Bearing witness to the aftermath
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FIRST PERSON

Bearing witness to the aftermath

A look at unspeakable brutality and unshakable unity

Michael Schlank is a Jewish communal professional who has been the CEO of NJY Camps since 2020. He is a former president of Midway Jewish Center in Syosset and a member of the Board of Trustees of the Mercaz Academy in Plainview.

This is a street in the ruined Kibbutz Kfar Aza. (Courtesy Michael Schlank)
This is a street in the ruined Kibbutz Kfar Aza. (Courtesy Michael Schlank)

About three weeks ago, I was invited to visit Israel as part of what is commonly called a mission trip, supported by the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs and under the auspices of the JCCA of North America.

Everyone I spoke to made it clear that I should join the delegation. I would accompany some of the most seasoned and influential Jewish communal leaders in North America. This was a privilege, and in many ways it was my responsibility to show solidarity. It was my assumption that we would be there to stand shoulder to shoulder with the people of Israel. I assumed we would be asked to share with our communities the devastation that Hamas had wrought and describe Israel’s war efforts to them.

Kibbutz Kfar Aza was a prime target for Hamas.

It became evident to me very quickly, on our first full day in Israel, that solidarity was appreciated and welcomed lovingly and with open hearts by our Israeli brothers and sisters. But bearing witness would be our holy and moral obligation.

That obligation was given to us by the survivors and the witnesses, and by the soldiers and the victims. It was a theme we heard repeated regularly and with deep passion and often out of desperation because the supplicants believed the world was not listening.

To bear witness is painful, at times excruciatingly so, in ways that have scarred my soul. But it has become a duty. Hillel Fuld remarked to our group that the depravity of the attacks slowed the Hamas terrorists. They opted for brutality over a more extensive military victory. That only means that Hamas’ intention was to kill and torture and rape in a genocidal rampage, and I bear witness to that aftermath.

These are the remains of the police station in Sderot.

I bear witness to Ronen, a police officer we met in Sderot. He arrived in Sderot on the morning of October 7, greeted by a terrorist bent on murdering him for being a Jew. We saw body cam footage of that same police officer a short while later, as he pulled two sisters, one of them 3 years old and the other 6, from the back of their car — and from certain death. Those two sisters, minutes before, witnessed a terrorist murder their mother and father in that very same car. Ronen saved their lives and the lives of many others after, until he himself was shot and had to be evacuated.

Still at Sderot, I bear witness to Alona, a member of the city council who read to us a text she sent to her children’s father. She said goodbye to her children and charged their father with their care. Her agony was still palpable, real, and raw more than a month later.

This is another view of the devastation in Kfar Aza.

I also bear witness to our group being under rocket attack in Sderot, an attack designed to kill us and the remaining 3,000 Jews who still dared to remain there.

I bear witness to the nightmarish hell that is now Kfar Aza. Fully clad in flak jackets, helmets in hand, we walked the grounds of a killing field. As we entered Kfar Aza, mortars and rockets shook the ground and sometimes reverberated inside us; those sounds served as the soundtrack for the entirety of our visit. The air was still tinged with a burning smell, left by the terrorists’ use of gasoline and tires to set homes and human beings on fire.

Kfar Aza was a peaceful kibbutz, a home to Jews that came under attack that bloody Simchat Torah. The leader of the community had dreamt of a Silicon Valley where Israelis and Gazans worked together; he was murdered on his front steps for being a Jew. As we walked, we saw house after house l riddled with bullet holes and pocked by hand grenade blasts; dozens were devastated by fire.

This poster hangs on a streetlight on Agron Street in Jerusalem.

We walked past a door painted with princesses; a Hamas murderer had fired an RPG at it. With terror and tears I pictured in my mind’s eye the family who was huddled in a room behind that door. We entered another house, each of us gasping in horror and then standing in near silence. The room we stood in was no bigger than 8 X 10 and it told a story of death and destruction. It was riddled with shrapnel and bullet holes, and faint blood spatter was still visible.

A young couple lived in that home, and they died a horrific and terrifying death in the room. Outside, there was a pile of women’s clothing. Aviel, our IDF guide through Kfar Aza, explained that it was left by Gaza’s “civilians.” Those “civilians” came streaming into Kfar Aza to loot and pillage the community’s possessions. As we left, Maya, a young member of the IDF, pleaded with us to tell this story, with a level of anguish a person her age should never know. We promised that we would.

