Horror, Heroism, and Hope

The Fellowship  |  May 16, 2024

Aerial view of a large crowd of people walking towards the Western Wall to pray.
(Photo: Eli Mandelbaum)

One Staff Member in The Fellowship’s Chicago Office Reflects on The Fellowship Board’s Solidarity Mission trip to Israel, March 2024.

Sunday, March 17

Visiting the Kotel (the Western Wall)

Whenever I visit the Kotel, I’m reminded of the Jewish people’s place unlikely place in history. For so long, Jews were not able to access this site – the holiest in Judaism. When I touch the Wall, I remember how the Jews have prayed every day, in every generation over two thousand years, to see the rebuilding of Jerusalem. How fortunate we are to be living in a generation that is witnessing that rebuilding, and how unfortunate that we continually have to fight to retain that privilege.

Monday, March 18

Re’im, Site of the Nova Music Festival

This site of one of the worst massacres on October 7 was covered with pictures and memorials to those who were murdered. The pictures all were from happier times, when each young man or young woman was full of life and a future.

Photo: Guy Yechiely

We met with the Head of Security, Ilan (Keith) Isaacson, who was responsible for the area, and he described the scene. He brought his nephew, Nadav, who had been at the festival.

Nadav, with great difficulty and emotion, spoke of his experience. He had recently finished his regular army duty. He hadn’t planned to go to the festival, but some friends were coming, and since he lived in the area he decided to go with them. When the shooting started, everyone panicked. He saw unimaginable things. But since he knew the area, he was able to see from which direction the terrorists were coming and guide a group of a few hundred away from the fighting. Among the group were people who had been injured, and people who were in shock. The young man spoke of the difficulty in guiding them away. He saved many lives.

That was October 7. On October 8, he was called to army reserve duties. He had only recently returned home when he came to speak to us. Toward the end of his talk, he could barely speak, and his uncle had to take over. I said to the uncle, Nadav was brave during the festival, brave in returning to his reserve duty, and also brave to have spoken to us. His uncle said that it was only a couple of weeks ago that Nadav had been able to tell his own parents.

Kibbutz Kissufim

Visting this kibbutz was probably the hardest of all the visits we made during our trip. We spoke with the head of security, Rony Sfadj.

When the terrorists arrived, they first went to his house, knowing he was the head of security. He was there with his wife and his four children. After a short fight, during which he was able to kill one of the terrorists, he shepherd his family into their safe room.

Generally, the safe rooms do not have locks on the inside of the doors since they are meant to protect from rockets, not invasions. This man had to hold the doorknob for several hours to prevent the terrorists from entering. The family survived, but as you can see from the picture above, their house was burned like many others in the kibbutz.

The other house we visited held even more horrors. The gentleman, Danny, in the picture below explained how his daughter and son in law were burned alive in the house behind him. He asked that we say Kaddish (a traditional Jewish prayer) with him to memorialize the dead. He ended his talk with the same words that many others we spoke to said – Am Yisrael Chai” (which means “The Nation of Israel lives”).

Photo: Guy Yechiely

Ofakim

We then went to a town called Ofakim. A security official from the town spoke to us, explaining how the terrorists specifically had targeted a poorer part of town with many elderly, because the terrorists knew these vulnerable people would not have safe rooms in their house and would have to go outside bomb shelters. In the beginning of the day on October 7, during the massive barrage of rockets, many went out to the shelters. The terrorists waited for people to come out and then shot them.

Our group visited some of the survivors of that attack. I visited one elderly couple who are Fellowship beneficiaries. They husband is disabled, and they were not able to leave the house. However, when the wife went to the window in her kitchen to see what was happening, a terrorist pointed a gun at her. Fortunately, the terrorist was distracted, and she and her husband were able to go to an upstairs neighbor. Another of our beneficiaries had lost both her son and daughter in the attack as they ran to the shelters.

The day was filled with lots of emotion and tears.  The most stoic amongst us broke down.

Tuesday, March 19

Visit to Northern Israel

The northern border of Israel is constantly under attack from rockets from Hezbollah terrorists operating out of Lebanon. These are precision guided rockets, and the Iron Dome cannot totally protect the area. Israel had to evacuate over 60,000 people from the most vulnerable areas.

Lake House Hotel

Our first stop was to a hotel that was housing many evacuees.

Living in a hotel might sound like a luxury, but the folks we spoke to just want to go home. The elderly woman pictured above said she hasn’t been able to see her grandchildren for months. People spoke of having no privacy. Businesses have closed. Neighbors are split up all around the country, and children are separated from their friends. This is particularly hard for teenagers.

