No Ordinary Trip

PHOTO: A escort leads a member of the Portland/Las Vegas solidarity mission group into the home of Carmella Dan at Kibbutz Nir Oz in Southern Israel Tuesday, Dec. 5. Dan was murdered along with her granddaughter by Hamas terrorists during the Oct. 7 terror attacks. (Rachel Nelson/The Jewish Review)

The Jewish Review 
For the group of Portlanders who travelled to Israel in early December to bear witness to the aftermath of the Oct. 7 terror attacks, the first reminders of the state of the country they were coming to came before they’d even officially arrived. 
“As we landed, there was a rocket attack” at Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv, Rachel Nelson, Director of Educational Initiatives and Associate Director of Community Relations for the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland, explained, “and we were basically told, ‘Well, sit on the plane because there’s nowhere to go.’”
Rabbi Eve Posen, Associate Rabbi of Congregation Neveh Shalom, was also on that plane.
“That made it real,” she recalled, “that this wasn’t going to be any ordinary trip.”
When Rabbi Posen stepped off the plane at Ben Gurion Airport, it was her first time on Israeli soil in 17 years, but her connection to the place is indelible. 
“It’s the land of my lineage because it’s the land of the Torah,” she said. “When something terrible happens there, my heart breaks because we’re all family.”
She said she did not hesitate to take the opportunity to make a solidarity visit. Nor did Rabbi Michael Cahana, Senior Rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel. 
“I jumped on it right away,” he said of the invitation. 
Rabbi Cahana’s father was born in Mandatory Palestine, where the family had been rooted for generations. 
“I had been feeling like I needed to be in Israel,” he continued. “I really wanted to be there personally and not be reading about things from a distance.”
A friend of Portland's Jewish community, Pastor J.W. Matt Hennessee of Vancouver Avenue First Baptist Church in Portland, joined the trip as well. Pastor Hennessee, who is active in interfaith work in Portland and spoke to the community gathering held at Neveh Shalom days after the attacks,  has his own connection to Israel from studying in the country 40 years ago, staying with an Israeli family that he is still connected to, and visiting the country often over the years.
“It was the most stressful trip that I have taken to Israel because of the dynamics of what was going on,” he said. “I care so much for the region that it was really hard; seeing and feeling and hearing all of the things that we were exposed to there.”
After landing, the nine-member Portland group, along with a five-person delegation from Las Vegas, met in Jerusalem with Osnat Sharabi Matalon, a survivor of the attacks at Kibbutz Be’eri, Idan Roll, the former deputy foreign minister and member of the Knesset (Israel’s legislature) from the Yesh Atid party and author Saul Singer, before traveling the next day to Kibbutz Nir Oz, less than two miles from Gaza. Nir Oz was, in Nelson’s words, a “left-wing, peace-loving” community that had employed agricultural workers from Gaza. When Hamas came to Nir Oz on Oct. 7, the community’s head of security was the first person killed.
“They knew where he lived,” Rabbi Cahana recounted. “Somehow, the people who had been from Gaza, who had been on the kibbutz, got information to the Hamas terrorists to know exactly where to go and how to attack.”
After donning body armor and ballistic helmets, the delegation was led through the kibbutz, house by house. Buildings were so badly damaged that only the safe rooms remained. 
“You could see that it once was a home but it’s not anymore,” Rabbi Posen said. “Their sukkot were still up, you could see that there were half-empty bottles of wine around. On Oct 6, it was a joyful place filled with sound and people. Since Oct. 8, you cannot go there without a government representative and a flak jacket.”
The protection was there for a reason – while there, a siren sounded and notifications flashed on phones that rockets from Gaza were headed their way and they had 15 seconds to get to a safe room. 
“I will never forget the moment where we were all in helmets and flak jackets and were pushed to a safe house,” Pastor Hennessee said.
Of the kibbutz’s 400 residents, a quarter were killed, wounded or kidnapped. The homes of the kidnapped had posters on the doors detailing those who had lived there who were now hostages in Gaza. Fires had burned so hot that appliances had melted, and blood was everywhere. 
