Ken Toltz
Israel-based writer

I felt I needed to be here

Memorial at site of SuperNova Music Festival Re'im Israel
Memorial Sign at the Re'im Israel Site of SuperNova Music Festival (Jonathan Lev)

Many Olim have experience greeting friends and family visiting wartime Israel from abroad since October 7th coming on solidarity missions, to volunteer and to bear witness. Executive Director Jonathan Lev of Boulder, Colorado’s world class Jewish Community Center was here for two weeks in January. Over a Tel Aviv dinner he really touched me by sharing his experience and impressions. Following is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

Ken: Jonathan tell me about your personal connection to Israel. Wherever you want to start.

Jonathan: I have a deep connection to Israel. The first time I came here I was 16 on a trip with Shorashim, 25 Americans and 15 Israelis on a bus together for five weeks. It’s not just visiting or doing a homestay with an Israeli. We had Israelis fully participating in the trip. They were part of our experience. The next summer I came on a trip with my parents, and I stayed for a week and a half in Israel afterwards. I had family and friends, I made family in Israel. I remember saying to them, “I’ll be back”. I’m going to study abroad here. I transferred universities and switched my studies to make that possible, I was a theoretical math major, but I also got my degree in education. I spent six months living in Jerusalem at Hebrew University.

Ken: What did you study at Hebrew University?

Jonathan: Studied Israel deeply. I studied a lot about the birth of Israel. I remember writing a paper about the Irgun. I also studied Israel’s environment and natural world. I really tried to spend time almost everywhere. We were teaching English to Tibetan and Bedouin children with Rabbis for Human Rights.

Ken: You were here for six months when you were in college, and then you’ve come back how many times?

Jonathan: Somewhere between 10 and 15 additional times, every opportunity I’ve had. I’ve worked in the Jewish community for the last two decades, in each of those jobs, opportunities arose to spend time in Israel.

Ken: And from all those trips, has the thought about coming here as an Oleh crossed your mind?

Jonathan:  You know, I’ve thought about it a lot, especially when I was living here. I always felt like this was a home of mine, no matter whether I lived here or not. And once I came to that realization I wanted to stay connected with my Israeli family.

Ken: Let’s talk about what you’ve seen and experienced so far. What happened on October 7th is one of those events, we summarize by saying ‘changed everything’. And it’s continuing. Everything is continuing to evolve. I’m sure you picked up on that.

Jonathan:  There’s no question. It’s unthinkable. It’s unspeakable, it’s completely unimaginable. One of the things shared with me by the former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. “Right now, Israel is a country in trauma, not in post-trauma.”

When you’re sitting in Boulder, Colorado at my home or work, I live the world of the Jewish community, deeply connected to Israel. And reading so much about it, watching news, reading articles about it and postings and, I’ll say none of those things help you understand what happened here.

Everywhere I go I feel as though it can’t be concealed.  These are people who are broken. You know, there’s a resilience that’s present, but there’s a trauma that’s deeply, deeply present. Today I was talking with someone who works with the families of victims of terror. I just stopped her for a second and said, “how are you doing? Are you okay?” And she started crying and said it was the first time anybody had asked her that question since October 7th.

Ken: I want to hear about October 7th in Boulder and at the Boulder JCC, tell me about October 7th for you.

Jonathan:  I got a text message from my wife, because I was up early playing with our kids, it said “something really bad happened in Israel.” I looked at my phone, the kinds of reports we started getting were just unbelievable. They’re almost unimaginable. But at the same time, they weren’t clear. And I wasn’t sure where to turn for news and information. I remember being on the phone talking about it right away. My oldest daughter is sitting right there.

Ken: How old is your daughter?

Jonathan: She’s ten. And she couldn’t totally understand but she’s very empathetic, and keenly aware of other people’s emotional state. And she could see that something was wrong. And I had no filter. There was no sheltering her from this at that point.

There’s a moment where I shifted from recognizing the gravity of this and into my JCC Director role. I wanted to put out a statement, put out a very strong statement very quickly.

Ken: To your community email list?  Does that include media?

Jonathan: Some media, the Boulder City Council, many have been to Israel due to our Sister City relationship with Ramat HaNegev.

We put that out and then tried to figure out sort of next steps. There was a need for a grieving period that really had to be present. We held a vigil in coordination with all the Boulder synagogues and rabbis.

Ken: The next day?

Jonathan: It was on Wednesday or maybe Thursday. I spoke there and talked about the importance of reaching out to people in Israel. Your friends and your family, just staying connected.

