Voices from the South – resilience and hope

Entry to Kibbutz Nir Yizhak showing hostages and missing community members Oren Goldin, Lior Rudaeff and Tal Chaimi (Image courtesy of author)

Since the devastating events of October 7, hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens have become displaced persons in their own country. These evacuees, from the kibbutzim, moshavim and towns of the South, as well from the North, are suffering from the loss and trauma caused by the devastating events of October 7. Many are grieving the murder and loss of family and friends, and a number are still waiting for the return of those missing and being held hostage. All of this on top of losing their homes and their sense of security and safety, and not having an end in sight when it might be safe to start rebuilding and eventually return home.

In November 2023, on a visit to Israel to try to understand the situation on the ground and the needs in terms of how the Australian community could offer support, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to visit the community of Kibbutz Nir Yizhak that was evacuated on 8 October to a hotel in Eilat. I have a personal connection to the community, with the family of close friends living on the Kibbutz and being in a safe room for 24 hours on October 7 whilst hearing Hamas terrorists shooting all around them and wondering whether they would be next.

The pain and loss has touched every single person in the close knit Kibbutz community. I was talking with one young man who told me that his brother had been missing after October 7, presumed to have been taken hostage. More than a month later it was announced that he had been murdered. And then, with unbearable pain in his eyes, he told me that Hamas still had his brother’s body. As we were talking, two gorgeous children ran up to us. I realized that they were his brother’s young twins that are now without a father. I saw their mother sitting there too. How can such pain be endured?

The Nir Yizhak community welcomed me with open arms as part of their family. I shared their life at the hotel in Eilat with them for a few days, and understood a small part of the situation they were facing. Their resilience, determination and strength was both humbling and inspiring. I felt privileged to have the opportunity to be temporarily immersed in this beautiful community, and to feel both their pain, but also their hope and dreams for the future. 

Last month, I was fortunate to return to Israel, this time as part of a philanthropic mission with the Australian Jewish Funders. Once again, I visited the Nir Yizhak community, which had since been relocated to another hotel, in Eilot, a Kibbutz close to Eilat. At Shabbat dinner at the hotel, I was greeted with a warm hug from Idit, whom I had met last November. Idit’s brother, Lior Rudaeff, was missing then, and was still missing now, 100 days later. Idit’s smile and warm welcome, despite the 150 days of agony waiting for her brother’s return from captivity, was like an arrow piercing my heart, and I couldn’t hold back my tears. I could only admire Idit’s strength, just to keep going, and I could see that the love of the community and their shared pain sat behind that strength. 

As I ate Shabbat dinner with family members of a hostage who had been released, and heard about how that had impacted them, I felt so grateful to be embraced this remarkable community made up of the most resilient people I could imagine. When I said goodbye to Idit the following day, I told her that on my next visit, I looked forward to meeting her brother, whom I prayed would be back by then.

The following week, I had the opportunity to spend a day in the South with the team from humanitarian not for profit organization IsraAID, meeting some of the communities they have been working with there, including Kibbutz Re’im, Kibbutz Nir Yizhak and Moshav Yevul. IsraAID has been providing psycho-social and educational support to these communities and more since October 8, and has developed deep relationships of care and trust with each of them, which I was privileged to witness.

When I visited Israel in November 2023, the focus for evacuee communities was very much on setting up schools, informal activity spaces for young people and art therapy rooms in hotels and creating some kind of routine for the families. By March, five months on, the focus had turned to the day after and what that could look like, and whether people could ever feel safe enough again to live mere meters from the border with Gaza. We met Zohar from Kibbutz Re’im, who stated succinctly – “On October 7 we moved from heaven to hell.”  Zohar explained that the idea of staying together as a community is a source of their strength, and their resilience, so they needed to do whatever they could to make that happen.

Kibbutz Re’im has been evacuated to Tel Aviv – it is a world away from their rural lifestyle in the South, but for now it is their reality. And the questions remain – how can they return home without the hostages being returned? How can they return to the place where their loved ones were murdered? As Zohar lamented – after the Holocaust, survivors did not rise in Auschwitz or Bergen Belsen. However, the communities from the South are expected to rise where their community was viciously attacked and murdered. That is a tremendous challenge that will somehow need to be overcome.

I met Ophir, from Moshav Yevul, located near the Gaza/Egypt border. Ophir and her family had been evacuated initially to a hotel in Masada, had then to a hotel in Sde Boker. Recently, Ophir had moved back to the Moshav, which I was fortunate to visit. Both she and her sister did not want to disrupt their daughters who had made new friends and settled into school at Sde Boker, so they took turns each night to drive the hour from their Moshav to the hotel in Sde Boker where their daughters were still staying, to stay with them so that they would not be alone. This is just one dimension of the challenging situation that the evacuees are facing. They are refugees in their own country. And Ophir, who had stepped up and taken a leadership role in her community since October 7, is an example of the strength, determination and tenacity that I continuously encountered.

