Mindy Feldman Hecht

Reflecting on the Jofa/Maharat Mission to Israel

Photo credit: Hila Shiloni
The author bears witness to the destruction of Kibbutz Kfar Aza on the Jofa/Maharat mission to Israel
The author bears witness to the destruction of Kibbutz Kfar Aza on the Jofa/Maharat mission to Israel. Photo credit: Hila Shiloni

I have just returned from Israel. This six day trip was the most overwhelming, heart wrenching, horrific and fortifying trip that I have ever been on. I spent the first few days with my family, so grateful for the opportunity to hug everyone tightly, sing Shabbat songs together, and pray in a packed shul (though the absence of young men in their 20s and 30s was noticeable). 

At each moment, I was reminded that everyone has a story. The young woman with a pink scarf in shul on Friday night got married a few weeks ago but has not seen her husband since their wedding night, as he went right back to the front. The grieving father over on the side is saying kaddish for his son who fell in battle on October 7th. The mother of six who joined us with her children for Shabbat lunch as her husband has been stationed at the border with Gaza for nearly three months, and yet she remains incredibly upbeat and positive despite the heaviness. Everyone that I saw thanked me for visiting, a contrast to the debt I felt I owed them. 

On Saturday night, we joined the weekly gathering in Hostages Square in Tel Aviv. It was baby Kfir’s first Hebrew birthday. We sang “Yom Huledet Sameach,” happy birthday in Hebrew, to him, a gut punch to the crowd. On Sunday, we visited the rehabilitation hospital at Tel Hashomer. We brought fresh fruit shakes to the soldiers who have lost limbs, their eyesight, their ability to walk, but not their humor or their resilience. My sister told me that we would get to see Tal. I responded immediately, “Tal ben Alona?”, referring to him as the “son of Alona,” as is traditional when praying for one’s healing. I know his name from my daily prayers for him since October 7th. When we saw him, my eyes filled with tears as I asked him if his mother’s name is Alona. He looked at me quizzically and I told him that I have been praying for his recovery. He was visibly moved and thanked me but I told him that it was I who had to thank him for his dedication to the people of Israel.

On Monday morning, I joined over 30 people on a joint Jofa and Maharat solidarity mission to Israel. We came to bear witness, to volunteer, to learn, to give chizzuk and to meet with partners on the ground. These partners are working to advance gender equity by keeping women’s issues at the forefront of global discussions about October 7th. The mission was immeasurably meaningful, impactful, and inspiring. We met with Israeli women working toward their vision of an Israeli society with increased female leadership, including the inimitable Dr. Cochav Elkayam-Levy, Chair of the Civil Commission on October 7 Crimes by Hamas Against Women and Children, and the fierce Moran Zer-Katzenstein, founder of Bonot Alternativa. Everyone shared their story with us so graciously and honestly, some for the very first time publicly.

Visiting Bonot Alternativa’s Tel Aviv Wartime Volunteer Center.

During our time together, we assembled a mosaic of life in Israel, with each person contributing their own tile, as Rabbi Seth Farber, director of ITIM, so eloquently described it. We met with the parents and children of hostages who had been waiting an unbearable 94 days to be reunited with their loved ones. They implored us to share their stories and not forsake them. We sang the Mi Sheberach prayer for hostages and “Acheinu” with them, both of which took on a newfound urgency and meaning.

We heard the story of a bereaved mother whose son fell in battle a few weeks ago and sang Hamalach Hagoel with her before entering Har Herzl and seeing her young son’s freshly covered grave. We picked Meyer lemons on the border with Gaza. The lemons were overripe and could not be sold, but had to be cleared off the trees to make way for next year’s crop. It felt wrong to throw the lemons away but also symbolic of the need to clear the land for new growth next year. We drove on Road 232, the Road of Death, where those trying to escape were slaughtered on October 7th, to visit Kibbutz Kfar Aza. Kfar Aza is a tight knit community where nearly 70 people were murdered, 18 were kidnapped and one is still unaccounted for. 

