Wednesday, July 10, 2024

Day 8 - Otef Gaza, The Gaza Envelope

Today is a day that I have been anticipating for a long time, ever since the mission to Israel became a reality.  The main reason I wanted to be a part of this mission was to bear witness to what happened on October 7, and to share that experience with you all while showing my love and support for the Israeli people who are still traumatized from the horrific attack by Hamas.  I knew that these steps I would take today would be difficult, yet I feel like in the months since the attack there is no one talking about what happened on October 7.  And what I have learned while being here is that there are many stories that need to be told, even if no one in the international world is ready to listen.  I feel like my voice has to get louder and louder to remind people of what happened and of the fact that there are still 120 souls being held in Gaza by Hamas and those aiding the terrorists, some of whom are still alive, and all of whom have stories that deserve to be told.  And so today I will fulfill the obligation of bearing witness.  I will take on the responsibility of telling these tragic stories, stories we can only wish were fiction.  I apologize in advance for the length of today’s post, and I thank you for your desire to bear witness through my words. I only ask that you try to read all of this account, as we cannot forget what happened on October 7, 2023.

As we started on our journey from Jerusalem to the southern Negev, there was a strange quiet on our bus. Even with the heaviness of what we have experienced before today, there is a sense that today is different, and I am not sure any of us was prepared for what we were heading towards.

Lior, our educator who was guiding us on this journey set the tone for the day.  She shared that we needed to be prepared for the heaviness of what we were going to experience.   She also gave us a brief, but serious security briefing, as we were heading towards the active war zone.  She shared that we may hear sirens, the warning that a rocket has been fired from Gaza towards Israel.  Because of our proximity to Gaza, we only have a few seconds of warning and so, if we are not close to a safe shelter we are to lie on the ground, face down, and cover our heads for protection.  She also shared the proper procedure if a siren sounds while we are on the bus, which is to get below the window line and cover our heads.  She said that in the several times she has guided here she has never heard any sirens, and there is no reason to expect one today.  We were grateful to hear that.  She also shared that we may hear the sounds of the battles happening in Gaza, only about a mile away from where we would be located.  While this is unsettling to say the least, it is a part of the picture that is southern Israel along the Gaza Strip, and, in a way, experiencing this would give me a fuller picture of what is happening there today.  

She shared that we were going to visit kibbutz Kfar Aza, a kibbutz in the front line of collaborating with the Palestinians since the inception of the kibbutz.  Now one might ask, why would there be so kibbutzim on the Gaza envelope?  She explained that first we needed to understand how the borders were created.  

Believe it or not, the borders of Gaza were created by super powers that existed before Israel or Palestine existed.  They were not created by the Jewish people.  The eastern border of Gaza is defined by the Mediterranean Sea and the southern border was drawn by the British and Ottoman Empire’s agreement.  The way it became a strip was from the 1947 Partition Plan that was brought forward by the United Nations.  This plan is one that split up the territory into two states, one being Israel and one being Palestine.  As you may know, this plan was accepted by the Jewish people but rejected by the Arabs, which led to the War of Independence in 1948 (the Arab community calls this war the nakba, meaning catastrophe).  The border of the strip on the west side was defined by this Partition Plan. 

After the war in 1948 the Gaza Strip was shrunk a little bit and was controlled by Egypt.  The 1967 war led to Israel taking more land and taking Gaza (which expanded the border to the north a bit).  Now a part of Israel, the Israeli government moved citizens into Gaza and began to settle there.  In 2005, Israel completely disengaged from Gaza, and all civilians were forced to leave.  In 2006 Hamas became the government in Gaza by force over the PLO, and we find ourselves where we are today.  This is obviously a simple explanation for a whole lot of activity, but it does begin to paint a picture.  

Gaza is 20 miles long, 3.5 miles wide with about 2.5 million people living there.  There is a fence all along the border, that was built to offer protection to Israel.

In the 1950’s, Israel created kibbutzim along the border with Gaza.  Before this there were army bases, but with the construction of communities and schools and other infrastructure, the temporary nature of an army base was replaced with permanence, and this could lead to tough feelings.

At this point we were driving through Ashkelon, the last city before Gaza, and heading towards Sderot, the first stop of our day.  We stopped for a restroom break and I was taken by the number of shelters that were in the parking lot alone.  Being so close to Gaza means that there is a not much time to take cover when a siren sounds, and the multiple shelters give protection to more people.  