I was privileged to be taken by IsraAID to visit Kibbutz Nir Yizhak, the home of the incredible community I had visited in both Eilat and Eilot, where they had been evacuated to since October 8. Established in 1949, mainly by Holocaust survivors, the Kibbutz community feels like a large extended family. Tragically, it is now collectively heartbroken at the loss of a number of Kibbutz members, of other friends and family from kibbutzim and moshavim in the region, and of those who are still being held captive in Gaza, a number no longer alive.

Joining us on our visit to Kibbutz Nir Yizhak were Tuval and Rona, Kibbutz members who have played a part leading the community through this traumatic and devastating time. As we drove towards the Kibbutz, Tuval explained that it was very difficult for her to even face the road and see the Kibbutz approaching, as she had not been back home since that fateful day of October 7. As Tuval described her mixed emotions, I marveled at how brave she was to be able to take us there, and to face the traumatic memories of that day.

As our bus neared the Kibbutz, Tuval explained that she and her family hid in a shelter for 15 hours, including her two sons, one of whom has special needs. They then hid in the Kindergarten for another 24 hours together with 150 other Kibbutz members. Tuval described hearing shouting in Arabic and the terrifying sounds of gunshots and explosions as they waited to be rescued. She recalled WhatsApp messages from Kibbutz members saying that the terrorists were in their houses and begging for help, and eventually starting to hear stories of those who were missing, some of them who still are. 

In the words of Tuval, “We were saying goodbye to each other. We were preparing ourselves for when the terrorists would move from the house next door to our house. The community was worried and horrified by the situation. That was the hardest part of those eight hours until the army arrived for the first time.” Late at night on Sunday October 8, the Kibbutz members were finally rescued by the IDF, and evacuated to Eilat.

Standing at the gates of the Kibbutz, now adorned with posters of those still missing or held hostage, Tuval and Rona shared with us what happened that fatal day when terrorists invaded their idyllic existence in their agricultural paradise. As we walked around the now deserted grounds, I felt the anguish of what had been lost there. Eating a delicious lunch in the dining room, I felt a sense of the pride that this community had for their precious home. Lunch was prepared by Tuval’s husband Noam, an engineer who had taken on the role as Kibbutz chef and chief builder and was living on the Kibbutz, without Tuval and their two sons, five days a week, joining his family in Eilot on weekends.

Noam described how the dining room was the central gathering place on the Kibbutz, that all the food was prepared from fresh ingredients, that nothing was bought from catering companies, and that during festivals everybody congregated there and celebrated together. He explained that for the Passover Seder, each family had its own table to decorate and set up as they wanted to, with white table cloths and flowers. As we sat there, our group of around 20 people occupying part of just one long table, I looked around and saw all the empty tables in a dining room that usually seats 400. I imagined how this central and warm space would usually be full of life, of children, of older people and of hopes and dreams.

As we walked around the grounds of the Kibbutz, there were no sounds of children, of community members catching up, there was no laughter. The only sound that we heard was the sound of warfare, of explosions and gunfire. As we stood at the fence of the Kibbutz, we realized that we could easily see Gaza and I understood the proximity of the threat that this community had been living with. Prior to October 7 they had nonetheless felt secure, however now how could it be palatable to ever feel safe there again?

Despite these challenges, the overwhelming feeling that I had was that the community would return to the Kibbutz. I also knew with certainty that Jewish people around the world, like me, would do everything they could to help rebuild this community and others like it, and to make it even more warm, welcoming and safe than before. I had previously heard Yotam Polizer, CEO of IsraAID speak about post traumatic growth – not merely rebuilding, but rebuilding stronger and smarter than before. As Tuval, Rona and Noam expressed their determination to ensure that the Kibbutz was a place that people really wanted to return to, and could not just live in, but thrive in, this concept of post traumatic growth came to mind. For a moment as we stood there, with the sounds of birds interwoven with the sounds of war, I closed my eyes and imagined the Kibbutz once more filled with children running, playing and swimming and the dining room filled with families eating together, laughing and feeling at peace.

When I mentioned to my close family friends from Nir Yizhak, who are currently living far from home in Eilot, that I would have the opportunity to visit their home, I felt a mixture of emotions. At first, I was excited to share this news, but I then felt remorse that it was I visiting their home for the first time, without them, and when they did not have the opportunity to be there. I expressed this to them, but in return they assured me that they were so pleased that I would see their precious home, and that they just couldn’t wait until next time, when we could all be there together and they could host me as their guest. Their words and sentiments moved me, and I truly felt humbled to have the opportunity to visit this special place and understand what happened there, and also, most importantly, to walk away feeling positive about its future. I am hoping and praying with all of my heart that very soon, all of the hostages will be returned home, our soldiers will come back safely and the many evacuated communities will be able to start to feel that home can be home again.

About the Author
Amanda has travelled to Israel twice since October 7 on solidarity missions from Australia. She is a co-founder of Impact Generation Partners, which advises, invests in and supports enterprises that deliver financial as well as social and/or environmental returns. She is Co Chair of Philanthropy Australia and a Director of Impact Investing Australia. In 2021, Amanda was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia for service to the community through the philanthropic and impact investing sectors.
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