The mayor of Sderot, center, in black, talks to IDF reservists.

The depravity we witnessed was monstrous, and I bear witness to all this and more.

We also met with Rabbi Doron Perez, who had one son taken hostage and another wounded on October 7. We listened to Rav Perez’s anguish as he talked about his beloved young son, now held captive in Gaza. We witnessed a man struggle through the impossible pain of a parent whose son was, at best, stuck in some underground warren deep in Gaza, terrified and alone, while his other son, recently married, was preparing to return to battle. Rav Perez is a high-profile member of Israeli society, so his family’s story has gained wide notoriety within Israel and beyond. But there are literally hundreds of other stories that are equally brutal.

I also bear witness to a nation made up of people who are, as one of my colleagues called them, “super people.” We met Yehuda, a 23-year-old soldier who on that October 7 fought like a lion and hero at Kibbutz Be’eri. By some accounts he saved hundreds of lives before he was shot in the neck and left for dead. We met him in Shamir Medical Center, where a team of doctors is doing cutting-edge work on regenerating neurons through groundbreaking hyperbaric oxygen treatment. Yehuda should have been speaking to us from a wheelchair; he should have had limited movement in his arms and hands, if he had any at all. But he didn’t; he walked in and out of the room, with full use of his arms. And all Yehuda wants to do is join his unit in Gaza.

Michael Schlank stands with an all-woman Border Guard unit.

Doctors, like Shai Efrati and Keren Doenyas-Barak, perform miracles every day on patients with PTSD and patients like Yehuda. They do so with little or any infrastructure support from officials in the Israeli government. The government has retracted, and the people have filled the vacuum in miraculous ways.

I also bear witness to a country where civil society and the people have come together in remarkable ways, mostly in the absence of official government support. We met with a reserve unit of elite soldiers at Beit Arieh. These reservists, ranging in age from their early twenties to their mid-forties, gathered on their own to defend the Jews in Beit Arieh. Remarkably, they formed this unit without direction from anyone, and they did so with love and pride. Each one of these soldiers told us that they were there to protect the Land of Israel and the Jewish people. In their minds their duty was not limited to their friends or their family or even their homeland, but it extended to all the Jewish people.

Back when the world was sane, this was a place to sit and drink coffee in Kfar Aza.

I bear witness to an Israeli population that has come together to support the hundreds of people living in hotels who are displaced after October 7, and for the families whose lives have been thrown into disarray because a parent or a child or often both are now serving in the IDF. We met a physician who voluntarily comes three times a week to do laundry for families living in the Dan Panorama in Jerusalem. The doctor does so on her own, without any coordination with the government or any official body. This is an extraordinary story. But in Israel the extraordinary has become ordinary.

We toured Kfar Maccabiah, where the surrounding community of Ramat Gan has come out in such numbers to volunteer to assist their fellow Israelis who have been internally displaced that they have almost one volunteer for every two people. We watched a local little boy living in Ramat Gan celebrate his fifth birthday with other children in a makeshift classroom. This young boy, all on his own initiative, had decided to come and share cake, sing, and donate all his presents to these children, whom he had never met before that day.

I bear witness to people who despite their own national and personal pain feel deeply connected to their brothers and sisters in the Diaspora. In a nation at war, a nation that has experienced a national tragedy that literally has touched every single person, each person we met wanted to know how we are. How are things in America? Is it safe? Will you be OK? They were thankful for the support from America and wanted us to know that they cared about our fate as much as their own.

In our final session, we had the privilege of meeting with the chairman of the Jewish Agency, retired general Doron Almog. Doron embodies the story of Israel. A war hero, universally respected for his dedication to building a civil and just society, he and his family have paid an unspeakable price at the hands of terrorists, bent on the destruction of the Jewish people. Yet in the face of all the tragedy he has experienced, Chairman Almog sees possibility and opportunity for a stronger, more just, and cohesive Israeli society in partnership with the Jewish Diaspora.

I bear witness to the vision of a mighty Israel and a Jewish people who will be a light unto the nations.

Michael Schlank is the CEO of the Jersey Y camps.

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