Ilai Lichtental was in Houston at 2 pm on Tuesday when his cellphone rang. It was the commanding officer of his search-and-rescue brigade of the Israeli Defense Forces, asking Mr. Lichtental to end his vacation in America, leave his family and report for duty, immediately.
Seventeen hours later, on Wednesday afternoon, Mr. Lichtental was surrounded by hundreds of well-wishers at John F. Kennedy International Airport near the ticket counter for El Al Airlines, one of the few carriers still flying into Israel. Mr. Lichtental’s flight to Tel Aviv was scheduled to leave in 90 minutes. He tossed a bottle of vitamins into a cavernous duffel bag, then addressed some members of the crowd.
“I’m sorry, but I have to go now,” said Mr. Lichtental, 20. “I’m excited to go back.”
Within hours of the worst terror attacks in the history of the Jewish state, Kennedy’s Terminal 4 became a central hub in the international effort to defend Israel. Israeli soldiers and reservists like Mr. Lichtental were among the first to arrive, followed by people hoping to volunteer with medical and nonprofit groups.
The Israeli military called up more than 300,000 reservists for duty, many of whom had been traveling or living abroad. El Al Airlines added extra flights to handle the demand, Reuters reported. The airline will continue flying Saturday, suspending a policy in place since 1982 that banned flights on the Jewish Sabbath, according to Reuters. El Al did not respond to requests for comment.
As the week progressed, the crowds at Terminal 4 continued to swell. Many were regular travelers who found themselves stranded in New York after their flights were canceled. Others cut their vacations short, booking flights on El Al to return to their families in Israel.
They were joined by hundreds of people who came to cheer the soldiers. Many traveled to the airport in SUVs and delivery vans packed with duffel bags filled with supplies for the war effort. Each duffel’s contents were identified by black ink scrawled on tape.
One tag read, “vests, bulletproof.” Another, “kneepads.” There were, “Leatherman tools,” “energy bars,” “Band-Aids.” Bag after bag was marked “underwear.”
“I bought $8,000 worth of stuff,” said Willie Balk, 34, a rabbi from Englewood, NJ, who loaded his Chevrolet Suburban on Tuesday with items purchased at Target, ShopRite and Dick’s Sporting Goods.
Many of the bags were taken by young volunteers who worked the crowd, looking for passengers willing to pay the extra fees to bring the bags aboard. The volunteers also plucked soldiers from the ticket line and escorted them forward to help secure them seats on the next plane.
Other movements through Kennedy Airport happened out of sight. In normal circumstances, ambulances from the United States would be sent to Israel by ship, said Rob Rosenthal, a spokesperson for the American Friends of Magen David Adom, Israel’s nonprofit emergency medical system. The trip usually takes six weeks.
By Wednesday, the group was organizing a chartered plane to fly 17 new ambulances to Tel Aviv in 11 hours.
“We raised money so fast that we can’t process it,” Mr. Rosenthal said. “Since Saturday we’ve exceeded $13 million, and that’s just online.”
The crowd was protected by Port Authority Police officers in body armor and members of the US Army, who walked the hall in green camouflage. Many members of both groups of officers carried heavy rifles. Outside, lanes to the arrival gates were partly blocked by a row of black SUVs and an enormously armored personnel carrier.
The International Synagogue at Terminal 4 stands behind the El Al ticket counter. Normally a quiet space with room for travelers to pray, on Wednesday it morphed into a chaotic scene. Heavy duffel bags were stacked waist-high, surrounded by well-wishers who clapped and sang.
The synagogue’s walls were lined with stacks of Crest toothpaste, Huggies diapers, Cliff bars and cases of Pringles. The donation effort started on WhatsApp within hours of the attacks, said the synagogue’s lead rabbi, Ari Korenblit.
“We have so much stuff now, we’re almost begging soldiers to take it,” Mr. Korenblit said.
By late Tuesday, however, few Israeli soldiers remained in New York City.
“Most of them have already left,” said Rabbi Motti Seligson, a spokesperson for Chabad, an international network of strictly observant Jewish congregations.
The few soldiers to arrive at Terminal 4 on Wednesday were easily spotted, even though none of them wore uniforms. Their youth, their athletic frames and their glances toward the security checkpoint set them apart from the crowd.
Noach Nierenberg was among the young people hoping to fight. Mr. Nierenberg grew up in Woodmere, on Long Island. In 2021, at age 20, he became an Israeli citizen, and has served two years in a tank unit for the Israeli Defense Forces.
Now a student at Yeshiva University in New York, he was visiting Israel for the Sukkot holiday when Hamas attacked. At first, he wanted to stay and join the fight. But a rabbi in Israel counseled him to return to see his parents, he said. The war would be waiting when he returned to Israel.
“He said that, ‘All over the world, parents want to hug their children right now,’” Mr. Nierenberg recalled. “So I came home to hug my parents. Now I will go back, and do what I can to help.”
After checking in, Mr. Nierenberg walked toward the security checkpoint. I have carried a Target bag in each hand, each stuffed with cellphone chargers.
Dozens of well-wishers gathered in a circle. Mr. Nierenberg laid down his bags, and joined hands with the men beside him. Together they danced, clapped and sang a song called “Am Yisrael Chai,” or “The People of Israel Live.”
Mr. Nierenberg smiled as he danced. When the singing ended, a woman pressed a Ziploc bag into his hand. It contained a note of encouragement and a rolled-up $10 bill.