Tomer’s Story

Tomer in his happy place at the lemon orchard at Kibbutz Ein Hashlosha.
Tomer in his happy place at the lemon orchard at Kibbutz Ein Hashlosha.

Everyone I have encountered in Israel has a story – everyone. It doesn’t matter how big or small–it is so powerful and important. I am currently on this volunteering program organized by Taglit together with the Zionist Federation of Australia.  We have packed and delivered food packages to those in dire need, and today, we went down south. We started by going to Kibbutz Ein Hashlosha to help Tomer with the Kibbutzs’ lemon orchards. “No Israeli wants the job; they are too frightened and scared. I am happy to pay them 150 shekels per hour, but they all refuse,” Tomer tells us – he really needs our help.

Tomer is a kind-hearted absolute sweetheart who, with his cheerful disposition, shows us what work needs to be done. Twenty minutes later, Tomer checks up on us, ensuring we are doing the job correctly; of course, I start chatting with him – here is a glimpse of his story.

Tomer was born in Kibbutz Ein Hashlosha, based between Kibbutz Nirim and Tzufim, a mere 10-minute walk from Gaza. Tomer has grown up here, lived here, loves it here and sees his future here – the constant running to the bomb shelters, he tells me with a smile, is “some action,” which, according to him, is “nice since being a farmer can be boring.” Yet, Tomer told me he always knew some form of infiltration would happen. Ten years ago, exactly once the bomb shelters had been built, he created wooden beams to put on the door handles for himself and his family to use just in case terrorists would break into them. “We always knew they would,” he told me “It was just a matter of time.” Yet, never in his wildest dream was he expecting it to be thousands; they always thought a few would come, and they would deal with it accordingly – “sababa,” he says. Exactly two years ago, Tomer’s wife had a bad feeling and told Tomer she did not feel safe or comfortable anymore living in Ein Hashlosha. (Not because of the rockets – which were constant, but because of fear of infiltration – as said many, according to Tomer, had a feeling). This is Tomer’s home, but as a good husband, he did what was best for his family. They moved 20 minutes away, just at the entrance of Sderot.

October 7th and Tomer’s family are on the Kibbutz. His father, who is 85, did not fear death. “He sat on his sofa, with his gun, as he FaceTimed us through WhatsApp and said goodbye,” meanwhile, the terrorists were lighting his home on fire. “If they come in, at least I’ll take some down when I die,” Tomer’s dad figured. They set his home ablaze and, thankfully, swiftly moved on to the next. Tomer’s father immediately evacuated, stopped the fire, and miraculously survived. Though Tomer knew something was happening, he did not know the extent. Soon after, his doorbell rings “Tzahal, Tzahal,” the intercom said. Tomer didn’t open the door but went outside to his backyard. He saw a group of soldiers, and so he took his phone out to take a video, “Look, family, the Tzahal is here; look – all is okay.” Suddenly, the soldiers started shooting at him; suddenly, he noticed their RPGs – these guys weren’t the army; they were the terrorists. Tomer tells me he would have had no clue had they not started shooting or holding the RPGs. “They were wearing top to bottom a perfect army uniform, from the boots to their Tzahal tags on their shirt; they spoke perfect Hebrew; I was not expecting that.” Luckily for Tomer, his backyard had a big wall, and he decided not to shoot since he feared it would bring the terrorists closer to him. The terrorists thankfully moved on to their neighbors and continued with their massacres. They were simply thirsty for blood and tried to create the most damage they could in the easiest way possible. “They killed many in Sderot”, he tells me, “they simply would ring the doorbells and people thinking they were the army and would be saved let them in.” His neighbor, who was in a wheelchair, didn’t see the intercom and let the terrorists in – he was murdered.

This went on for 48 hours straight. Tomer, his wife, his daughter, and his dog (very important to Tomer to mention) were trapped in their home. Tomer, who was once a soldier, only had a small pistol with him; he wanted to go to the police station and get a proper gun. By divine providence, instead of escaping under gunfire and going straight into the police station, he decided to call them. “From 7-9 am, they were not answering; I was so confused. Finally, at 9 am, a person speaking Arabic answered.” Tomer immediately hung up and called his commander, telling him that he just heard Arabic from the police station in Sderot. “Eh, his commander said, it’s probably nothing.” Little did they know that terrorists had completely taken over the Sderot police station. A few minutes later, his commander called him in a panic, “Don’t go there,” he warned Tomer, “People are going, and they are not returning.” Tomer understood. Tomer finally felt it was safe to venture outside, put a small suitcase in his car and escape.