We all piled onto one bus and met our guide for the morning, Grisha Yakubovich.  He concluded his military service in 2016 as the head of the Civil Department for the Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories and currently serves as a strategy consultant to various international NGO’s. Grisha was the last Jewish mayor of the city of Gaza, which I know sounds strange, but with Jews settled there was a reality. He served for 30 years in the IDF and then became a prominent negotiator
and has had direct communication with Hamas over the years.  He tried to paint a picture of Gaza and the many challenges Israel faces living in the tough neighborhood she lives in.

As we were driving to the Hill of the Reporter to get an overlook of Gaza, he mentioned that we were on the same road that the terrorists used in their Toyotas on October 7, passing a roundabout where local police and terrorists fought each other.  He showed us signs of the battles that happened in Sderot through multiple bullet holes in structures along our path.

As we were driving he showed us on our left was a new community of homes being built and shared that many Palestinians would come over from Gaza to work on the construction of these homes.  

We reached the top of the hill and could see Gaza clearly, less than a mile away.  Grisha gave us an explanation of what we were looking at, including some plumes of smoke from a battle that was happening currently.  

He also showed us that in this new community there were two kindergarten classrooms built on top of the hill overlooking Gaza.  Would you send your children to a kindergarten here?  It is clear that Israel held a false sense of security and a false sense of how vulnerable they really were.

Grisha took us out of the sun and into a park in Sderot where we would spend the rest of our time with him.  While we were grateful for the shade, and impressed by Grisha’s clear expertise in the geo-political situation there, the picture he painted was less than optimistic about the future.  He shared that Israel is facing conflict on 9 fronts (a higher number than we heard from MK Rabbi Gilad  yesterday) and went through them very quickly.  I was surprised that he included Jordan as one of these fronts, as he sees Jordan as a potential target of Iran that would pose significant issues for Israel as Jordan and Israel has shared a peaceful border (and Jordan even helped Israel to destroy incoming Iranian missiles on April 13).  He believes, in agreement with what he heard at the Knesset yesterday, that this war is much bigger than just Israel and Hamas.  He believes that this is an existential (there is that word again) war for the survival of Israel at the hands of a coalition led by Iran.  As we listened to all of these 9 fronts we could feel how dire the situation is.

While he was talking I was noticing some of the play equipment at the park we were in and soon realized that these play structures were actually bomb shelters in case the sirens sounded in the park.  There were three of these in this park, a reminder of our proximity to Gaza.  It is hard to imagine bringing my children to play there.

Grisha, in concluding his remarks apologized for his pessimistic view of the situation, but offered what he thinks is a pathway forward for Israel.  He agrees with MK Rabbi Gilad Kariv that we need to begin to talk with the Palestinian Authority immediately to start a political process of building a coalition.  The PA and Hamas do not like each other, and if we could agree that Hamas is not the best leader for Gaza there could be a pathway to a more secure future for Israel and the Palestinians in what could become Palestine.  

We boarded the bus to drop off Grisha as he finished his presentation.  We drove by the police station in Sderot that was attacked by terrorists.  The police officers fought back and were heroes of that day.  The station was demolished and there will be a memorial placed on the site in memory of those heroes who fell.  Lior shared with us the story of Shoshana Mali, the head of the Sderot police station, who was at her home when the terrorists entered Sderot.  She immediately got her weapon and went to the station and joined the fight.  She was injured and played dead for hours until she was rescued.  Another heroic story.

Grisha’s final words to us were profound.  There is a cycle of violence that we see in Israel and Gaza.  The children of the 1st intifada became the fighters in the 2nd.  And the children of the 2nd intifada became the fighters in the 3rd.  And the children of the 3rd intifada were part of the perpetrators of October 7.  He says this is an endless cycle.  


He believes we can change it.  Once we take responsibility, and once they take responsibility, once we choose to educate our children about peace which I believe is happening already, and, perhaps more challenging, once the Palestinians begin to educate their children about peace, we can begin to change this cycle.  Before October 7 he believed this would take a generation.  Now he thinks it will take at least two.

He then thanked us for being in Israel and expressed how meaningful our visit is to him and to all Israelis.

We then headed to our next stop, the town of Ofakim, a town southwest of where we were. Ofakim was the furthest west the terrorists got on October 7.  Lior shared that they were planning to go further west until they saw the Nova party which changed their plans because of the 4500 people there.  Lior shared the story of Rachel, an old woman who lives in Ofakim, and when terrorists entered her home, she talked with them and offered them cookies and other snacks.  While this sounds strange, while the terrorists were with her they were not killing Israelis.  She is a hero.

