1. Pinner Shul
  2. Rabbi Kurzer's Thoughts
  3. Rabbinic Solidarity Mission – Day 2 – Be’eri
23rd January 2024

People have very kindly asked how I am doing on this trip – “are you coping?”  For me the answer is simple – this trip is what is helping me to cope.  Since 7th October, especially after the initial events slowed down and momentum waned, it has been hard to jump in and out of feeling the weight of what is happening in Israel while life continues, more or less as normal, all around me.  I have avoided reading too many detailed accounts of what occurred or staying in touch with every twist and turn of the news cycle because, for me, it is just does not work to go from regular life to reading horrific things on my phone back to an ordinary routine.

So I also knew that I needed to understand and to immerse myself into the story.  For us all to move forward as a nation we must internalise this as part of our national story, not to bring ourselves down but to allow ourselves to acknowledge what this has done to us, process what happened and move forward as a stronger nation.

We made five stops today and there is no question that each deserves to be talked about on its own so I hope to do that over time.

We went to Sderot and spent time with one of the (many) heroes of the day who from morning til night engaged terrorists, keeping them pinned inside the central Sderot police station – an unbelievable story but I will leave that for another day.

We visited the site of the Nova festival where more than 350 were killed and at least 40 more were kidnapped.  It was difficult and spiritual and uplifting and heartbreaking but I am not going to tell that story today either.

In the late afternoon (as the heavens opened!) we heard from the family of Moshe and Eliad Ohayon הי”ד in Ofakim, truly incredible people who gave so much to so many who were murdered whilst they were saving lives.  Their story also deserves its own description which I am not able to do here.

Our day ended at dinner with Rav Yosef Zvi Rimon, one of the foremost religious-zionist halachic authorities and an indefatigable dynamo in supporting Jews across Israel and beyond.

I will leave all those aside for now because for me, the story of today that I must tell first is that of Kibbutz Be’eri.  Four months ago, I had never heard of Be’eri.  It is one of a number of kibbutzim and yishuvim in what has become known as the Gaza Envelope (not really in the south of the country) that were attacked and pillaged and each one has many stories to tell.

The scale of 7th October can make it difficult to connect with and in this one Kibbutz we heard just one story – that of Elad Keidar – and went into just one house – the home of his mother, Ofra Keidar.  As a result, the terror, brutality and devastation of that dark day hit me like a truck.

The first thing I noticed is that Be’eri is beautiful.  The whole area is – the entire drive down from Jerusalem is full of greenery and life.  It is a picturesque Kibbutz with little streets, fruit trees and quaint houses.  We met Elad on a small road near the fence that surrounds the Kibbutz – a sweet, quiet man in his mid-40s who has spent most of his life in Be’eri.  “I am going to take you to my mother’s house,” he said plainly.  He might have been inviting us for tea.

We walked through gardens to the end of a row of about six or seven small houses.  Each was a scene of devastation.  Rubble everywhere, blackened outside and in, possessions strewn across the ground, deformed metal structures that were the remnants of bicycles or climbing frames or barbecues or who knows what.  As we walked our feet crunched through the glass and broken tiles that lay everywhere.

Elad standing in his mother’s house

Elad told his story standing outside the shell of his mother’s house and it is an experience I will never forget.  His mother, Ofra, was a vibrant lady who loved music, especially Elvis Presley, and went running regularly.  It was on an early run on the morning of 7th October that she first saw dozens of terrorists crossing the border on motorbikes and in cars.  During a call with Elad he lost connection and that was the last time he spoke to her.  Later it was discovered that she was murdered and taken to Gaza.  Her body still has not been recovered.

His father lived in a different house with a carer.  Elad remained in contact with the carer throughout the day until late afternoon.  He reassured him regularly that the army was coming although he did not believe it himself by that stage.  He later discovered that although the carer was shot and injured but survived, his father was murdered that day.

His sister, Yael, had special needs and would visit their mother at weekends.  On that morning she was alone in the house as their mother had gone for a run.  Elad was in touch with her early in the day as she told him that the house was full of smoke.  He told her to go to the safe room and put wet towels at the bottom of the door.  He was not able to get through to her for the rest of the day (he thinks she passed out) but miraculously she survived and was found alive later that night.

Elad was with his wife and two of their children in their house elsewhere on the kibbutz.  Their older sons were away with friends for the weekend.  They rushed to the safe room at 7am as the noise of rockets falling began and they stayed there for hours, too scared to leave it.  The experience he described was traumatic – hearing the cries of “Allahu akbar” and the gunfire, not knowing when the terrorists may break open the room, trying to keep two children still and quiet for close to 17 hours with almost no food, water or access to a toilet.  In the afternoon the electricity went out which made the room dark and without air.  Eventually, Elad opened the window a tiny fraction realising that though this was a risk, they may suffocate if it remained closed.

Elad finally heard the army enter his house around 1am.  Warily they opened the safe room (which he had barricaded with rope to the ceiling because the door would not lock) and saw a small group of soldiers.  The group carefully escorted them through the streets, keeping low, running from one covered position to another as the noise of gunfire was all around them.  As they exited the kibbutz they saw hundreds of soldiers waiting at the entrance but not going in.  Elad shouted at them to go into the kibbutz and rescue other survivors who may be inside but they told him that their orders were clear to wait until each house had been cleared of terrorists or potential booby traps.

The fridge with burnt family pictures

As I listened to his story, standing on the grassy path behind his mother’s house, I knew I could never do justice to the horror he was describing.  Even as he spoke, we heard occasional, disconcertingly loud bangs which Elad assured us were Israeli and no need to worry.  We walked through the shell of his mother’s house – a scene of total devastation.  The walls were black – in places it was hard to see anything at all even though it was a sunny day.  The front of the fridge was covered in family pictures, each one blackened by fire.  A tin of sweets lay open on the floor with a glazed melted mass sitting inside it.  Furniture was ruined or completely turned to ash.  Wires and twisted metal were strewn everywhere.

When we had first arrived in Israel someone had mentioned coming to “bear witness” and I thought that the analogy to the Holocaust was too strong.  As I stood in the lifeless skeleton of a home in what was once a beautiful neighbourhood I was horribly transported in my mind to my memories of visiting Poland.  Don’t misunderstand me – the atrocities of 7th October would be one tiny episode in the story of the Holocaust but there is still a menacing resemblance to the deep hatred that perpetrated what I saw in Israel.  It reminded me again how thankful I am that we have a State of Israel and a Jewish army who is fighting back against those who want to wipe us out.

As we continued to walk around the kibbutz (hearing more stories of hell and heroism) I noticed a beautiful fruit tree with some of its fruit lying rotting on the ground.  I stopped for a moment to look at the fruit that would never be picked and was struck by the remarkable symbolism of all the potential in Be’eri that had been snuffed out that day.

There was little positive I could take from my visit to what was, until recently, a peaceful, scenic kibbutz.  Perhaps the only thing I remember with a smile was Elad himself.  He told us that three months ago he would never have imagined himself speaking publicly, particularly in English but he felt how important it was to tell the story.  Each of us hugged him before we left and we noted that three months ago it was also unlikely that this secular Israeli could have imagined himself hugging so many English rabbis!  Today, it could not have been clearer to all of us that we are brothers.

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