Yonatan Cohen

At Home in Kfar Aza

A burnt home in Kfar Aza.
Kfar Aza feels both near and far from home. It is a community of about 300 households.  My community in Berkeley, Congregation Beth Israel, is about that size.  I know what it’s like to walk from house to house and know each name and family.
Earlier this week, my wife, Frayda Gonshor Cohen, and I visited the kibbutz.  When our friend and guide, Maor Moravia, points to a grassy area and says, “This used to be the happiest place in the kibbutz.  Here, all our children ran free,” we immediately think of a similar gathering place in Berkeley, where our own community children gather weekly.  Maor, a kibbutz member, survived the Oct. 7 massacre, together with his wife Mor and their two children, ages 12 and 8.  For the past month and a half, Maor has returned to the kibbutz as a new recruit of its civil guard unit.
The sights and images of Kfar Aza tell a story of destruction on their own.  The facts are haunting: 59 members of the kibbutz were murdered.  18 members were abducted.  5 are still in captivity.  Parts of neighborhoods were burnt to the ground.
But Maor insists on telling us about the people’s lives, the activities or programs that they helped lead, the values and passions that animated their visions and dreams, and the brave way that they died defending their homes.
“I regularly drank coffee with Ofir Libstein right over here,” Maor says, pointing at a small coffee table at the side of the Libstein’s home.  “He was one of my closest friends.  We loved seating here.”  Maor then points a few feet away, “He died there, defending his home.  He managed to empty his gun before dying.”  Ofir was head of the Shaar Hanegev regional council and a member of the kibbutz’s civil guard.
Kfar Aza’s armory.
A few blocks away, Maor points at another home.  “Here lived Lili Itamari.  Lili was my children’s teacher.  But really, she was everyone’s teacher.  Any child that studied with her remained her pupil for life.”  Lili was in charge of culture and entertainment in the kibbutz.  She was burnt alive in her home.  Her husband was shot at the door.
We walk by the home of the Kutz family.  The entire family was massacred.  Aviv (54), Livnat (49), Rotem (19), Yonatan (17), and Yiftach (15) died embracing each other.  The Kutz family organized the kibbutz’s annual kite festival for years.  “It was supposed to take place on Oct. 7,” Maor shares with us.  I instinctively look up at the sky as though wondering where those kits have gone.
Omer Charmesh was the kibbutz’s most beloved madrich (youth counselor and informal educator).  Though he did not have children of his own, the driveway to his house has a basketball net.  Several balls can still be seen on the front lawn, waiting for children to come by for a quick game and a check-in.  An RPG was launched into Omer’s living room.  He escaped to the home’s safety room, where Hamas terrorists ultimately succeeded in murdering him through the window they had managed to destroy.
“But here, a real miracle took place.”  The Ohanas, a mother and two children hid inside a bed drawer for the entire day.  Hamas terrorists even sat on the bed where the family was hiding.  After the terrorists started burning the home, the family managed to escape to the shed in the back of the house, where they hid for another whole day.  “Many miracles happened here.”
We walk a short block away to “the neighborhood of the young.”  “Here we were hit the hardest.”  It’s mostly a neighborhood of truly small homes for post-army singles and newlyweds.  Every home is utterly destroyed.  Every life shattered.  No miracles here.  Only pain and devastation.
Neighborhood of the young.
This neighborhood is closest to the kibbutz’s fence, which was breached.  It’s also closest to Gaza, which is but a few miles away.  In this neighborhood, we can still hear shots echoing, now coming from Gaza, and we can feel the ground trembling from ongoing bombardments.  Later in the evening, we understood that a major Hamas command center was destroyed that very afternoon.
Throughout our visit, Maor spoke humbly and thoughtfully.  His dignity and strength caught my attention close to three months ago when we met a week after the war started.  I message him and his wife Mor regularly as Mor was the inspiration behind the makeshift gym our community in Berkeley helped build for Kfar Aza survivors.  I can imagine what it would be like to have them in our community and the sort of impact they must be making on their community right now.  I can vaguely understand the weighty decisions they face as parents, as community members, and as leaders who feel that they must return home.
“Does this still feel like home to you?” I ask Maor.  “Yes, very much so.  Very much home.  I understand that right now, I must tell these stories of destruction.   But I look forward to walking here with you, at some point, and sharing our life.  This place was full of life and it will be again.  This place is our home and it will remain so forever.”
About the Author
Yonatan Cohen serves as the rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel, a thriving Orthodox community in Berkeley, CA. He is a senior fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and North America as well as a lecturer for the Wexner Foundation.
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