Dahlia Bendavid

A Changed Israel

One of the many flags that can be seen throughout different neighborhoods in Israel. Photo credit, Dahlia Bendavid, January 12, 2024

“It started at 6:30 in the morning….” That is how every meeting with every single person we met began. They continued relaying that they were used to sirens, but this was different. There were more rockets and sirens than usual and that is when they realized that something was wrong.

This trip was different than any other trip I have taken to Israel. Last week, I returned from accompanying a group of Miami leadership on a solidarity mission to show our support for Israel, bear witness to the atrocities of October 7th, as well as see the impact of our Israel Emergency Fund.

It was a very difficult and emotional trip. We heard a lot of first-hand accounts, we heard from a woman who hid with her husband and  baby in their safe room for nearly 24 hours and whose parents were murdered, from a man whose daughter and son-in-law were murdered while embracing each other, from a survivor of the Nova music festival, from someone from Zaka who helps with collecting body parts for proper Jewish burial, from Israelis who mobilized and activated to provide relief and support, and more.

How do they do it? How do they get out of bed every single day? The mothers and fathers whose children were murdered at the Nova festival?  The children whose parents were murdered at Kibbutz Kfar Aza or Kibbutz Be’eri? The women whose husbands fell in battle?  Every single person who has lost a loved one on October 7th to date? How do they do it? The grief they are experiencing is unfathomable. Yet, they do it. They go on and do what they can. They tell their story over and over again. They describe their loved ones who were murdered so that we do not forget them.

Kfar Aza, a kibbutz with 950 members, is one of the 22 border communities with Gaza. 63 people from the kibbutz were murdered, 19 were abducted, 12 were released as part of the exchange deal, two bodies returned, and five are still in captivity. I visited Kfar Aza 2.5 years ago in June 2021 with a group of rabbis from South Florida. When there, we met with Chen Kottler, a kibbutz resident, who shared what it is like living with constant sirens and a barrage of rockets and balloons with incendiary devices. She showed us shrapnel from rockets fired from Gaza that were found in her yard, as well as balloons and threatening messages sent from Gaza.

Kfar Aza. Photo taken by Dahlia Bendavid, January 16, 2024

This visit was a very different visit. Kfra Aza was a beautiful, serene kibbutz. October 7th changed that. The horrors and atrocities the people endured are hard to comprehend. I met Chen Kottler again on this visit as she was relating what transpired on October 7th. She happened to be out of the country on a trip to Portugal on October 7th. There is no doubt that had she been in her home, she would have been murdered as paragliders landed by her home which is adjacent to where the kibbutz arms were stored and where the terrorists were headed. Her father and siblings and their families live on the kibbutz. Chen was in constant communication with her family trying to help them as best as she could while she was in Portugal and they were hiding in sheer terror in their safe rooms. Many of their neighbors were murdered. Luckily, her family survived.

Everyone we met thanked us for coming to Israel during the war, for providing financial assistance, for listening and promising to share their stories. Like that of Shelli, the mother of Omer Shem Tov who was abducted by Hamas and is still in Gaza. Omer is 21 years old. His birthday was on October 31. He attended the Nova music festival and spoke to his mother on the morning of the attack while he was trying to escape. He sent his parents his location and they didn’t hear from him again, but saw that the location was moving toward Gaza. Shelli’s husband searched the hospitals. That evening, someone showed them a video that was posted on Telegram – a video of Omer and his friends, Itai and Maya, with their hands cuffed and on the floor of a pickup truck. Omer has asthma and celiac. Omer likes music and everyone likes to be around him. Itai and Maya were released from captivity. Itai said they were in a dark room and were given food once a day. Shelli shared “it’s one long nightmare. We don’t sleep, we don’t eat.” We will continue to fight for the release of Omer and the remaining hostages.

Professor Meir Ariel, a professor of electrical engineering at Tel Aviv University, shared that his son Dan was murdered at the Nova festival. Dan was one of the 364 people that were murdered at the festival. Dan was one of five children and liked gardening and travel. He was trained as a combat medic. Dan went to the festival with two friends, Omer and Ron. Omer is the only one that survived after sustaining serious injuries. Omer relayed to Dan’s parents what happened on that day – when the rockets started firing, they jumped in the car and drove south where they found a bomb shelter and ran inside. A Hamas terrorist threw a hand grenade into the shelter. Dan and Omer were injured and Ron was kidnapped. Ron was murdered and his body was found six days after the massacre. Omer was taken to the hospital and thought Dan was as well. Dan’s parents searched every hospital and gave a DNA sample to the police. It took three days to find his body – there were so many bodies. Professor Ariel: “Life will never be the same.”

We heard more stories, stories from Keren, a 35-year-old woman from Kfa Aza, who along with her husband and 1 year old, spent 21 hours in their safe room. Her parents also lived in Kfar Aza and were murdered by Hamas terrorists. Keren and her family have since been living at Kibbutz Shefayim in one room. And hearing from Chananel, a survivor of the Nova Festival and the events of that day, and from Merav whose uncle Avraham Munder who is 79 and held hostage in Gaza, and from Chaim, who works with Zaka and shared how his unit took as many ambulances down South as they could, how they had to guard bodies so the terrorists wouldn’t take them, and how they loaded 237 bodies onto trucks. Chaim: “we heard the silent screams.”

The world needs to know about the evil that occurred on October 7th.

Israeli Flag displayed at Nova Festival site, Reim. Photo by Dahlia Bendavid, January 16, 2024

Even in this time of great sorrow, there is hope and optimism. Viktor Frankl, in Man’s Search for Meaning, states “Everything can be taken from a person but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” The Israeli people are resilient. They have suffered deep trauma, and there is a lot of sorrow, yet many of the people we met are optimistic. The people are unified. Everyone is willing to pitch in and help. Everyone is willing to step up and do their part. Every community has people volunteering making food for soldiers, collecting clothing for families that were evacuated, or going to the farms to pick produce. And the nonprofit organizations are doing what they can, whether providing humanitarian aid, providing trauma counseling, financial assistance, or guiding volunteers with tasks that are needed to get done.

Everyone in Israel has been impacted by the terrorist attacks of October 7th. Someone they know – a parent, child, aunt, uncle, grandparent, grandchild, cousin, neighbor, friend, a child’s friend – was murdered, abducted, survived, or is in the army. No one is exempt. There is a lot of trauma, individual trauma and collective trauma. The grief is palpable. The days in Israel felt like we were attending a very long shiva, a shiva lasting over 100 days. As in any shiva, the members of the community come to offer comfort and solace to bereaved families. We came to offer solace and hugs to everyone we met in Israel. And we were thanked. Over and over again. We were told how seeing that world Jewry cares so much gives them optimism and the ability to believe in good, despite the evil they experienced and witnessed.

Our visit gave the people we met comfort and strength. And they need that strength. If you are able, go to Israel. Show our brothers and sisters that we care, we stand with them, and they are not alone.

About the Author
Dahlia Bendavid believes in making the world a better place and helps makes this possible by working in the Jewish community as the Director of the Israel and Overseas Department at the Greater Miami Jewish Federation. She is a certified life coach and a certified happiness trainer. Dahlia grew up in NY, has lived in Israel, and now lives in Miami. Dahlia is the proud mom of two adult children, Ariel and Noam.
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