April 1, 2024: Carole Yellen

April 1, 2024: Carole Yellen

My first trip to Israel was in May 2023 on Jewish Federation of San Diego’s CommUNITY Trip. I had previously declined opportunities to travel to Israel out of fear. My narrow understanding of Israel was based only on news of terrorist attacks and the conflict. When my children were younger, visiting Israel had felt like too big a risk to take. However, the CommUNITY Trip opportunity came at the perfect time as I had just become an empty nester. I was also reassured to be traveling with 220 San Diegans, and especially with Federation’s planning with an eye toward security. I spent months coordinating with 10 of my Jewish Family Service of San Diego (JFS) colleagues to get ready. I was excited, and yes, still a bit trepidatious.

Within the first days of our arrival, my worst fear came true, as we were faced with the news that rockets were being fired from Gaza. Even as we were instructed on what to do if we heard the sirens, our tour guides and security team continuously adjusted our schedule so that luckily, I never had to seek shelter. And during our trip, I came to see that life in Israel goes on. The streets of Tel Aviv were filled with nightlife just hours after sirens had sounded. Interestingly, I had the tables turned on me when an Israeli server stated she could never live in the U.S because she would be too scared to go to school, the grocery store, movie theaters, or synagogue due to gun violence. As I explained that, yes, gun violence does occur, but that life goes on, I understood how she came to her conclusions based on a headline view of my country.

One of our most memorable days on that CommUNITY trip was the visit to Sha’ar HaNegev, San Diego’s sister city which lies on the Gaza border. We received such a warm welcome as we disembarked the train in Sderot. Their community had been preparing for our visit for years. We toured the kibbutzim, planted trees, opened a new community center, and were even welcomed into their homes for lunch. They described that life was “5% hell and 95% heaven.” Mayor Ofir Libstein shared their plans to build a factory that would employ thousands of Gazans, working side by side with Sha’ar HaNegev kibbutzniks as a path toward peace and prosperity for all.

Those two weeks in Israel were truly the “Trip of a Lifetime.” While I enjoyed visiting all the major tourist attractions (Old City, Kotel, Dead Sea, Masada, Yad Vashem, and more), more importantly, I came to see Israel beyond the headlines, experiencing the beauty of the land and people, its rich history and traditions. I was inspired by visits to organizations that were working on many of the same challenges that we face in America, like ensuring democracy, reducing food insecurity and poverty, and how to welcome refugees with dignity. And we didn’t shy away from hard conversations. At the Shalom Hartman Institute, we engaged in dialogue that considered multiple perspectives, humanized the conflict, and gave me hope for future peace.

On the morning of October 7, I began reading the news from Israel and quickly understood this time was different. They were not merely reports of rockets, but also a coordinated attack, murder and taking of hostages. This time it felt personal as I considered my new friends in Sha’ar HaNegev. Fortunately, the family who had welcomed me into their home for lunch was safe and quickly evacuated, but Ofir Libstein z’l” died defending his community among many others. It was devastating for Sha’ar HaNegev, Israel and the worldwide Jewish community. I recalled the idyllic night we had spent together in May dancing under the stars to celebrate Lag B’Omer, not that different from the community shared at the Nova Festival. In a moment that should have been pure joy, the 5% hell invaded like never before.

So when the opportunity came to return to Israel more than five months after 10/7, I felt compelled to return and show up for our friends in Sha’ar HaNegev. I felt compelled to bear witness as many in the United States and world began denying the atrocities that occurred. I felt compelled to go and learn about how the people of Israel are coping with this trauma and learn how to support. I also knew that learning about their coping and resilience would offer me with professional insight to bring to our work at the Center for Jewish Care at JFS, where we support our Jewish individuals, families, and our community in San Diego during their most difficult times.

On our first full day in Israel, we visited the Hydrotherapy Center in Sha’ar HaNegev, which our local Federation has helped support. The facility had just reopened, and we saw adults and children using the gym and pool. Our guide, Tzachi, mentioned that reopening was not a financial decision but rather a community decision recognizing the need for physical and emotional healing at this time. He shared that one of their biggest struggles in reopening has been a lack of staff as many in the community have not yet returned to the SHN region. But they know they have to move forward. There is not time to wait. As much as physical healing is important, reconnecting with community has proven a powerful salve for emotional healing as well.

While at the Hydrotherapy Center, we also met with Mandy, mother of Emily Tehila Damari who is still being held hostage in Gaza. Mandy and three of her adult children live in Kfar Aza in separate homes. Mandy described Emily, age 27, as charismatic, everyone’s friend, and a lover of soccer and baking. On 10/6 she had been celebrating a neighbor’s birthday and stopped by her mom’s house that night while a little tipsy. On the morning of 10/7, they each awoke to the notifications of rockets and headed to their safe rooms, assuming it would end within minutes as usual. But hundreds of WhatsApp messages came in from family, friends and neighbors, it soon became clear that this time would be different. Over hours, Mandy could hear shooting and people speaking Arabic outside. Terrorists actually shot her door to try to break in, but the bullet jammed the lock instead. The electricity eventually shut off. Mandy messaged Emily to say, “I love you even when you’re drunk.” She never heard back from her daughter, but hoped it was just because Emily’s phone had died as Mandy’s own cell power was diminishing.

