05 December 2023
Originally posted at https://www.tikvatisrael.org/israel-mission-days-3-4/
Our third day was difficult to process. Even now, four days later, it’s hard for me to write this post. The stories that people shared with us from their experiences on October 7 were too awful to hear. The destruction that we saw at Kfar Aza was too difficult for the eyes to see. It’s hard to write because it’s so hard to comprehend how someone with whose DNA is 99.6% the same as ours could behave in this manner. And yet, it is precisely to be those eyes and ears that I came in this mission. And through my witnessing, to expose the lies that are being spread on the internet and in parts of the media. Pardon the length of this post, but I owe it to the people I met and the people I couldn’t meet to tell their stories.
We began the day meeting with Yoni, a survivor of the SuperNova music festival. He described the event as a combination of Woodstock, Coachella, and Burning Man wrapped into one. He explained that it was impossible that Hamas planned for this event, as its location was only revealed that evening, which is part of the mystique of the event. When the Red Alerts began, he and his friend found a low spot to lay down. But the rockets kept coming, like nothing he’s seen before. When there was a brief break, they got into his car and, seeing the traffic heading north, they went south. But soon they saw cars driving towards them sprayed with bullet holes. Hearing gun shots toward the north and with Gaza to their west, they abandoned their car and ran east. From time to time, they heard bullets flying by and had to find places to hide. But mostly they just walked and walked for 4-5 hours before arriving in Moshav Patish, a small community near Ofakim. They were the lucky ones.
Later in the day, we visited the Assuta Hospital in Ashdod, one of the first places our Jewish Federation allocated funds. Within 3 days of the war beginning, they had received over $150,000 from our region and had purchased life-saving equipment that was put into immediate use.
At the hospital, we met Moshe, a volunteer ambulance driver and when he heard the sirens early in the morning, he drove his car to Sderot and picked up the ambulance. Driving out to the junction, Moshe saw cars driving north with drivers who were wounded. He stayed on the road and arrived at the music festival, thinking he would drive the wounded to safety. But there were no wounded. He found 150 people dead, some with their hands tied behind their back and decapitated. Others whose hands and feet were cut off. Bodies that were burnt, bodies that were bloodied. After searching for 3 hours, he heard they needed help at Kibbutz Be’eri. When he arrived, Hamas terrorists were still in hiding among the buildings, taking shots whenever they could. They set up a medical station just outside the kibbutz gates. Soldiers would go in and bring the wounded out. He stayed for the next 26 hours, treating over 80 soldiers, some of whom he had been talking with a few minutes earlier. Finally, he went back to Sderot parked his ambulance and was about to get in his car when he heard the sirens he got away from the vehicles and dropped to the ground. He was lucky because the shrapnel from the rocket “only” hit his leg. His car, however was full of shrapnel. Had he not laid down, he would have been dead, not wounded. The wound from the foot will heal with time. He’s not sure the same will be true for his psyche. Moshe hasn’t slept in 7 weeks, but he is grateful to be alive.
We also met Dor, an IDF reserve officer in the Givati Brigade. He was recovering from wounds sustained as his brigade went into the Jabalya refugee camp. They went through the first building, saw no one, and destroyed it. They came to the second one, sent in the dogs who sniff for explosives, than the drones to look for people. As they entered to check, he suddenly felt what seemed to be a stone hitting his hip. But it wasn’t a stone, it was a bullet. There was a Hamas terrorist in the basement who the drones did not see. He continued shooting Dor, injuring most of his abdominal organs, until his commander came in, put him over his shoulder, and ran him back to their vehicle. On the way to the hospital, a friend called Dors mother and handed him the phone so he could tell her himself that he was wounded. On the day we were there, his Sargent was visiting. It was his 1st day off since the war began. Before going home, he went straight to see Dor. Thankfully, Dor is healing and was getting ready to go home to continue his recovery.
In between our meeting with Yoni and going to the hospital, we stopped at an army base where one of our staff member’s son is serving. This was an elite search and rescue unit of reservists, most of whom were 28-29 years old. The first day of Chanukkah will mark 10 years since they were drafted together. Before October 7, they had been planning a reunion party. This was not what they had in mind. Several years out of the IDF, the group included a medical student, software engineer, social worker, an entrepreneur, a physical therapist, graphic designer, landscape architect and realtor. Some were married, one had a son who was born at the end of September. All of them had dropped everything when they got the call on October 7. For some this meant closing a business or losing a full year of school. For all of them, it meant being away from family for who knows how long. But none of them hesitated to come. They know that they are saving lives every day.
