We are shocked and saddened by the horrific actions Hamas has taken toward Israel and its citizens. Let’s stand together as a community and support Israel.
Meet The American Cowboys Who Rushed To Israel To Fill In For Farmers Called Up To Fight Hamas
One Out of Four Is Gone
Kibbutz Nir Oz (Meadow of Strength) was founded in 1955, becoming part of the left-wing Zionist youth movement Hashomer Hatzair. In the hands of its roughly 70 founders, a formerly arid and bleak 5,000 or so acres of Israel’s frontier were gradually transformed into an idyllic setting, green and lush, and in time featuring more than 900 different types of trees, plants, and flowers in its renowned botanical gardens. Over the years, they harvested pomegranates, avocados, and asparagus. Colors have become its calling card, and perhaps 20 years ago the small kibbutz built a factory and became one of Israel’s major paint manufacturers.
Set along a portion of Israel’s southeast border with Gaza, Nir Oz has had to contend with episodic attacks, including rockets (for which there are fewer than 10 seconds’ warning); incendiary balloons; and other terrorist activity. A number of people have been injured and even killed, but the commitment to building a better life for their families, their community, and their country helped them to overcome. A friend who lives nearby once told me that life in this corner of Israel is 95% paradise, 5% nightmare—but the former makes it all worthwhile.
Nir Oz became a community of roughly 400—with members now part of four generations, children and grandchildren having chosen to remain and build their own lives and families there. The expanded community of Nir Oz also includes agricultural workers, largely from Thailand; students on gap-year programs; volunteers; and a seemingly endless stream of visitors and guests. That was the backdrop to the events that began shortly after dawn on October 7, amidst one of the most joyous celebrations of the year, the holiday of Simchat Torah, which began at sunset the evening before.
Earlier this week, I was hosted for a visit at Nir Oz. A friend had connected me with Ron Bahat, who was born there and who, together with his daughter, was visiting his parents in a section of the kibbutz that is home to a number of seniors, many of them founding members. Ron along with eight or 10 others I met are spending days doing what they can to attend to and maintain their now abandoned community. No one is permitted to be there overnight, so they come early in the morning, work throughout the day, and at night, go home to wherever they and their families are staying. They greeted me with warmth and gracious hospitality. Through the introductions I learned that several have family members in captivity in Gaza, while others are in mourning for the dead. That’s not right. They’re all in mourning for the dead. And all in anguish over the missing.
There had been a funeral on Friday, following identification of another couple who had been incinerated in their home. Forensic experts, having worked for weeks on such identifications, had managed to retrieve enough DNA from bone fragments to confirm who they were. Tal, z”l, and David, z”l, Shalo. Friday had been more than a month since their murder. More than a month. And this funeral will likely not be the last.
Ron took me on a tour of sorts. We walked through the homes of the people he grew up around. Each one, a personal reflection. This is Gadi and Miri’s house. This one belonged to Dina, who was in charge of landscaping. Orna lived here. She was among the first to see the terrorists when she went to the gan, the preschool, to begin preparing for the anticipated return of the children the following morning (after the end of the chag). Here is Chaim’s home. A hero of the Yom Kippur War, he suffered from a severe disability and lived with a caretaker. That’s the house of Yocheved Lifshitz, one of the two elderly women released from captivity in the first weeks of the war.
I found myself wondering how many of these homes he’d frequented on social occasions. How many of the yards did his children play in together with their friends? How many memories was he carrying of love and adventure, holiday celebrations, and family reunions? How had he and the other young men and women been received by family and by their community when they came home on leave from the army? How many weddings did they celebrate? How many births?
It was easy to imagine the life they’d lived. A glance in certain directions reveals what they all saw in the days before October 7. Manicured lawns. Sculptures. Children’s toys and bicycles. Exotic birds. I saw a flock of green parrots and a couple of regal peacocks. And the trees. The trees and flowers that at this time of the year seem like nature’s fireworks.
And then, that image was driven from my mind as I saw with my own eyes what remains of the carnage. In some places, the destruction was total. Houses burned to the ground with their occupants still inside. Small bits of the lives of the dead and missing are recognizable. The skeletal remains of a sewing machine. A Shabbat candlestick. A side table. Ron told me about one older man who, though he couldn’t read music, could play any song or composition on his piano by ear. Against a wall in his burned-out home, I noticed the remains of the soundboard, the part of the piano on which the strings produce the vibrations that bring its sounds to life. He didn’t survive.