When the immediate threat was over, Mandy discovered that Emily was missing. It took days before it could be confirmed that her daughter had been taken hostage into Gaza. Other hostages who have been released reported they saw Emily and how, even in captivity, she was friendly toward the other hostages. Mandy holds these reports as evidence her daughter is still alive. This belief gives her the hope to continue each day. She meets with every and any official or leader in the world who can possibly help her free her daughter. However, she calls most of those meetings “tea and sympathy.” She is frustrated by the lack of progress in negotiations. Mandy admitted it can take time each morning to will herself out of bed, but when she does, every part of her day is looking for a way to keep Emily and the hostages on everyone’s minds. When Mandy feels sad, sick, hungry, or has trouble breathing, her thoughts immediately turn to Emily who she believes may be experiencing the same, if not worse. She has heard the reports of sexual abuse from hostages who have returned. She also knows the longer the war goes on, the worse the conditions for all those in Gaza, including the hostages. She does not have the answer to resolve this conflict, she only wants the hostages released. When our group asked Mandy what we can do to support her and the families of other hostages, she said to pray if you are religious, join rallies to raise awareness, and to keep her daughter’s story alive.

From there, we met with the Sha’ar HaNegev Regional Council and representatives of the Resilience Center. They reported that 1 out of every 3 community members are experiencing PTSD, leading to a 700% increase in requests for support. Many children are experiencing developmental regression. This crisis has had a multidimensional impact on individuals, families, community, and the region. Since 11 out of the 12 Sha’ar HaNegev communities were evacuated and displaced throughout Israel, Sha’ar HaNegev mental health professionals are often traveling hours to provide service and support. And of course, many of the therapists themselves are struggling with the impact of 10/7. Some have taken a step back while others find purpose in helping during this difficult time. In addition to making sure immediate needs are met, the Resilience Center is also focused on increasing connections across those internally displaced. They know that the two essential ingredients to resilience are hope and community. Five months since the tragic events that took the lives of many Sha’ar HaNegev residents, their hope is evident in the plans they described for the future, including the building of a Resilience Village to centralize all services and provide overnight accommodations for those who need intense therapy.

Next, we headed to Kibbutz Erez on the Northern border with Gaza for a briefing from Bar who is part of their security team. As we overlooked the Gaza border less than a mile away, they talked about the terrorists who attempted to infiltrate the kibbutz through gunfire, grenades, and RPG. After hours of fighting, they mostly warded them off but not without injury and death. When asked if their previous training had prepared them for 10/7, Bar said, “We prepared to fight off a few terrorists for a few minutes until the Army arrived.” They never dreamed of hundreds of terrorists invading at once nor that the Army would not come for hours or even days to aid in the response. We were told our group was visiting when it was relatively quiet, but we heard a couple of loud booms, apparently shelling. When I asked Bar what the noise was, he admittedly hadn’t even heard it as he has grown so accustomed to it.

Our next stop was SouthUp, an incubator in Sha’ar HaNegev that is expanding Israel’s start-up nation footprint in the region. We met with Growee’s founder who shared how powerful it has been to be part of a start-up community to build her business. She talked about the impact of 10/7, but said she is largely still in denial that it happened. None of the SouthUp businesses have been able to return to the space to resume operations. In the days immediately following 10/7, Growee sent a message to all their customers asking for patience in fulfilling orders as a result of the war. Not one customer cancelled their order.

Finally, we closed out our day with a dinner at Kibbutz Bror Hayil at the Barbosa restaurant where we were joined by past San Diego Shinshinim, Sha’ar HaNegev Community Captains, and our Gesher partners. I was fortunate to reconnect with the couple, Amy and Yotan, who hosted me in their home during our May CommUNITY Trip. They returned to their home in Kibbutz Gevim with their 9-year-old twin boys just two weeks ago. As they recounted their journey since 10/7 over dinner, they described their family as doing “fine.” Not great, but fine. Amy shared that the boys were happy to be home, but they also weren’t shying away from hard conversations. As a described peacenik, Amy is still trying to reconcile 10/7 with her commitment to living in the region to build bridges. One of her boys had asked her, “What if the terrorists had come into our home?” Amy struggled with whether to be truthful or to dismiss the concern. Ultimately, she felt honesty is necessary for them all to process. They talked about how the children may have hid in the closet, not just the saferoom in hopes that they wouldn’t be found. She said she may have called an Arabic-speaking friend to dissuade the terrorists from killing or taking them. As our evening program was running a bit late, I could feel worry building as the parents were overdue to pick up their children from the friends house where they were staying. When I asked if the children are more fearful, Amy said, “Not really, but I am.”

On our first day in Israel, we bore witness to extraordinary pain and shared tears as the trauma of October 7 has not, and will not, ever totally disappear. And simultaneously, we saw a community starting to make plans for the future. Many helpers have stepped up to inspire hope and strengthen community connections, and yet those helpers are experiencing pain too. They are living with the duality of grief and hope which is not likely to ease until all the hostages are returned and the war in Gaza ends.

As Heidi quoted from Shalom Hartman at the beginning of our trip: “Sometimes the community holds you and sometimes you hold the community.” In this moment, we are here because we must hold our Sha’ar HaNegev community!


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