April 1, 2024: Zvi Weiss

I just completed my first day of a Jewish Federation-sponsored Solidarity Mission to Israel and I am thoroughly exhausted. My body is telling me to go to sleep, but I know that if I don’t write something tonight I’ll never be able to catch up. Tomorrow’s itinerary and the following days are just as packed.. My exhaustion actually began before the formal trip began, after I attended a Saturday night rally in Netanya in support of the release of hostages. The featured speaker at the rally was Hagit Chen, mother of hostage Itay Chen. Hagit had been notified last week that her son was dead. As she clutched her dog, she told us that she had to keep going for the sake of her other sons. When I approached her after the rally, I saw the pain and despair in her eyes as she shared with me that last week she was worried about how her boy would re-enter society after the trauma of captivity, and this week she is worried about finding a burial place for her son now that the cemetery in Netanya is full. 

The next day, our program began with a walk to the Kotel from our hotel. My first visit was in 1968, right after the small alley in front of the wall was replaced with the big plaza that we know today. There were huge throngs of people at that time, and at many of my visits over the years. Yesterday was marked by few people, and a new installation at the rear of the plaza listing the names of over two thousand civilians, soldiers and first responders, over an enormous display of yahrtzeit candles. As I approached the wall, looking at the many notes tucked into its crevices, I could feel the power of the prayers of peace that I imagined they contain. At dinner, we sat with reporters from Ma’ariv newspaper and the New York Times. The Ma’ariv reporter shared that while she typically tries to be detached from the stories she reports, in this situation it is impossible to not see yourself as part of the story.

And today began with a drive down to Sha’ar HaNegev where we were greeted at Kibbutz Mefalsim by Alon Shuster, former mayor of the region and current Knesset member. This was the first of two kibbutzim that we visited that were successful in warding off the terrorists on October 7th. From there we continued to the Hydrotherapy Center on Sha’ar HaNegev’s central campus where we were greeted by the center’s director, Tzachi Levy, a resident of Kibbutz Erez, who is one of very few families who have moved back to the Kibbutz. He has visited SDJA many times, including as a chaperone for differently abled athletes at the San Diego LFJCC-hosted Maccabi games.

While at the Center we met with Mandy Damari, whose 27-year-old daughter Emily is being held hostage. She talked about the nightmare of waking up each morning to face another day of her daughter’s captivity, knowing very little about her fate other than a couple of reports from released hostages who encountered her in captivity. Emily is “the life of the party,” with an amazing attitude toward life. Two nights before her capture, she was at a party and got tipsy. Later that evening, visiting her mother she shared that she felt that her mother was upset she was drunk. The morning before her capture, while sharing her fear of the invading terrorists with her brothers, Emily did not want to worry her mother. Mandy, sensing her daughter’s fear, sent her the text “I love you even when you’re drunk”. This was her last communication with Emily. Expressing her frustration over the attempts to advocate for her daughter's release, she shared that most conversations with politicians were nothing more than “tea and sympathy” sessions. President Biden was one of the few who gave them hope. Feeling like they were getting close to release, the U.S. refusal to veto the last UN vote broke her spirit and delayed the prospect of release even further.

Following lunch we visited the Sha’ar HaNegev regional Council building, where we were greeted by a large poster memorializing Ofir Libstein, my friend and mayor who was murdered in the first hours of the October 7th massacre. They had just finished rebuilding the council building according to Ofir’s dream, making the structure itself a shelter from rocket attacks. At the council building, both the acting mayor, Yossi, and the council’s CEO Lior shared that despite their initial skepticism, the visit by their students to SDJA has been one of the most significant projects since the war, one that has impacted their entire community and one that the students themselves will carry with them for the rest of their lives,sharing their gratitude for our hospitality and support. Next, we visited Ibim, a community that includes a large absorption Center, which is where San Diego’s partnership with Sha’ar Hanegev began some 25 years ago. There I ran into former SDJA Head Larry Achaetel, who began the original student exchange programs between the two schools some twenty years ago. It’s really Larry’s strong and lasting relationship with a former head of school in Sha’ar haNegev that built the foundation for our relationship today. While at the Absorption center we built benches and were helped by eager young Ethiopian immigrant children, happy to have left Ethiopia for Israel, and happy to have survived the attacks of October 7th.

Leaving Ibim, we stopped at Tzachi’s kibbutz, Kibbutz Erez, where we stood on the same outlook that I visited with the late mayor only two years ago. From that point, you could see the crossing into Gaza where Ofir had begun building an industrial park and medical center that would service residents of Gaza, as an attempt to build peace between the regions. Today, with the murder at the hands of the very people that he was planning to help, it is clear that the dream is no longer. Meeting with Bar, the kibbutz’s security head, we heard another story of an incursion avoided. Bar was a true hero. When he heard the terrorists were headed his way he left his 2 daughters, 5 and 8 years old at home alone and recruited about 20 to defend the kibbutz. His words were: “I had no other choice but to go out there and make sure the terrorists wouldn’t enter, to keep my daughters safe. Fighting off about 40 terrorists, they lost one of their security details as they protected their gates and fences for five hours straight until the terrorists finally left to try another village.

Next, we visited SouthUp, Sha’ar HaNegev’s Tech incubator, where I met with Keren, whose startup, Growee, allows smartphones to control home-based hydroponic projects. I had met Keren on two previous trips, and it is exciting to see how much the startup has grown. She shared stories of the emotional challenges of reopening post October 7th as she and her employees lost so many friends and loved ones, and the logistical challenges of shipping products, as postal service had been suspended to the region. She shared how the incubator’s other startups really became a supportive family.

Finally, we were joined by many colleagues and friends for dinner. I ate with Michal and Martin, a couple who hosted me at their beautiful home overlooking the Gaza border, on Kibbutz Mefalsim last May. Martin shared that he was overseeing a camping trip for 80 of the kibbutz children at the edge of the kibbutz when the attack began. He had to scramble to get everyone to their homes, being shot at as he drove a vehicle transporting the children, his own son grazed by a bullet. In a previous visit I saw the safe room where they spent the next hours, until eventually they were evacuated to a hotel in Caesaria, where they are living until today. Michal, a busy architect, shared that she is more busy than ever helping families who plan to rebuild their homes. The one challenge that she expects is finding the construction workers to execute the plans, as most of them had come from Gaza.

Yes, the start of this program has been emotionally exhausting, yet I feel that it is necessary, as I represent SDJA to show our family in Sha’ar HaNegev that we are there for them and to bear witness to our community of what our family in Israel is living through. As I write these words, the hour approaches 2AM, I will try to catch a few hours of sleep before embarking on another meaningful day in a few hours.

Am Yisrael Chai!


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