Reflections while travelling to Israel - Alan Viterbi

Written by Alan Viterbi on November 25, 2023

Today I am joining a San Diego Jewish Community solidarity mission to Israel. (We are fortunate in that, since our trip was pulled together in the past week, the war has begun a short pause to allow for the return of some of the women and children being held hostage by Hamas, which coincides with much or all of our visit.)  Sixteen of us are going to Israel as shlichim (representatives) for our community for a four-day visit to express our community’s solidarity for Israel, and in particular to provide some shred of comfort to our friends in Sha’ar HaNegev, San Diego’ sister city, a regional council consisting of the kibbutzim and moshav in the northeastern corner of the Gaza Envelope.  Since Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza in 2005, Sha’ar HaNegev has endured thousands of rockets, anti-tank missiles launched at vehicles (including a school bus), and was the destination of Hamas’ attack tunnels, which were discovered crossing under the border and terminating beneath a preschool, a cafeteria and people’s homes.   


This past May, 200+ San Diegans traveled to Sha’ar HaNegev to celebrate our twenty-five-year partnership.  Residents vied over hosting us as guests in their homes at lunch, eager to share their normally idyllic and mission-filled lives on the kibbutzim with us, to celebrate our bonds, and to renew the strong people-to-people connections our communities have built over the past quarter century.  A few of us were fortunate to be hosted for lunch by our friend Ofir Libstein, the Mayor of Sha’ar HaNegev, and his wife Vered at their home on Kibbutz Azza.  Over a delicious meal, he described Sha’ar HaNegev as an amazing corner of Israel, 95% of the time heaven, and only 5% hell. 


Like so many other San Diegans, I feel deeply connected to Sha’ar HaNegev.  It’s not just the quiet beauty of the desert transformed into an oasis. It’s not even the story of halutzim (pioneers) who built these kibbutzim to populate what the United Nations would designate as the new Jewish State’s official boundary.  It’s the spirit of today’s residents, who for me have always personified the living, breathing spirit of the halutzim.  The people who choose to live in a place that’s 95% heaven / 5% hell because they have a vision of what it means to be an Israeli which was handed down to them by the founders of the State, their actual parents and grandparents, and which they dream and work every day to keep alive and to bring to fruition.  They work the land with their hands, and take pride in knowing every row of crops in their kibbutzim, like our friends Anat and Danny.  Like our friend Aharale, they inspired and educated the high school students of the region to be engaged, productive citizens, willing to sacrifice the best of years of their young adulthood to national service, while understanding that the people on the other side of the fence with Gaza are human beings who are also made in the image of God.  Like our friend Alon, they are people who worked to build business incubators and sports centers to inspire creativity and to build community. 


In October last year, Caryn and I, together with some of our siblings, spent the better part of a day with Ofir and one of his sons.  We got to see some of his dreams, small and big, becoming reality – the coffee truck in the park, where residents would stop, drink coffee, trade stories, and experience the best of life in this normally bucolic corner of the Holy Land, and we felt his enthusiasm, as he took us to a hill in Kibbutz Erez, overlooking the Gaza border fence, and the site where he was in the final stages of permitting an industrial park where Gaza Palestinians could enter Israel every day to factory and high tech jobs, paying Israeli wages, eventually employing 30,000 people, who in turn would better the lives of 300,000 family members in Gaza.  He was especially proud that the industrial park would include a medical clinic to treat the health needs of Gaza residents.  Sadly, Ofir was among the first victims of the unspeakable horrors perpetrated by Hamas against the people of Israel, and most especially against the peace-loving residents of the kibbutzim of Sha’ar HaNegev.  In just his family, one of his sons, his mother-in-law and his nephew were also murdered.  Scores of Sha’ar HaNegev residents were killed that day, and 22 are believed to be hostages in Gaza.  Some of Israel’s finest citizens, people deeply committed to peace and respect for the aspirations of their Palestinian neighbors, in spite of the violence they periodically experienced, were the victims of Hamas’ brutality.


I keep returning to Israel for a host of reasons.  Family.  Friends.  Food.  The feeling that I am realizing the prayer my ancestors recited for nearly 2,000 years to return home to the land of our people’s origin.  To feel inspired by people who are in a state of constant stress but live with a sense of purpose and meaning.  And because I feel that, even though I continue to live in the diaspora, Israel is also my home.  But tomorrow, I am not returning for any of those reasons, I am going to Israel because the leadership of Sha’ar HaNegev asked us to come.  They asked us to bear witness by hearing the stories of the survivors, and to comfort those injured, those grieving, and those with loved ones are hostages.  We cannot take away any of their pain, but we hope that we can leave them feeling our solidarity, and for them to know that people far from Sha’ar HaNegev have not slept well for the past 50 nights sharing in their agony.  And we are going to help them plan for the future, to understand how we can support them as they imagine a better tomorrow, so that the dreams of Ofir and all the many other good people of Sha’ar HaNegev, now of blessed memory, live on in the hopes of one day becoming reality.


So, if jet lag doesn’t prevent me from doing so, over the coming days, I will seek to share with you each night some stories from the people we will meet.  The people of Israel, and especially the people of Sha’ar HaNegev are an exceptional lot.  Even in these dark days, while the actual nightmare has not yet ended for them, they are struggling to still think of the people of Gaza as neighbors and to imagine how one day they can live in a real peace with them.  So even though I don’t understand how they can formulate such dreams in this moment, nor can I envision how that happens in my lifetime, I will pray that their dreams become reality, and soon – for them, for us, for the land of Israel, for the whole of the Jewish people, for all humanity, and for our fractured world that so needs such a peace.


Thank you for allowing me to share with you these experiences over the coming week.


Am Yisrael Chai,




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