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Witnessing Israel: Sadness and Strength

Seeing TAMID's CEO, Yoni Heilman, at Kfar Aza. (courtesy)

“Look at it (Israel) through the eyes of what we build in the future, not what they managed to destroy” – Miri Eisin, retired colonel of the IDF, shared with us over breakfast.

I am still processing what I witnessed after a 2.5-day solidarity mission to Israel with CJP. Not in our wildest nightmares could we have conjured up what happened on October 7.

* * *

We walked to the middle of Hostage Square in Tel Aviv. We see a woman with red hair, holding a poster of her brother Ophir who was taken hostage (after terrorists broke his leg), with a sad, tired, and exhausted demeanor. Sharon tells us about her own nightmare of Oct 7, locked in her safe room for 36 hours with no food, water, or bathroom, while hearing “we want to kill you Jews – Allahu Akbar!” outside her window.

While Sharon’s immediate family somehow escaped the horror that broke into her community, Ophir’s family did not have the same fate. Ophir’s two children were also taken hostage and were released as part of an earlier hostage deal. They survived on half a pita a day, rain for clean drinking water, and they lived in full darkness in the tunnels.

In the middle of Sharon’s story, a siren goes off and we have 90 seconds to get indoors. I immediately feel anxious. And then feelings of guilt rush in. I remember Sharon said she gets 15 seconds to find shelter, here I am in Tel Aviv with 90 seconds, and back home in Boston, this sort of trauma is unthinkable.

Sharon doesn’t have the privilege to “check out” like so many of us can – her whole life now is dedicated to Ophir. The last update on Ophir Sharon heard was from a hostage released on day 56 who saw Ophir and said, “he was in a bad mental state.” That was over 2 months ago.

* * *

Our group drove south to Kibbutz Kfar Aza. My day job is to lead the Development Team at TAMID Group, a non profit that connects college students to Israel through business. Since October 7th, our CEO has been serving in the IDF. Miraculously he was off duty at the time of our visit, and was able to join our group – with a gun strapped across his back. I’m incredibly emotional seeing him – I hug him with a feeling of immense gratitude, sadness, privilege, fear, and desire for him to be back in his t-shirt (no gun!) on our morning Zoom calls. I hear loud booms in the sky. I jump. I’m told “that’s us – don’t worry.” I still jump.

Chen, a Kibbutz member, who was in Portugal on Oct 7, leads us through her community. She points out so many friends who lived in various homes that were burned, shot, and destroyed by Hamas. We learn the terrorists arrived at Kfar Aza and took over the arsenal shed immediately – they knew exactly where it was. I can’t comprehend that level of distrust. Chen explains why we keep seeing doors with blown off/missing handles: people held on to the door in their safe room against terrorists and died holding the door shut.

I’m reminded of all the challenges survivors face…. new housing accommodations, countless hospital visits, coordinating and paying for family therapy.

Throughout the Kibbutz, small reminders of normal life can be seen beyond the destruction – a campaign sign of a Mayoral candidate running for re-election was hanging on a building now marked with a “C” – meaning the building was cleared of terrorists, bodies, and explosives. The Mayor was murdered on October 7. I see a poster of Doron, a beautiful 30-year-old woman who was taken into Gaza. She looks familiar – Hamas recently uploaded a video of her begging for her life. I learn Doron’s mother was interviewed a week ago on Israeli news and desperately asked she be released now – if she became pregnant from rape, she is nearing the end of the window to receive a safe abortion.

* * *

We drive 30 minutes to Ofakim and learn about a family of 4 – a Mom, Dad, child, and 1 month old baby who, when they heard Arabic outside, jumped onto their roof and hid under their solar panels for 4 hours. When the IDF later sent helicopters to catch remaining terrorists hiding in communities, the father stood on the roof and waved 2 things: his kippah and a pacifier.

When dead terrorists were found in the coming days, it was discovered they had directions in their pockets, specifically outlining communities to unbelievably specific and accurate detail – not only where the synagogue was, but what time services were and how many people attended, to maximize killing. In Kfar Aza, they knew which homes were “young adult” homes, so they killed those men and women first, as they were in the army and would pose the biggest threat to their mission.

I again think about pre-October 7, when these specific communities, living close to the border with Gaza, were particularly champions of peace and shared society alongside Palestinians. These were the people that employed Arabs to do construction projects in the Kibbutzim. These were the people that drove injured Palestinians to receive life saving treatment in Israeli hospitals. Did the construction worker, who you treated like family, map out your house? The injured Palestinian – were they taking note of the best route to neighboring communities? How can you begin to rebuild that sort of trust again?

