The beginning of our new Jewish year has been extremely challenging. The massacre on October 7 has forever changed Israel and the Jewish people. At this time, we seem to be engulfed by news that strikes fear into our hearts.
In the midst of this darkness, I traveled to Israel with Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner and members of the synagogue he leads, Temple Emanu-El of Closter. Now, I can share words of light that I hope can help us as a community to remain optimistic in this time of war.
There are so many stories from my mission, but one day in particular stands out: my visit to Kfar Aza. Stepping into the kibbutz felt like entering a war-torn landscape, where the very air carried the weight of Kfar Aza’s ordeal. The visible destruction, marked by bullet-riddled cars and buildings, served as a visceral testament to the relentless conflict that had plagued the community. It was a surreal experience, walking through streets that bore the scars of warfare, each bullet hole and damaged structure reflecting a story of resilience and survival.
The firsthand accounts of residents detailing constant missile launches added a chilling layer to the narrative. These weren’t abstract reports; they were the daily realities faced by the people of Kfar Aza. The air of tension was palpable, and meeting at the point where Hamas entered the kibbutz provided a deeper understanding of the intricate challenges the community grappled with.
We engaged with victims of the attacks, who told us about their harrowing experiences. One mother spoke of negotiating with terrorists as they invaded her household, convincing them to leave her and her two children alone. Bomb shelters don’t lock because you might have to be rescued, so it is important that they can be opened from the outside. The mother told us that she held onto the door handle until the terrorists broke through. Then they demanded, “We want you to apologize.” She responded, “Apologize for what exactly?” The terrorists screamed at her as they stood in the doorway of the bomb shelter, holding guns, RPGs, and other weaponry, “Israel’s oppression of Gaza.”
At that moment, they hardly seemed like the oppressed ones.
This mother doesn’t understand how or why she survived. She joked that perhaps it was because they didn’t have the right coffee in the house for them to drink. Her ability to tell her story was heroic. Every narrative emphasized the crucial need for recognition, love, and support for the Israeli people.
As I made the journey to Kfar Aza, I had a heavy feeling in my stomach, a physical manifestation of the bone-chilling reality of being in such proximity to Gaza. As we navigated the kibbutz, we heard stories that were not just terrible — they were horrifying. We found ourselves covered in ash from the destroyed houses we walked through, a somber reminder of the destruction and the remnants of the unconscionable acts toward other human beings that surrounded us.
Amidst the somber experiences of visiting Kfar Aza, a moment of connection emerged during a barbecue on an IDF base about two miles from the Gaza border. That’s where the Givati brigade is stationed; it operates in and out of Gaza daily. These soldiers also staff the Iron Dome battery there, which unsurprisingly has had a lot of use in the last few weeks. Conversations with reserve and volunteer soldiers from around the world, communal prayers, and partnering to donate food also created incredible bonds.
We sang and prayed together, listened to their stories, and thanked them for being heroes of the Jewish people. The day ended on a note of resilience and unity, reminding us of the strength found in solidarity.
The visit to the IDF base near the Gaza border was a source of immense hope to us. Interacting with soldiers who operate in the face of constant danger and witnessing their unwavering dedication served as a beacon of optimism. In the midst of the challenging realities, this day at the military base illuminated the strength found in solidarity, offering a powerful counterpoint to our somber experiences in Kfar Aza.
As a Jewish teen, my commitment to spreading truth and hope has been invigorated by this mission. My experiences in Israel have ignited a sense of responsibility to share the realities and courage witnessed during this journey. In the aftermath of this mission, I am determined to leverage my voice and platforms to raise awareness about the challenges faced by communities like Kfar Aza.
I see it as my duty to disseminate the truth, shedding light on the stories that often go unheard. Whether through writing, conversations, or any other available means, I aim to convey the hope and strength that I witnessed. It’s about amplifying the voices of those who endure and inspiring others to engage with the issues at hand.
This mission has fueled a sense of agency within me, helping me recognize that as a Jewish teen, I have a role to play in shaping narratives and fostering understanding.
Am Yisrael chai.
Harry Klarfeld is a 17-year-old senior at the Abraham Joshua Heschel School, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. He lives in Teaneck with his parents, his three siblings, and his dog, Leo.