That’s where I focused my attention for the first few weeks. Really in the people. It was during our Jewish Film Festival. I interacted with over a thousand people, one-on-one in the first couple of weeks, really trying to get a sense for what they needed. And then we shifted the programmatic side in November and December convening people for coffee and conversation. just coming together for an hour and a half and having coffee in our lobby and talking.

People just showed up and would say, “I don’t even know why I’m here, but I felt like I needed to be here.” Nobody knows what to do in the United States.

But you want to be with other people or you want to do something. Even the act of showing up is an act of support and solidarity. That’s what I wanted people to feel.

I remember after it happened (my wife) Lyndsay asked me, “so when are you going to go to Israel?” I told her there’s this opportunity on this January mission with the JCC Association leadership mission, including many JCC Association board members, of which I’m one, and ten JCC executive directors, to come and express solidarity.

Ken: I want to ask you, describe something that is a microcosm of the entire experience.

Jonathan: I came here because I knew I had to be here. And I didn’t know exactly what I was looking for, there wasn’t anything specific other than that. But I knew it was deeply important to me that I come here during this time that no one else is coming.

The other day as we were returning from visiting Kibbutzim in the Gaza envelope, I knew we were going to pass by where the Nova festival actually took place.

I heard we were very close on the way between places. I asked the tour guide, “I know this is a change in the schedule, but it would mean a lot to us and hopefully to other people as well.”

We stopped, walked into this space. I can see where the dance floor was located.  It’s a memorial set up. All these posts with pictures on them, set up in such way that everywhere you walk, somebody is looking at you as if you’re on the dance floor, arms spread out like the way that people dance to this type of music. There might be a lot of people, but everyone’s giving everyone space because you just need that. At the same time, you’re able to see people, connect with people dancing. I started walking through. Looking at their faces. Many ways connecting. To connect to their memory. Endless pictures of people 364 pictures. You could walk through there for hours and spend time with each one.

Posters of those murdered on display at site of SuperNova Music Festival (Jonathan Lev)

And that’s only the people who were killed. 40 were abducted and taken hostage and untold injured, and everyone is scarred. It is not about numbers. It’s about people.

And I just pictured that whole thing. So, I’m walking through it, and realizing what happened there was completely devoid of all humanity. I know why I haven’t allowed myself to really sit with this one. But it’s down there. It’s very personal and it’s not going away. I couldn’t talk.

Later I found a playlist somebody had made dedicated to the people at the Nova Festival I hear the music, it’s super ethereal. I just sat there the next day. I can’t even tell you for how long listening to that playlist.

You know, closing my eyes when I finished, living on the dance floor. And I must say, I knew that I was going to make a post specifically about this festival. I needed to figure out the words to be able to share it. This was just last night.

Ken: So this is the FB post you just put up.

Jonathan Lev January 17 at 8:03 PM

The faces. The beautiful loving faces – smiling, dancing, collectively sharing the experience of the sunrise set. Connecting to the music and each other. I have been here before. This open heart – wide-open – embracing all. A place of peace and comfort. A place of love. Massacred, destroyed – absolute. 3500 beautiful lives celebrating in the unity of the music at the Supernova Sukkot Gathering in Re’im, Israel, produced by the Israeli Tribe of Nova, tragically, heinously, attacked and slaughtered..364 murdered. Over 40 hostages taken. Even more injured physically. All emotionally devastated forever. Words cannot express the feeling of standing on this sacred ground – on the same dirt of dance floor in front of what was the stage. I meandered as I gazed into the eyes of each person, now only memories captured in pictures on a post, as if I was dancing with them that morning. I glanced into the forest of trees beyond as I pictured the scattered tents where I saw people waking up for the day or pausing for a moment to relax. I know this place, I know these people. Beyond words. Beyond pain. I am broken. When I dance again, I will dance for them and with them. I will dance with love and remember them.

Ken: I know you view this trip as community service both to Israel and your home community of Boulder. You’re the right person at the right place at the right time. Thank you, Jonathan.

About the Author
Ken Toltz began his professional career at AIPAC in Washington, D.C. after attending Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He's a 3rd generation Colorado native, businessman and long-time gun violence prevention activist. After 42 years from his first visit to Israel, in 2019 he relocated his home to Mitzpe Ramon in Israel's Negev. Ken currently resides in Herzliya. He writes about Israeli politics, relations with the U.S. and the Israeli creative class of writers and filmmakers.
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