Efrat, from The Fellowship’s Israel office, spoke of a friend who was living with her husband and three children (one of whom is a teenager) in one room, with one bathroom. The evacuated people are worried about their homes. The evacuated cities are like ghost towns. These people have been away from their homes for months. But they can’t go back until it is safe.

Elyakim IDF Base

Next, we visited an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) base for reserve soldiers, who were preparing for their next engagement. We had lunch at the base, and were able to see the Fellowship’s Hospitality Vehicle in action.

One of the soldiers especially wanted to meet with us to thank The Fellowship. He is Druze (a minority sect in Northern Israel), and he has been a recipient of a program we have to provide scholarships to that population.

While we were there, Michele Bachmann gave the keys to a reinforced security vehicle to one of the security officials of the Northern Region. Subsequently, that vehicle was used to safely provide a family the opportunity to bury a family member in their community cemetery.

Hostage Square

We visited Hostage Square, a plaza where the families of the hostages held in Gaza meet, share photos of their loved ones, speak to visitors about their family members, and advocate for the return of the hostages. In the square there is a replica of a tunnel, with sound effects, to let people imagine and experience what it must be like for the hostages. The picture shows a table that is set with an empty seat for each one of the hostages.

We met with one young man whose cousin, Carmel Gat, is still held in Gaza. He spoke of what his Aunt, Uncle and cousins experienced on October 7. On that day, his Uncle was able to hide, but his Aunt was taken and subsequently murdered. His cousins were taken as a hostage. His cousin, wife, and three-year-old were taken, but at one point they were able to escape. They were running holding the baby. But when it became clear that the mother was not able to run as quickly, she handed the baby to the father, and told him to run. He ran, holding the baby and was able to escape. The mother was eventually recaptured. She was one of the released hostages in the initial agreement, but Carmel wasn’t. She is still held in Gaza.

Wednesday, March 20

Our first stop was Hadassah Hospital, where we were able to see a brand new rehabilitation center that Rabbi Eckstein was instrumental in establishing. He, in fact, set the cornerstone for the building. Visiting the site was probably the last public appearance before his passing.

We also visited some of the wounded and recovering patients. I was able to visit one young man. He was not injured in the war. Instead, he had recently been released and was travelling with his mother when terrorists fired on cars waiting at a checkpoint outside of their town, Maale Adumim. He had his pistol with him, and he got out of the car and was able to shoot one of the terrorists, but he was injured in the process. We wished him a “Refuah Shlema,” a complete recovery. And Rabbi Korobkin (a board member from Canada) gave the priestly blessing.

Another young man who was injured was kind enough to entertain us, rather than the other way around. Both young men showed amazing courage and resilience.

Nadav, nephew of Keith Isaacson and survivor of the Nova massacre. (Photo: Guy Yechiely)

Har Herzl Cemetery

Har Herzl is the military cemetery in Israel, and has the graves of the soldiers who have fallen in battle as well as some of the great leaders of Israel. We were taken to the freshest graves. Row after row showed the date of the fallen– October 7. These are the people who rushed to protect others, and were killed in the process. We were each given the name and background on one of the young (mostly) men who were buried there, bringing the experience closer.

President’s House

We were honored to be able to visit Israeli President Herzog and his wife at the President’s house. The presidency is more of a ceremonial role in Israel. However, President Herzog is influential in many ways. He comes from a distinguished family. His Grandfather was the first Chief Rabbi of Israel, and his Father had also been President of Israel.

After going through security, we were guided to a room. When the President and his wife came into the room, we all stood, as protocol dictated. The President requested that each person introduce himself or herself. He was very appreciative of the work that The Fellowship is doing, and his wife emphasized the need to address the increased mental health issues for the country. I was so impressed on how personable they both were. One thing that was particularly touching was that President reached out to one of our board members and the director of our Israel office to ask them for the names of their sons who are currently serving in the military. He wrote them down to keep them in his prayers.

In Conclusion

This was an amazing, impactful trip. Thanks to the whole Israeli staff for arranging this trip.  Thanks to Yael Eckstein. And a special thank you to Ayelet Shiloh Tamir, Davida Kutscher, and Tamilia Maksimov for all their efforts arranging every detail, and keeping us on schedule. Our hearts and prayers go out to all the people we met, and to our extraordinary wonderful Israeli team.

-Laurie S., staff member in The Fellowship’s Chicago office

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