Other homes had not been burned. In those, the scenes, left largely as they had been on that horrific day, told other parts of the story. Many had tried to barricade themselves in safe rooms. Built with secure doors and thick walls, these spaces were created to protect people from rockets or mortars. The designers never anticipated the rooms would be needed as protection from terrorists, so the doors have no locks. The only way to prevent them from gaining entry was to hold the handle and to do so with sufficient strength to keep the killers at bay. In some cases, for hours at a time. Many of the doors had bullet holes, the automatic weapons fire leaving pockmarks in the walls across the room. In one, the inside handle itself had been blown off by gunfire—a blood-spattered portion all that remains of the handle and its holder. What was left of another safe-room door had a gaping blasthole in it. The explosive force had been so great that an exterior wall of the house in the next room had been blown off its foundation.
Those people who were strong enough or creative enough survived. (In one home, the safe room occupants stacked books under the door handle, effectively jamming it shut.) Those who weren’t are dead or gone. Blood spatter and blood trails are all that’s left, along with broken furniture, children’s toys, and other items kept in these rooms, which as often as not are someone’s bedroom when there’s no reason to hide there.
One young couple visiting from the U.K. was staying in the home of cousins who were away for the chag. The bloody trail inside reveals that badly wounded, at least one of them made a desperate attempt to get away. They didn’t make it.
In another corner of the kibbutz, there is a U-shaped set of cabins where the Thai workers lived. They were rousted from their beds and herded into the small bomb shelter a few meters away, the place to which they would run to safety at the sound of the red alert, a regular feature of their lives on the Gaza border. There, they were slaughtered to the last, their blood coating the walls, ceiling, and floor.
In early August, the kibbutz completed a major renovation of its central dining hall and kitchens. Though no one had been inside during the attack, the terrorists made sure to destroy much of that as well. The kitchens were set ablaze. Behind the bullet holes that mark the doors and windows, the dining room has been reset. At each place, a name and a photograph of someone from the community. Of the roughly 400 people living there as the sun rose on that horrific morning, one out of four is gone. Dead or missing.
Those unaccounted for range in age from 9 months to 85 years old, though Kfir Bibas, who had been 9 months old when he was taken, is now well past 10 months, having spent an increasing portion of his life a captive of butchers. They are holding his 3-year-old brother, Ariel, and his parents, Shiri and Yarden, too. At least they were, as their abduction was captured on video by the terrorists and broadcast on social media—Yarden having suffered a grievous wound in the process.
Nir Oz’s dining room tables are full. Full of pictures and names. As I walked through, the silence in the room seemed to be broken by their screams and the screams of their families and of the members of the community left behind. Of course, those screams were in my head, but it didn’t make them any less shattering. I can still hear them…
Ron and I sat quietly in a makeshift office in a maintenance building at the end of our tour. He told me about his plans and those of others from this community to rebuild and renew their lives here. To focus on the younger families. To raise the quality and caliber of every program, every school, and every service. They see a future that is bigger, better, and stronger than before. In the depths of the darkness, somehow a light still shines.
The news cycle has largely moved on. Now, it’s about the fighting in Gaza. About Palestinian civilians compelled by Hamas to remain in harm’s way as Israel brings to justice the butchers of Nir Oz and so many other beautiful communities. It’s about the explosion of antisemitism around the world and the newfound fears of American and Canadian Jews. All that is real. But we cannot permit ourselves to forget Nir Oz. To forget what was done to its people. To our people. To us. We cannot forget. We will not forget.
Am Yisrael Chai | עם ישראל חי
President and CEO
JCC Association of North America
Below, read the latest from the Jewish Community Centers Association of North America (JCCA).
Day 19: Iron Swords War
By Leah Garber
The parents of October 7, 2023
“A global humanitarian catastrophe” is how Rachel Goldberg-Poulin—the mother of 23-year-old Hersh who was kidnapped to Gaza after the massacre at the Nova Festival—defined the scenario of horrors she, her family, and the other families of the kidnapped, missing, and murdered have faced since October 7. Rachel made these remarks at the United Nations yesterday, which included this poignant question:
The cruelest question we are asked every day, without malicious intent, is “How are you?” Well, imagine your mother. Then imagine that she is given only two options: either you die, or your arm is blown off and you are kidnapped at gunpoint to Gaza, and no one knows where you are, or if you bled to death on that van 18 days ago. Or if you died yesterday. Or if you died five minutes ago.
Yoni Asher’s daughters, Raz, 4½-years old, and Aviv, only 2½-years-old, were kidnapped with his wife from Kibbutz Nir Oz. This is how he describes the nightmare he has been living since October 7:
What can you do when you know they are in this darkness? How can you not lose your mind, break out of the house, and scream like you’re on fire? Your children are in the land of the enemy. The worst is when night falls, you don’t want night to fall.
Parenting is a lifelong mission, 24/7, non-stop. Caring for a crying baby at night, every night, is as difficult as worrying for them when they grow up, when they are late returning home after hanging out with friends, when they get their driver’s license, the constant worry and sleepless nights when they join the army, and then when they are off to their traditional post-army trip to the East. Our children will always be our children. There is no expiration date for parenting, and the care that goes along with it is our life’s mission. It is our privilege and gift.