“I’ve seen houses destroyed by hurricanes,” Federation President and CEO Marc Blattner said, “but you didn’t see blood splattered because somebody got shot and killed or bullet holes through the doors of the safe room.”
“The bodies may have been removed,” he later wrote in an email, “but the specter of pure evil remains.”. 
Even among the evil and the horror, some remnant of the kibbutz’s beauty remained. 
“One of the things that stood out to me was towards the end, there was a tree that was full of birds and the birds were chirping,” Nelson recalled, “and just that contrasted with the singed remains of plants and houses; there was still life in the kibbutz.”
After seeing the trauma of the attacks and the response to them, the travelers got to hear about them from a variety of sources. Ambassdor Joel Lyon, Israel’s ambassador to Armenia and Moldova who had been recalled to assist with domestic matters, and Gil Hoffman of spoke to the day-to-day situation while IDF spokesperson Maj. Libby Weiss, a Portland native who made aliyah in 2011, addressed the military situation. 
While the details of their specific situations varied, a common message stood out. 
“In Israel, it’s still Oct. 8,” Nelson said. “Until the hostages all come home and until there is a lot of work that happens, it will continue to be Oct. 8.”
The group also spoke with a wide variety of people who were either victims of the attacks or rushed to the aid of those who were. 
Nelson recalled speaking to a family who, on a lark, had added a lock to their saferoom door years ago – an uncommon feature, as saferooms are designed to protect occupants from rockets and other heavy weapons as opposed to intruders bearing small arms – which saved their lives on Oct. 7. 
She also mentioned a woman who she connected with based on their youngest children being the same age, who was holed up in a saferoom with her family for 18 hours as Hamas terrorists roamed her neighborhood. 
“She spoke about having to keep her 18-month-old quiet for 18-plus hours while in her WhatsApp messages, she’s getting videos of terrorists on her in her yard,” Nelson recalled.
“Seeing and realizing that this devastation came as a result of people who hated so much that they would take innocent people, mutilate their bodies, burn them alive, behead children, rape women who had nothing to do with their oppression, it was staggering,” Pastor Hennessee said. “I still feel very moved by that.”
The group also met with leadership from the Jewish Agency for Israel, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and United Hatzalah, Israel’s civil ambulance service – agencies which all received contributions from JFGP’s Israel Emergency Fund. They’ve been at the forefront of efforts to help the country recover. 
The efforts to recover have been a unifying force in Israel, a marked change from the months before the attacks when political divisions seemed poised to rip the country apart. 
“All of that disappeared overnight,” Rabbi Cahana said. “The religious community is volunteering alongside the secular community, the liberals and the right wing, everybody is volunteering and they’re volunteering in lots of different ways.”
The delegation visited Kibbutz Mashabei Sadeh, a secular community of around 400 before the war that has now doubled in population by hosting mostly Orthodox refugees from elsewhere in Israel. Families arrived with children in pajamas, without shoes, and everything has been taken care of. The kibbutz now has two laundry centers for the additional residents, running nearly constantly. 
“They called the mayor of their regional council,” Nelson explained. “’These people need to do laundry.’ ‘Well, buy the washers and dryers; we’ll figure out how to pay for them later.’”
The kibbutz’s kitchen has tripled the amount of meals it serves, and the school will accommodate the displaced children for the remainder of the school year so they don’t have to deal with the shock of being relocated again.
“All over the kibbutz, there are these signs that say, ‘Need Something?’ and there’s a QR code and you take a picture of it and it immediately takes you to a place where you can request things, whatever you need,” Nelson said.
In other places, it’s the religious community that’s supporting the secular one. Because individuals from strictly observant communities are typically exempt from conscription into the IDF, they’re now some of the only civilians left in areas that have been most affected by IDF reservist call-ups.
“So there are volunteers from the Haredi community who are kind of coming in and taking on some of those pieces,” Nelson explained, using the Hebrew term for groups that are sometimes identified as “Ultra-Orthodox.” “You don’t usually see these communities unified like that.”