All of this was hard, but none of it prepared me for our visit to Kfar Aza, one of the Kinbutzim where 62 people were killed and 7 were still being held hostage. Putting on the helmets and flak jackets that are required to enter this area, we were given a tour by a member of the kibbutz. Her aunt and uncle had started the kibbutz and she had been born there. Her parents were still living there, along with two of her sisters and their kids and some of her kids were there also. She showed us where the kibbutz armory was and described the Hamas snipers on the rooftops waiting for the members of the civil defense to come get their weapons so they could shoot them down one by one. They knew exactly where to be. This member was in Portugal visiting her other sister for the holiday. But when she found out what happened, she got on the phone with her 78 year old father, who told her he heard gunshots and people speaking Arabic. She told him to go into his safe room and lock the door. Thankfully, he survived. Many others weren’t so lucky. We saw “safe room” doors that were sprayed with bullets, buildings that were burnt to the ground, especially in the area where the young adults live. It’s one thing to read about it or even see pictures. But the smell of burning, or the stench where dead bodies had laid for several days doesn’t convey. Four days later, I can still feel the smell when I think about.
The first round of terrorists at Kibbutz Aza were dressed in IDF uniforms and were well armed, equipped with maps of the kibbutz. Mid-day there was a second wave, this time it was women, children, even elderly who came to loot the houses where people were killed. As the pictures below show, it is a very short distance from the kibbutz fence to Gaza population centers. Many of the people who came to loot were people that they knew, who worked in the kibbutz.
As our guide explained, these border communities have a contract with the state – they live on the frontier to protect the land of Israel from encroachment, and in return the IDF is suppose to protect them. This contract was broken. Many people, including our guide’s father, can’t imagine what could restore their trust in the government and Army and convince them it’s safe to return. Even if they could, everywhere they look they will see the shadows of their neighbors and family who were killed. And they will smell the smell of their homes burning.
I have yet to visit the death camps of Eastern Europe, but this is how I imagine it. In a meeting with Senator Cardin in October, he described what he saw as harder to witness than Auschwitz.
The official trip ended back at the hotel with an informative analysis of how this has and will impact Israeli society. It was interesting but insufficient for me, in terms of trying to find meaning in all of this, in thinking about how to move forward. As it turned out, that came the next day in the middle of a greenhouse filled with grape tomato plants.
The mission was over, but I was staying a few more days. I asked Yona, our amazing tour guide for the trip, about volunteer opportunities for the next day. He told me that he was going back south that day to pick agriculture, one of the many industries deeply impacted by the war. I asked if I could join him and we arranged to meet at a parking lot along the way at 6:20 am and he would drive the rest of the way. Stopping at the new Soda Stream factory parking lot to get our assignments, we continued south to a farm near the southwest corner of Israel, just a few kilometers from the borders of Egypt and Gaza. (Thankfully the ceasefire held for another 24 hours.) We spent the next 6 hours picking grape tomatoes, being careful to keep the green stem on, which is a signature of Israeli grape tomatoes (imports don’t have them). There was something incredibly therapeutic in the monotony of picking tomatoes. It gave me time to think, to process but most importantly, to contribute to the war effort, no matter how small it might seem.
And this is what I discovered. The drive that led reserve soldiers, wherever in the world they were, to drop whatever they were doing, is the same drive I was feeling. It is also the same the drive that each of us feels when we hear a family member is sick. When someone we know and love is in pain, we need to do something, anything we can to help. Sometimes it’s prayers and donations. Sometimes it’s fighting a war. Sometimes it’s picking tomatoes. For above all else, it is a statement of love, a statement of unity, a statement of presence. And that’s what Israel needs more than anything right now. And it’s what each of us need. This is what gives us the strength to push forward, even when we feel we have no strength. Each of our legs may be wobbly when we stand alone, but when we stand together, we can hold one another up, knowing that when we are feeling weak, others will be there for us.
Finally (yes I’m almost done), I want to again express my appreciation to Tikvat Israel staff and members who stepped up and allowed me to go and who helped while I was away. I want to thank the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington for organizing and subsidizing the trip and the other rabbis who helped make it so meaningful. But my deepest appreciation goes to all the people who shared their stories and their pain with us. I hope I have done you justice in my summaries. You are and will always be in my heart. We will continue to pray for the safety and success of the IDF soldiers, for the speedy return of all the hostages, and for the rebuilding of the communities that were destroyed. And just as Israelis have stood together across all lines, we will let them know in big ways and small that they don’t stand alone.