As he left his home and walked towards his car, he saw a Chayal crouched down, motioning him to remain still and silent. Tomer listened. A second later, a terrorist was killed. Tomer went back inside for 10 minutes and then swiftly escaped with his family to Eilat. He knew up north would not be good and figured Eilat would be the best bet – like many others. After one week, Tomer felt he needed to return to his Kibbutzs’ fields. He left his wife and family in Eilat and returned for the weekends. I asked if the Kibbutz had lost money; Tomer pointed to a banana field and told me they had lost over one million shekels in a mere one month, “but we don’t care; this is not our priority. Our land, our home, and our safety are. We need these fields here to be working; otherwise, Bedouins and others come and take over the land….” This apparently is a common occurrence. These fields support not only the economy but also our security and protection. As we are talking, Tomer’s phone is ringing nonstop. “It’s all these Palestinians”, he shows me; Ahmed, Muhammed – he has their numbers saved – they are his workers. He has known many of them over the last 20 years. He told me that a week after October 7th they started ringing him. One told him that he was ashamed and embarrassed; Tomer then answered the call of another. This guy asked Tomer how he was doing, and Tomer responded, “as well as I can be.” The Gazan then asked, “And how are your wife and daughter?” Shocked, Tomer responded, “How do you know I have a wife and daughter?” (You see, he never shared his personal life with them). He immediately hung up the phone. On another call, a guy was asking if there were still terrorists around… Tomer realized he could not answer their phone calls anymore since it was a security breach, and many were subtly trying to gain information from him. Now, he just lets it ring.

Tomer is a unique individual. He spends every day (except Saturday) with Gazans who work for him. “I pay them very well – 600 shekels a day; usually, in Gaza, they make 5-10 shekels daily, and of course, I give them water and breaks. Tomer continues to tell me that he never trusted any of his workers and sometimes felt like such an idiot, as he would give them knives and tools to work in the fields, and then he would turn his back and demonstrate to them what to do. Yet, generally, he was never scared. “However,” he continues, “they would always insist and ask if they could sleep in Israel or simply go into the Kibbutz for a drink or a coffee. “We are friends” they would say. Whenever they asked, Tomer would tell them, “You are my friend now I am working with you; we are helping each other, but you are my enemy. You are not entering my Kibbutz; at the end of the day, you will kill me one day, and I will kill you.” Little did he know. Tomer continues, “I would say it how it is – straight to their faces, they would never argue. Sometimes, they would insist, “Please take us to Be’eri, to Nachal Oz; we have friends there, look.” They would call their Israeli friends, who they had known for years since they all worked together in the fields. The Israeli friends would answer on speakerphone and say to Tomer, “It’s fine. They are my friends. Drop them off,” to which he did- it wasn’t his Kibbutz, after all. “Probably,” Tomer told me. “They were scouting and would give intel back to Hamas and get some money.” Yet, it is important to mention that 14 of his workers were murdered on October 7th by Hamas on a dairy farm at another Kibbutz close by. They all wanted to work with Tomer, but Tomer told them that he does not work on Saturdays. They responded and said, “But Tomer, you are not religious,” “it doesn’t matter,” he replied, “I am not working – you are not working.”

What I never knew is that many of the Gazans who would work in Israel during the day would sleep in Israel every night – since 30,000 Gazan workers would come in and out of Israel every day. It was too many people, and it was so crowded – that they would just find a place to crash to get to work the next day. The army knew it but generally turned a blind eye. “One time,” Tomer tells me, he gets a call from the police station at 10 pm, “Tomer, your workers are here illegally sleeping in Israel,” the policeman tells Tomer, “okay,” Tomer responds, “they are my workers, but only in the day, now they are not my workers – it is not my responsibility, do your job.” The next day, Tomer called his guy from Gaza and fired all the workers, “they dropped my name like that and caused me trouble; they aren’t working for me.”

What I love about Tomer is that he is such a kind man, yet so grounded and has clear and firm boundaries. He is happy to give Gazans opportunities to work and make good money as long as they do not threaten him, his family or his people. He is a secular Kibbutznik who has his head screwed on so straight – in this current climate, it’s so refreshing. He is not here to go above and beyond. He knows full well who his neighbors are, “and guess what,” he tells me, “They never fight it – they know too.”