* * *

We head back on the bus and as I pull out my Google maps, my eyes widen. We’re driving very close to the Northern border of Gaza. A few minutes later, we arrived at the Erez Crossing. We walk around the area; we learn that yesterday 5 terrorists tried breaking through the border. I was assured they were neutralized immediately, but I can’t help letting my mind wonder… if we were there a day earlier?

I saw a group of 18-year-old men and women, mostly women, who were climbing into a tank heading to Gaza. They specialize in engineering and were heading to Gaza on a recon mission to gather more information on underground tunnels. I’m told they’re not combat soldiers. But they’re heading into Gaza.

* * *

We’re sitting in a building in Tel Aviv – far from Kibbutz Reim – with Roni and Zohar, leaders in the Kibbutz. Children are playing outside downstairs surrounded by what I know is new and different noises than what they’re used to 2 hours south of here. I think a lot about the children. A young Mom tells us the children are told they are working on making their home even more beautiful and they need to move away for a little bit while they work on it. But the older kids of course have a better sense of what’s happening. Roni’s 15-year-old daughter doesn’t like school, isn’t motivated to get out of bed, and has countless friends murdered and taken hostage. What is Roni supposed to do?

* * *

We made our way to Sheba hospital to meet with the Director of Integrated Rehabilitation. He describes their commitment to physical rehabilitation and mental health. They have worked with hostages in the past, but there is no playbook for how to deal with the current situation. Through simulation-based training, they are training their doctors and crisis therapists on how to receive, god willing, the next round of hostages, seriously preparing for a scenario where a woman comes back pregnant or with a child.

We enter a different room at the hospital and meet Elay, a young mother who miraculously survived in Kfar Aza with her husband Ariel and 18-month-old daughter, Yael. Terrorists set fire to their home while they were inside, they all suffered 30%-60% burns, and somehow escaped to hide, only to notice Yael slowly losing consciousness. They knew they needed help, or they would die – and luckily dodged terrorists to safety. They were airlifted to Sheba, where Ariel and Yael spent 10 days in an induced coma, and Elay spent 2 months sedated. Elay’s strength is superhuman. She leaves us with this – “they can burn my skin, they can burn my hair, but they cannot take away my smile.”

* * *

We’re in Jerusalem with Hersh’s parents, Rachel Goldberg Polin and Jon Polin. They feel familiar – Hersh is also American, he’s around my age, we have mutual friends in common. Hersh was at the Nova festival and after his left arm was blown off from the elbow down, he was taken to Gaza.

Their strength is unbelievable. Rachel discussed her meetings in Davos, with the Knesset, with high level U.S. officials. I realize they often refer to events not on the date it happened, but “Day X” – signifying how many days Hersh and the 135 others were taken hostage. My heart breaks that it’s been over 125 days since their child was taken from them.

They talk about how much the Jewish people and Israel value life. That it is our ‘brand.’ And if we don’t do everything we can to get the hostages home, how will we look our children and grandchildren in the eye and say we value life?

* * *

I came on this trip looking at Israel in the eyes of what Hamas managed to destroy. Lives, families, homes, innocence, trust.

But I am leaving this trip looking at it in the eyes of what we build in the future. This, of course, is more difficult to do. It’s easy to list all the things Hamas took from us, the Jewish people, on that horrible day. If there’s one light that can be found, it is the soul and strength of our people. The people who in the hours after October 7, drove several hours south with their guns to rescue people in safe rooms. Those who converted garages into logistic centers to help with families whose whole lives were destroyed. The strangers who offered hotel rooms and apartments to relocated families.

On our last day in Israel, we recited Israel’s national anthem, Hatikvah “The Hope.” I became emotional singing, as the words couldn’t ring truer: “Our hope is not yet lost, it is two thousand years old, to be a free people in our land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem. Our hope is not yet lost.” But let’s be clear – this freedom comes at a price in both blood and treasure. We cannot take this freedom for granted.

I leave Israel with the knowledge that our hope is not yet lost – let us all pray for a better future, where we are finally free in the land of Israel.

About the Author
Rachel currently serves as TAMID's Chief Development Officer. TAMID is a non-profit that connects college students to Israel through business, and operates on nearly 60 college campuses around the globe. Previously, Rachel worked in Development at Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP). Rachel feels privileged that her professional work intersects with her deep passion and commitment towards Israel.
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