Eliza Kanner
3-Season NFL Cheerleader; Former Miss Connecticut; Proud Jewish Activist

The Smell of Death and a Lemon Tree

Kibbutz Kfar Aza on November 6, 2023. Photo by Eliza Kanner.
Kibbutz Kfar Aza on November 6, 2023. Photo by Eliza Kanner.

As we pulled into the entrance of Kibbutz Kfar Aza on the edge of the Gaza envelop, I asked myself: “Am I an invited guest, or am I invading the community?”

We stepped foot inside the kibbutz, and we were dropped into a reality that nothing can prepare you for. No media coverage nor social media post can fully describe the current state of the community.

Houses and cars are completely burned and charred. There are bullet holes through doors and walls. Furniture, clothing, and household belongings are among the rubble, covered in blood stains.

As I stood in destructed homes, again I asked myself: “Am I an invited guest, or am I invading the community?”

When Hamas terrorists came into these homes, though, they never asked themselves that question.

“Am I an invited guest, or am I invading the community?”

While walking through Kfar Aza, with each step I felt and heard the crunch of broken glass and medal scraps under my feet. The pathways we were walking on were the same pathways residents of Kfar Aza walked on to get home after work to see their family, pre-October 7. The same pathways children would take to get to the playground and to school, pre-October 7. The same pathways that survivors walked on, after spending over 35 hours in their safe room, with the direction to keep their eyes closed so they did not bear witness to the 60 lifeless bodies—60 members of their community who fell victim to the barbaric acts of Hamas on October 7.

Something that cannot be articulated through pictures or words is the smell that hit my nose from the moment we stepped foot in the kibbutz. It was a sharp stench that I will never be able to describe. A smell that can only be described as the smell of death.

As I looked out, I could see Gaza in the near distance. It is challenging to imagine what life was like for the community of Kfar Aza, with hopes of living in peace with a neighbor who has threatened your existence, time after time again. I took a step back, trying to bring my mind back where my body was. To my right, I saw a lemon tree. The tree was perfectly intact. Bright, yellow lemons were hanging from the branches. Lemons represent longevity, purification, love, and friendship. In that exact moment, I needed to see that lemon tree.

Among the rumble was a Star of David frisbee. I took the photo because a Jewish symbol, to my surprise, was left intact following Hamas’ attacks. As I was looking through my photos later that day, I realized the Hebrew text on the Star of David reads: “Patriot.”

As a New England Patriots Cheerleader, coming across the Patriots Star of David frisbee served as a reminder of my role as a community leader with a platform. I left Kfar Aza with a renewed sense of purpose as a proud Zionist, while tapping into the true meaning of a Patriot: a person who loves and is ready to defend his/her country.

Photo by Eliza Kanner.

Leaving Kfar Aza, our eyes were red and tear-filled. We were physically holding each other up, trying to make sense of what we witnessed. As we approached the exit, I saw a large Israeli flag waving in the wind. As a representative from the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit explained to us, following the evacuation of survivors, the IDF displayed every Israeli flag they found during their search process. This flag had a prominent hole, right under the Star of David. This flag could not be more representative of Israel and our Jewish community right now. There is a hole, and we feel it every day, but we continue to stand strong and show our pride.

In that moment, I answered my question. I was an invited guest, and it is my responsibility to share about the smell of death, and the lemon tree.

Eliza Kanner was part of the World Jewish Congress Elevate Changemakers Delegation to Israel and visited Kfar Aza on November 6, 2023. 

About the Author
Eliza Kanner has worked extensively to fight antisemitism and support Israel as an NFL Cheerleader, Miss America titleholder, and a proud Jewish activist. She began her involvement with Israel education and advocacy while receiving her Bachelor of Arts from the University of Connecticut. She was awarded the title of "Miss Connecticut 2017," and was honored to represent her home state, and the U.S. Jewish community, at the Miss America Competition. Eliza's experience dealing with antisemitism as a campus leader empowered her to use her voice and ensure other students had the resources to do the same. She previously worked for StandWithUs as a New England Campus Coordinator and is currently a Senior Development Officer at Combined Jewish Philanthropies. Based in Boston, Eliza is a three-season veteran New England Patriots Cheerleader. During her tenure, she utilized her platform to "fight antisemitism, on-and-off the field." She is proud to work alongside New England Patriot's owner Mr. Robert Kraft and the Foundation to Combat Antisemitism, in support of the #StandUptoJewishHate national campaign. Eliza was on the ground in Israel just one month following the atrocities of October 7 with the World Jewish Congress Changemakers Delegation, a group of 14 young leaders from eight countries, to gain firsthand insight and share stories with the communities she is connected to. Eliza's passion is advocating for young people to be proud of their Jewish identity. You can follow Eliza’s work as a Jewish activist by following her on Instagram: @elizakanner
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