In the weeks leading up to the trip, we had debated among ourselves whether it would be appropriate to visit or if this was “disaster tourism.” As we walked into the devastated home of Sivan and Naor who were brutally murdered there on October 7th, I felt deep in my bones that I had a moral obligation to bear witness to the atrocities committed here. Sivan and Naor lived in the youth section of the kibbutz. On the wall, were printouts on which we could read Sivan’s final WhatsApp conversation with her father, from their panicked back and forth in the morning until her devastating silence after 11:16 am. One could easily imagine how this now-ravaged neighborhood was once an idyllic and vibrant place to live, with small homes sharing a grassy central space and views of the surrounding green fields, all the way to Gaza. Almost every home had a banner out front saying who had lived there before being killed or taken hostage. So many familiar names of people who lived and loved here. Through the broken rubble in one home’s entryway, I could make out a poster that remained on the wall. “Life is short. Break the rules. Forgive quickly…Truly love.” It was heartbreaking to witness. Before we entered the youth neighborhood, Maj. Liad Diamond from the IDF’s Spokesperson Unit shared the stories of these individuals, and especially the heroism of so many civilians. He urged us to come back in a year or two to look back on this moment to visit a bigger, stronger and greener kibbutz. Instead of the constant din of artillery fire in the background, kids will be playing and shrieking with delight, barefoot in the grass.     

Looking into the rubble of a home in Kibbutz Kfar Aza. Photo credit: Hila Shiloni

Throughout our visits to these places of horror, including the site of the Nova Festival where hundreds were killed and dozens taken hostage, I was constantly reminded of my heritage visit to Poland nearly 20 years ago to bear witness to the atrocities of the Holocaust. The piles of dusty, lost shoes at the Nova exhibit were eerily reminiscent of the piles of shoes in Auschwitz. Yet, as our mission met with R’ Herzl Hefter of Beit Midrash Har’el, he reminded us that falling back upon the familiar narratives of our people can close us off to new possibilities. The events feel familiar to us, but we can break out of this cycle to tell a new story. Stories of the heroes of October 7th. And we heard so many new stories: of young women who have proved themselves in combat. Of young women who serve as “tatzpitaniot,” army spotters, who were previously told that they were valued for their eyes, not their brains, but are nevertheless proudly serving in these crucial surveillance positions. Of mothers who are providing mental health support to young soldiers and couples who are struggling with the traumas of the last three months, all while managing their children on their own while their husbands are fighting on the front lines. Of postpartum mothers who are pumping breastmilk while they operate on soldiers in Gaza. Of women who have taken over in schools and businesses to fill the absence of the men off to war. Of women giving the last honor to young soldiers murdered by caring for their bodies with dignity and love. I was inspired by the singular resilience and determination of all of these extraordinary women.

The author delivers handwritten letters from US elementary school students during her visit with “Tatzpitaniot,” women army spotters.

Now that I am home, I feel a tremendous responsibility to continue to tell their stories. All of the stories. The stories of those who died, the stories of those who were taken hostage, the stories of those who live, the stories of those who have stepped up. And I call on you to join me in telling their stories and raising their voices. Share their stories on social media. Call your elected officials every day and remind them how many days the hostages have been held in Gaza. Attend rallies to show your support. Plan a Zoom conference for your community with families of the hostages to hear their stories firsthand. Join a mission to Israel. Show up and speak up. 

With God’s help, Israel will go on. The people of Israel very much live, with women leading in setting the tone and building a more resilient society. Let us all be worthy of their sacrifice and dedication. 

About the Author
Dr. Mindy Feldman Hecht lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan with her husband and children. She is the Jofa board president and an active member at Darkhei Noam. She is a Program Manager in the Office of Community Health at Columbia University Medical Center. Mindy has a Master’s in Public Health from Columbia University and a doctorate in Applied Exercise Physiology from Teachers College, Columbia University. She is also an alumna of Migdal Oz.
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