Communities2Gether: Rebuilding Homes in Times of Need

This week, I’m handing the forum off to Kim Salzman, Director, Israel & Overseas Planning & Impact. Kim writes:

As part of our response to October 7 and its aftermath, the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh decided to partner with Kibbutz Nir Yitzchak, located in the Southern Gaza Envelope, to help them rebuild over the next three years through the Jewish Agency for Israel’s Communities2Gether initiative. On October 7, Hamas murdered seven kibbutz members and took six hostages, one of whom is still captive. Right before Pesach, the holiday celebrating the liberation of the Jewish people, I visited members of Kibbutz Nir Yitzchak in their temporary home, a hotel located just outside Eilat. My visit marked the beginning of this relationship, and a way for me to better understand their needs so that our Federation can support them most effectively. The visit left an indelible scar on my heart and soul.

Two dates loom over the 560 members of Kibbutz Nir Yitzchak: October 7, 2023, the cursed day when survivors fled their homes, and July 7, 2024, the day they expect to return from exile. In my many meetings with members of all different ages from the kibbutz, I was left with two main impressions:

  1. Pride in this agricultural kibbutz known for its strong community, quality education and cultural events;
  2. Tremendous uncertainty about its future and a sense that it will never be the same.

Although news outlets covered Nir Yitzchak less, the October 7 attack left the entire community in a state of trauma. As rocket fire began that day, terrorists infiltrated the kibbutz and set fire to the plastics factory near the main entrance. The fire alerted members of the rapid response team. They left their homes to assess the situation and put out the fire, but Hamas set an ambush and killed six of them.

Terrorists entered the home of Hanan, who grew up at Kibbutz Nir Oz and was raising his family at Nir Yitzchak. He gave his four children tablets and headphones as he held tightly the door handle of his safe room. He whispered to his wife plans for the rest of their lives if they managed to get out alive. Terrorists returned to Hanan’s home several times, the first time ransacking it loudly and the second time entering eerily and suspiciously quiet. Hanan explained that his home is now considered מחולל (michulal) or desecrated, meaning that if and when his family moves back to the kibbutz, they will want to replace all the furniture to try to erase reminders of what happened that day.

I heard so many more stories. Tal Chaimi, whose wife is about to give birth to their fourth child, left his home the morning of October 7 to help defend the kibbutz, was presumed to be held hostage and in December was pronounced murdered. Ortal, the security officer of the kibbutz, hid in her safe room with three of her four children while the fourth hid from the terrorists for hours in the cowshed. Avraham and Monica immigrated to Israel from Argentina over forty years ago. Their son was killed in a 1997 Israeli Air Force helicopter crash, and he is buried in Nir Yitzchak, so previously they never wanted to leave Nir Yitzchak because that would mean leaving their son behind. Now, they aren’t sure if that’s a good enough reason to return.

Members of Kibbutz Nir Yitzchak waited for hours until the IDF finally arrived. Close to midnight on October 8, they were loaded onto buses and escorted by the IDF to Eilat, where they remain today. Since then, the kibbutz has remained together, having moved from one hotel in Eilat to another hotel in the nearby Eilot. They insist on remaining together to keep their community as cohesive as possible. Each family has two small hotel rooms which have been converted to include their home office, living room, kitchen and more.

Some kibbutz members returned to Nir Yitzchak for a few hours to collect their belongings, bringing their bikes, their Kitchen Aid mixers, and their club cars with them to the hotel—anything to make the hotel feel more like home. Other kibbutz members still aren’t ready to return to Nir Yitzchak even for a short visit. It’s still too painful.

As Kibbutz Nir Yitzchak sits just several miles away from Rafah, the future of the kibbutz depends in large part on whether Israel can dismantle Hamas’s military capabilities there. Until then, many kibbutz members, especially those with young children, can’t imagine returning to the kibbutz, as painful as it is for them to admit. Older members of the kibbutz seem more willing to return, but without young families, there is no future for the kibbutz. Some families are split – one parent wants to return while the other doesn’t, at least not for now. Navigating the tension around such a fateful decision is something no couple should ever have to go through.What amazed me most about the kibbutz is their understanding of the importance of a community. They are already talking about how to keep young families together after July 7, after the government funding has run out and after some of the kibbutz members have returned to Nir Yitzchak. They understand that if each family decides independently where to live, the sense of togetherness and what makes this kibbutz so special will slowly disappear. They understand that they have to think both in the short-term, medium-term and the long-term, all while they recover from their losses and trauma.

After spending hours with the Nir Yitzchak community, I understand our Federation’s role much more clearly, and take great pride knowing that our Federation can make a real impact on this one kibbutz. Nir Yitzchak was established immediately after the founding of the State of Israel and, like many kibbutzim, secured the border of Israel. The State of Israel has no future without strong communities situated along its northern and southern border. Our Federation isn’t the only organization supporting Nir Yitzchak’s rebuilding efforts, of course; the government of Israel, the Israel Business Forum, IsrAid, and other Federations are helping to support the many short-, mid- and long-term needs of Nir Yitzchak. But our role is to help ensure that when the members return, they return to a kibbutz with an improved quality of life so that, pending an improvement in the security situation, young families continue to choose to call Nir Yitzchak home.

The future of the State of Israel depends on it.

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