Rafah, came a simple black square, her signature white letters announcing the good news that she has been longing to share.

It read, “Yesterday 136.

“Today 134.

“Tomorrow? Hopefully 0.”

And after countless dozens of posts to an audience of thousands, those seven simple words pretty much say it all.

Yehoshua Stauber

Seeing the Bigger Picture

While much of the world seems to be looking at Israel through a critical lens, Yehoshua Aryeh Stauber is using his camera to change the narrative, one spectacular photograph at a time.

A Jerusalem resident who is passionate about capturing Israel’s innate beauty in images that are anything but typical, Stauber opened his Y.A. Fine Art Gallery in the shadow of the Mamilla Mall in the fall of 2019. In his wildest dreams, the 27-year-old father of two never could have imagined that he would one day display his photographs in the European Union Parliament in Brussels, at a time when Israel’s need for positive advocacy is at an all-time high.

“Now more than ever, people define things based on what they see,” explains Stauber. “If what everyone is seeing is images of war and conflict and pain and suffering, then that is how they will define Eretz Yisrael.”

Filled with depth, color, and meaning, Stauber’s work encapsulates Israel’s splendor and spirituality. His lens brings landscapes to life, transforms ordinary rocks into objets d’art, and breathes life into pendulous clouds and swirling water. Even now, as the war rages on and his wife Jordyn splits her time between managing the gallery and coordinating meals for women whose husbands are serving in the IDF reserves, Stauber still sees Hashem’s artistry everywhere he looks.

“This is the Eretz Yisrael that I see and I want to share that with everyone,” says Stauber. “The war and conflict are not eternal, but the beauty and the shalom of the land are, and that is what I want to show.”

How Stauber made the leap from displaying his art in his Mamilla gallery to the European Parliament in Brussels is one of those only-in-Israel stories that began unfolding a little more than four years ago. David Lega, a Swedish member of the European Parliament, was visiting Jerusalem and happened to be staying across the street from Stauber’s newly opened gallery near the end of 2019. Stauber was well aware that the general public may not necessarily think of photography as art, and his goal was to capture something deeper in his images, rather just replicating well-worn tropes.

“It was a pretty daring move,” admits Stauber. “We really knew nothing about having a gallery but wanted to see what the world would say about my work.”

Lega was entranced by the pieces he saw on display at Y.A. Fine Art, and he stopped in to speak to Stauber about his photographs. As the conversation unfolded, Lega told Stauber that the European Union Parliament hosts art exhibitions and he thought his art should be displayed there. Reaching out to the Israeli ambassador to the European Union, Haim Regev, the process of arranging an exhibition began taking shape. Everything was going well… and then Covid hit.

“We had already realized that things were going to get pushed off, but we didn’t realize how much,” says Stauber. “Two years later, we were still talking about if it was the right time yet.”

Lega began trying to rebook the display in October 2022, hoping to be able to show Stauber’s art in the spring. He discovered that the schedule for the main lobby exhibition area was booked solid for months, and while there were slots available in other less-trafficked areas, Lega insisted that it was worth waiting until the following December, so the display could be held in a prime location. Things finally seemed to be coming together, when the October 7 terror attacks turned Israel upside down.

“I had to take a step back,” says Stauber. “Maybe it wasn’t going to happen. Maybe we would be canceled. We hopped on a phone call and agreed that, under the circumstances, it was even more important to do the exhibition. Maybe it wasn’t the message that people wanted to hear. But we felt it was more important than ever to show people the side of Israel that we wanted to display.”

Stauber acknowledged that moving ahead with the exhibition was a sensitive process, particularly gaining the needed approvals from members of the upper house of Parliament. But all the pieces came together, and Stauber flew to Brussels with 11 pieces of his art for the December 4 opening of the exhibition. The event was by invitation only, with several members of Parliament and lobbyists for Jewish organizations coming to view the display, which was titled, “Land of Life.”

Lega’s brief introduction emphasized the importance of seeing Israel’s diverse and incredible beauty, which transcends politics and fosters critical dialogue that celebrates life.

“In such times of violence and rising hate, we need every effort, every sign of solidarity, every step toward peace, more than ever,” observed Lega.

The exhibition remained in place through December 8, which coincided with the first day of Chanukah. The timing made the message of shining light into the darkness even more profound for Stauber.

“On Chanukah, you wait until it gets dark and then you light the light,” notes Stauber. “It felt like that in Parliament, having my exhibition in a place of darkness, where Israel is not the most beloved topic.”

While Stauber had hoped that his artwork would create positive awareness to counter the propaganda being dished out daily by the media, he was surprised by the impact his display had on those who were already pro-Israel.

“David Lega told me that it was the first time he saw some of his colleagues smile in months,” observes Stauber. “Here I was thinking how important it was to show that side of Israel to people who don’t see it. But it was even more important for people who already know that side, but needed encouragement. They needed that extra charge, that light that they can feel connected to.”

While all of the pictures were well received, there were three that stood out in Stauber’s mind, each for a different reason. Light to the Nations, a wide-view shot of sunrise over the Old City, drew exhibition visitors with its distinct vibe, with many taking the time to speak with the artist about his work. Hidden Light was another favorite, its brilliant colors popping even as the sun receded on the last day of Chanukah, a feat that Stauber managed by keeping the camera’s shutter open for an extended period of time. A desert sunrise photo of an acacia tree titled Resilience held special meaning for Stauber, bringing home the timely message that Jews thrive under harsh circumstances.

“Just as the acacia tree grows where there is a river in the deserts, the Jewish People are drawn towards the wellsprings of Torah throughout difficult times for our nation,” explains Stauber.

Stauber was present during each day of the exhibition’s run, having one-on-one conversations with those viewing his artwork. Most gave him positive feedback, but perhaps the most memorable response came from a pair of Israeli brothers who had come to address Parliament about their brother, who is being held captive in Gaza.

“I saw them light up, and I got to give them hugs,” says Stauber. “They told me that I was representing Israel, and that hit me hard.”

While it was his talent that was on display, Stauber didn’t feel like he was the main focus of the exhibit.

“I felt like I was an ambassador shedding light on Israel’s positive side during a dark time,” says Stauber, who is eyeing Sweden for his next showing. “I felt so thankful and empowered and really felt like I was showing the beauty of the land of Israel.”


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 1000)

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