Now imagine, if you dare, what the parents of the murdered children are going through when today they saw an IDF spokesperson presenting a note found on the body of one of the Hamas terrorists who was killed on one of the kibbutzim. The note revealed the monstrous directives the terrorists received before they set out on their killing spree. In the note, the terrorists were instructed to decapitate, remove hearts and livers, and trace the victims. They were told to imitate former Muslim leaders who slaughtered men, sold women and children into slavery, and looted cities. Now imagine, if you can, what the parents of the murdered and kidnapped children are going through knowing the satanic intentions of the murderers and their operators.
How can these parents cuddle in their soft, warm bed at night, knowing their child is all alone. How can they bathe, eat, hug, shed a tear and expect comfort, breathe? How can they keep living knowing their child is abandoned in Gaza, at the mercy of their cruel captors? How can these parents wake up in the morning, get dressed, go to work, plan, knowing their child was slaughtered in an inhuman way, that their last sight was the murderous eye of a terrorist, knife in hand?
Imagine the parents of the children who were lucky, the ones who were saved, survived the inferno but came out of it wounded in their souls, traumatized for life. How can one calm a child who has suffered the worst of evil, seen what hell looks like, and now is asked to move on, play, draw, be a child? How can parents comfort them, promise this will never happen again? How can they expect these children to be willing to return to what’s left of their home in the south? How will these parents accompany their children to a kindergarten room with all the empty seats telling the stories of the dead?
How are the parents whose children were slaughtered, dismembered, burned, or dragged to Gaza expected to feel when in yesterday’s speech at the U.N., the U.N. secretary-general condemned the actions of Hamas and justified the terrorists’ actions—or minimally offered a reason for the malicious massacre—by saying, “Hamas attacks did not occur in a vacuum.”? What an outrageous statement, and more so, coming from the U.N. By contrast, Yair Lapid, former prime minister of Israel and current leader of the opposition in Israel asks some important questions.
What else needs to happen for reality to hit minds, penetrate hearts, change hypocrisy? Is an exhibition of severed limbs and charred bodies necessary to understand the full extent of the horror? If so, the honorable secretary-general is invited to visit Israel and assist in efforts to identify the bodies. Maybe then, the reality will hit him.
Dozens of bears with pictures of the kidnapped children were placed in Dizengoff Square in Tel Aviv.
More painful days and sleepless nights await the parents and families whose loved ones are in Gaza. The least we can all do is embrace them, pray with them, hope for the return of the abducted children and all the other hostages. Let them know their children are all our children.
The sound of the parents’ cry must penetrate every human heart, shake every soul, break through the walls of evil, and let the sun’s rays bring hope—even if only a bit.
Together, united, we will overcome.
Leah Garber is a senior vice president of JCC Association of North America and director of its Center for Israel Engagement in Jerusalem.
A Message from the JCC Board President and CEO
Not since the Holocaust have so many Jews been murdered in one day. There is no moral equivalent between Israel, a country fighting for its existential right to exist, and Hamas terrorists, whose barbaric acts are proof of their stated desire, not to achieve self-determination for Palestinians or peace in Gaza, but to destroy the State of Israel and the Jewish people.
Most people, regardless of background, condemn the evil Hamas perpetrated over the weekend while Jews were celebrating the holy day of Simchat Torah. However, there are those whose response normalizes antisemitism–American activists celebrating the loss of Jewish life in major cities across the country. Politicians and leaders refusing to unequivocally condemn Hamas’ brutal acts. 31 student organizations at Harvard and more at Berkeley blaming Israel for the atrocities unleashed by Hamas. The United Nations rejecting calls to denounce the terrorism. And some media outlets, declining to call Hamas “terrorists,” opting instead to use gentler terms like “soldiers” or “fighters.” Soldiers and fighters do not brutalize innocent women, children, and babies like Hamas did.
“Never Again” became the rallying cry for the Jewish people in the aftermath of the Holocaust and led to the creation of Israel. “Never Again” signifies the collective determination to ensure that the systematic persecution and murder of Jews would end with the Holocaust. As we mourn the lives lost and irrevocably changed in the aftermath of Hamas’ terrorist attack over the weekend–Israeli lives, Palestinian lives, American lives, and countless of other lives lost and forever changed–let us stand with and for the people of Israel and exercise the courage to clearly denounce terrorism and hatred wherever and in whatever form it occurs. It is only by standing together against violence and hatred that we can build a society where the cries of “Never Again” echo not just as a reminder of the past, but as a beacon guiding us toward a future where all our children, regardless of background, can live without fear.
Am Israel Chai
Nicole Werkmeister, President Shelly Prant, JCC CEO