Chein, another soldier who fought in Gaza for three months straight, is with us and tells me how every home in Gaza is covered with anti-Jewish propaganda. Whether it’s Mein Kampf or posters showing Israelis as evil, it is so entrenched within them as a society that “there is no such thing as an innocent civilian.” This is coming from a soldier who fought in Gaza as a commander and lost three of his friends. I’m not sure how he is still around and smiling – “eh,” Chein (whose name means refinement and lives up to that) tells me, “We gotta live.” During this conversation, may I add, we are in a lemon field (at this time, we are supposed to be cutting around the trees so they can be watered), and the hot desert sun is beaming on us; I begin to break down.

“I can breathe here,” I hear myself saying, “I can breathe.” In Australia, I can’t breathe, I can’t be myself, I can’t be a proud Jew, I can’t be a proud Zionist, I can’t be. I may be able to go to the supermarket peacefully and sleep at night without fear of a rocket being launched, and yet I still feel suffocated. Wherever I turn, whether on social media, the news outlets, or the streets (I have encountered lots of anti-Israel/Jewish messages, I’ve received a “f**k you Jew”), I feel so much hate. I think twice when wearing my Magen David; I feel self-conscious: what are people thinking of me? How can I talk to them? Are they my friends? All these thoughts flood into my brain with even the simplest tasks. Just before I went to Israel, I needed to fix my leggings. “Name,” the lady asked me, I hesitated – “ah, Ava Block.” My name is Chavi Israel, not Ava Block (though Ava is my go-to coffee name since no one can say Chavi). Don’t get me wrong, I am an extremely proud Jew most of the time and generally always share my name and my identity, but since October 7th, I have thought twice. I hesitate because I feel insecure – what reaction will I receive, and if I do (which has happened), I have to think of how I should respond; it is all so stressful and anxiety-inducing. Sometimes, I simply cannot be bothered.

I feel myself crying as I try to explain to Tomer and Chein how suffocated I feel. I am shocked at myself for being this open, yet I feel so liberated; this has obviously been locked up inside me.

It suddenly dawns upon me that I feel more free in a lemon field on a Kibbutz, ten minutes away from Gaza, where you can hear bombs and war noise going on, than I do in Sydney, Australia. This is not normal. This is not okay. I continue to share that I am Chabad, and I feel like I have my mission and purpose outside of Israel. If I would make Aliyah, “who would take my place?” I say. Tomer agrees and tells me I need to stay in Australia, but I am always welcome here. He tells me, “Tell people to come to Israel and see things for themselves; they are welcome to go into Gaza too and see…” Sometimes, seeing is believing and more powerful. I highly encourage all Jews to go to Israel during this time, just to reinforce that we are indeed on the right side of history, plus the economy needs it. Yet we both acknowledge that within the general public, the haters will hate, and we aren’t changing the world’s perspective. The only thing we have is one another. As we are discussing, I feel such a sense of family and belonging, which is so immensely special. Sadly, we discuss how crazy it is that war is what brings that out. On that note, Tomer tells me that usually, the Chabadniks come every year to the Kibbuztim for Simchat Torah, but this year, due to the high tensions between the religious and secular, they decided not to come. Yes, in hindsight, it was divine providence, but how horrible that there was so much hate. The fact that no Chabadniks came highlights just how significant the polarisation was. “Already, in Israel, you can slowly see that it is returning to that, but we can’t let that happen. We need to be together; we need to be united,” Tomer tells me.

“Beyachad Nenatzeiach,” “Together we will win,” but I would like to say, “Nenatzeiach Beyachad,” “we will win, and we will still stand together.”

“All we have is each other – we need to remember that.”

Am Yisrael Chai!

Tomer and I in his lemon orchard at Kibbutz Ein Hashlosha.
About the Author
Born and raised in the heart of Melbourne's Jewish Community, Chavi now resides in Sydney (Bondi) with her husband Ezry and works as a Jewish Studies Educator at Moriah College. Chavi has completed her Masters in Secondary teaching with an undergraduate degree, majoring in History and Philosophy. Chavi is passionate about the Chassidic masters and the mystical teachings of the Torah.
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