On October 7, 2023, our communities were invaded by monstrous terrorists who tore through the fences and infrastructures in which we had put our faith, in order to rape, torture, slaughter, plunder and destroy any one and anything that they could. Our homes were attacked, our bodies were violated, our sense of security and safety was pulverized. Despite the fact that the great majority of us were unarmed, we were left to fend for ourselves for six hours before the first IDF boots hit the ground. In Kibbutz Nirim, the 95% heaven-on-earth which we had built as a community since 1946, and of which I have been a member since 1975, had flipped within less than half an hour to 100% hell.
Following a terrifying 11 hours on my own with my son in our safe room, certain that at any moment terrorists would break through our door and murder us, and a further 23 hours of fear within a community which still had terrorists lurking, rockets and mortars exploding all the while, we were evacuated to a hotel in Eilat where we have been as a community for 90 days.
Life in a hotel is no picnic (nor is it a vacation) but we have worked amazingly well as a community to get used to the new realities, where elevators replaced leafy paths, a kettle had to suffice instead of a kitchen, we had to enter through a revolving door instead of the yellow gate. We had to learn to replace the social norms we had built over the decades, with new ones not of our choosing. The members who lead our educational system strove to reconstruct as similar as possible a facsimile to the day care centers, nursery school and kindergarten on Nirim. In addition to the caregivers and teachers from Nirim, whom the children knew and with whom they were comfortable, wonderful volunteers from different frameworks joined to chip in from around the country. The grade school children got on a bus each morning and rather than the 7 minute bus ride to the Eshkol grade school, they were driven to Kibbutz Eilot, about 15 minutes away, for classes with teachers either from our kibbutz, or teachers from other areas of the country who stepped out of retirement to contribute to the cause.
Nofei Habsor, our regional comprehensive school, was divided up into a number of main venues around the southern part of Israel, to provide education for the dispersed communities of the Gaza Envelope regions. In Eilat, to where a number of other moshavim and kibbutzim were evacuated, our branch of the school convened in the Eilat annex of Ben Gurion University, which was available due to postponement of the academic school year since so many students and teachers had been called up to serve in the reserves since October 7th. With the reconvening of higher learning this week, the high school moved to an Eilat high school, where they were given classrooms for Nofei Habsor students.
Not all of the people who served different functions on Nirim were available to continue those jobs due to the upheaval of war. As a kibbutz, we needed to find a replacement for the kibbutz secretary, whose parents were kidnapped, for example. We needed to assemble a new cultural committee, because communal ceremonies and activities are vital to the fabric of a community like ours. “Culture builds community” is our slogan. Memorials for our people who were murdered had to be arranged and produced, holidays needed to be celebrated, as well as resilience-building activities to do as Nirim-ers.
We were allowed to take over and repurpose various hotel facilities for our own needs, since regular visiting tourists during war are few and far between. The spa morphed into rooms for psychologists’ sessions to help deal with trauma, one room turned into an ad hoc infirmary for flu shots, another became the post office for mail that was rerouted to the hotel. Mail trucks don’t drive around in war zones.
We dealt with all the changes and adjustments alongside the trauma of what we had lived through. We saw no option but to rise to the challenge. There is not one person in any of our communities who does not know personally, intimately, people who were slaughtered or kidnapped. Even our children have friends, parents of friends, teachers who are missing, and many who they will never see again. Our children have had to attend more funerals than is logically conceivable. Many of our families have no house left to go home to when the time for that comes. Their possessions were destroyed, many are irreplaceable. Imagine losing all of your family photos and personal mementos from your childhood.
Yet, as a community, we adapted.
A governmental office called Tekuma (“rebirth” in Hebrew) was formed to deal with all of the hundreds of thousands of displaced Israelis from the south, who have no idea when they will be able to go home, after experiencing the horrific atrocities by Hamas. As a community, we were offered a number of options for temporary relocation. There were a few different parameters for making a decision. One of them was the proximity to Nirim and the region, so that people who work in the area can continue working. Another consideration was educational options for K-12. Finding appropriate, temporary housing for 450 people in the same venue was another tremendous challenge. In the end, what Kibbutz Nirim voted upon were apartments in 4 different neighborhoods within the city of Beer Sheva. All of the families with children in the educational frameworks, will be in one neighborhood. 60 year olds and above were offered an option for an assisted living complex in another neighborhood, and not far from there are apartments in a building for families who are older. There is also a small complex in the Old City of Beer Sheva which has a bunch of apartments for us. It will not be easy to keep a sense of community together without a communal dining room, or a community center within walking distance of us all, but we have already begun planning for how that can happen. There is no perfect solution.
As of today, three months into this traumatic war, we are at the stage where most of the residents of Nirim have been allotted our temporary apartment and we were all invited to meet with the planners to choose a packaged deal for furnishings. Appliances will be supplied, as well. The topic for discussion at mealtimes now is “To which neighborhood are you moving, and which furniture option did you choose? 1,2 or 3?” It will be like in the days before the kibbutz was privatized, when all the members were provided color TV sets in the ’80s and we all came out to the lawn to see the delivery trucks driving in with them.
The families of Kibbutz Nirim are on the next stage of our long journey home. Will all of us return? Unfortunately, not. Will most of us go back to those homes so close to the border, to the place where our sense of security was destroyed and our balloon of faith that the IDF would come save us, burst? Only time will tell. It will be very dependent upon what happens on the other side of the border. Both the IDF and the government have a lot of work to do yet. But I can tell you this: if you give up on Nirim, if you give up on the Western Negev, you can give up on the rest of the country. The future of Kibbutz Nirim will take time. This is only the first step: hopefully in the right direction towards a place that will feel a little more like a home.
Postscript: This is the first blogpost I have written since the announcement that my dedicated editor and friend Judih Weinstein Haggai was not only kidnapped, rather that she actually was slaughtered on October 7th, together with her beloved life partner, Gadi, and their bodies are captive in Gaza. She always added panache and eloquence to my blogposts. They will never be as good without her. I miss her so much.
There are still 136 captives in Gaza. We must bring them home immediately, before it is too late.