“People who have traditionally been working  in agriculture were gone, and so ordinary Israelis and foreigners, Americans, were coming on solidarity missions are volunteering to help pick fruits, to take care of the crops,” Rabbi Cahana added.
Wherever they went and whoever they saw, Rabbi Posen said that she recalled having similar conversations.
“The first thing was that everyone thanked us for coming and were so grateful that we showed up and because they were feeling alone,” she said. “But then the second question was, ‘Are you safe in America?’”
That idea seems backwards, but Rabbi Posen recalls the Jewish Agency for Israel mentioning that inquiries about immigration to Israel from the United States are up 78 percent since Oct. 7; from France, the figure is more like 500 percent.
“Which I think speaks to the global rise in antisemitism,” she said, “the fact that people who have red alerts every day, multiple times a day, were asking us if we were safe.”
One of the most memorable stops on the trip was at Kibbutz Revivim. As many kibbutzim have expanded their facilities to accommodate the displaced amongst the living, so Revivim has done for the displaced dead; 30 victims from Kibbutz Be’eri are temporarily interred in an expanded portion of Revivim’s cemetery pending relocation back to Be’eri when it is safe to do so.
“Some of these coffins are not full,” Rabbi Cahana said. “They’re burying the parts that they have.”
As the visitors assembled around the temporary graves, a thunderstorm blew through the typically dry Negev desert, the claps of thunder mingling with the rumble of IDF helicopters. One of the members of the Las Vegas delegation was a cantor who led the assembled group in El Malei Rachamim, a prayer for the souls of the dead, using a specific version for martyrs, as the storm intensified.
“Right towards the end, when the words were that they should rest in peace, there was a huge snap of lightning,” Rabbi Posen recalled. “And when we got to the end and all said ‘amen,’ there was a long thunder blast. It was almost as though the heavens were crying with us at that moment.”
“It was a very quiet ride back to Jerusalem,” Nelson said. “It was dark out, it was raining and people really didn’t have a lot to say.
From the smallest moment to the largest, Israel remains in mourning.
“This is not about Arabs versus Jews or Palestinians versus Jews. This is Israel versus terrorists, this is humanity versus terrorism,” Rabbi Posen said. “And when you see the way that Israel has come together to support those who have been displaced and to cry out for the hostages, this is a broken-hearted country. You can’t say ‘Oh, look at the destruction in Gaza. Israel doesn’t care.’ Look in the eyes of the people who are so hurt and so upset and so devastated. This is good versus evil and not Israel versus anything other than terrorism.”
Rabbi Cahana said that he was awoken in the middle of the night shortly after his return from the trip by the app he had downloaded while in Israel to alert him in the event of a rocket strike. It was notifying him of an attack in Tel Aviv, the last place it had recorded his GPS signal; a stark reminder of the reality that remains in the Jewish state. 
“I think  it’s hard for us to remember here that, for Israelis right now, it doesn’t matter however many days we are into the war; today is Oct. 8,” he said. “They’re in shock in the same way that we in America were in shock on the 12th of September in 2001. I lived in New York during that time. It was Sept. 12 for a long time. We were in shock for months afterwards. You don’t just move on from something like that, and that’s where Israelis are.”
Israel is in shock, Israel is in mourning, but Israel will rebuild.
The mayor of Ramat HaNegev, Eran Doron, who told the staff of Kibbutz Mashabei Sadeh that he would find a way to pay for laundry machines for displaced families, made two distinct impressions on the group when they met him. First, he came to their meeting wearing his IDF-issued rifle slung over his shoulder; a practical reality of living so close to a war zone. 
The second, Nelson recalled, was that “we need to go back to these communities and rebuild for the living and not for the dead. We need to go back and create living communities. That stuck with me.”
“It’s a message to say we will not be defeated,” Blattner added. “We will rebuild.”
Find the latest information on the situation in Israel at 


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