Another heroic story Lior shared with us was the Idan family from Kfar Aza, the kibbutz we will visit later in the day.  Tragically the three young Idan children witnessed the murder of their parents and called the police for help.  The female police officer talked to them and guided them into their closet, and kept them silent, where they stayed for 24 hours until they were rescued.  This police officer is a hero.  So many stories, tragic and heroic.  Another “and” moment.

In Ofakim we were heading to the home of Osi, a wonderful woman who welcomed us into her home for a delicious lunch she cooked for us.  

She also shared her experience of October 7.  Osi cooked traditional Moroccan and Iraqi food for us (it was so delicious we all bought her cook books to try to bring the tastes home with us).  

Osi shared that her home is 35 kilometers from Gaza, meaning she has 45 seconds to get to a safe room once the sirens sound.  Osi shared her troubled relationship with Hamas.  5 years ago on a Shabbat morning her alarm app started going off and a Hamas rocket fell on her home.  Thankfully it did not explode, and she showed us the rocket.  Whoa.

On October 7, her alarm app started going off.  She went to the shelter but it became clear that this was not a typical rocket attack they had gotten used to.  The alarms never stopped and soon they began to hear automatic gunfire.  Soon videos were coming in on their WhatsApp group showing 3 terrorists in Ofakim who were killing residents in the street who were taking shelter in the public bomb shelters around their town (not all homes have a safe room so many have to rely on neighbors or public safe rooms).  When the residents would come out of the shelters they were executed.  51 residents of Ofakim were killed in this way, with another 3 also being killed.  She shared how she lost her best friend, Igor, who died while protecting 12 residents.  Igor was able to kill 5 terrorists before being shot and killed.  Osi was devastated by the loss in her town, so much so she ran away to Tel Aviv for two months.  Her father always would tell her when she gets lemons to make lemonade, so she did what she did best, she started to cook.  Every day she cooked 300 meals for soldiers.  Lemonade indeed.

After two months she decided to go back home because her children were coming out of the army and now she hosts groups like us where she can cook and share her story.  She told us that we give her the power to choose good things.  Somehow we were her lemonade.

She then introduced is to Lavit, Igor’s wife.  She told us more of Igor’s story.  Igor and Lavit have 4 children and Igor was a proud grandfather for 6 months before his murder.  Igor was in charge of the explosives for the police in Ofakim.  He was finishing a night shift on Friday October 6 and was heading over to the Nova party to help guide the police there.  And then the missiles came.

Lavit played us a recording of a phone call from Igor to the police at the Nova party.  In this recording, while we could not understand the Hebrew, we could her the seriousness of the tone as well as the missiles and gunfire in the background.   Igor went back to Ofakim because he did not get permission to go to Nova (because of what was happening there).  When he got home he learned of the terrorists that had attacked Ofakim.  He put on his helmet, his vest and got his m-16 and joined with other police officers forming a squad.  He called his older son to make sure they are ok.

She played us a recording of the call.  Igor was not panicking.  He had taken charge and was clearly in command.  When the squad formed no one knew there were terrorists in Rachel’s home.  Since he was the only officer wearing a vest he led the squad and had everyone behind him, and as they moved forward a terrorist came from Rachel’s home on the side and hit him where his vest did not offer protection.  No one from Ofakim was kidnapped, and it took about 30 minutes for 10 terrorists to be killed, even longer to kill the terrorists in Rachel’s home.  Igor was 56 and would have retired a few months ago.  He never gave up his love of his family and of Israel.  Another hero “and” another tragedy.

She, too, thanked us for being there.  We did the only thing we could, offer a prayer of thanksgiving for our meal through music.  Osi requested a second song, only this time faster, and we obliged with an energetic version of Psalm 150.

We left Ofakim and headed on the main road towards our next stop, the location of the Nova music festival.  Lior shared that this road is now called the blood path, as it became a graveyard for 364 people who were trying to escape the Nova festival.  As we entered the location of the party, we saw a grove of trees that were just planted, with photos of the victims of Nova.  We learned later that this was done by the families.  While Hamas celebrated the death they caused, and while Israel grieved and continues to grieve the loss, the families participated in the Jewish tradition of sanctifying life.  These trees are a reminder not of the death of their loved ones, but of the lives lived and the blessing their lives still represent.  These trees are a part of the reconstruction of Israel.  The tears began to flow.  

We got off the bus to gather as a group for a few minutes before having our own private time to explore the site on our own.  As we gathered, Lior played for us the last song that was played at the festival. Shiah, who participates in these festivals with his wife and children, explained that there were 4500 people there.You come to the site, find your place and set up your tent and design your space.  You dance and celebrate.  The climax of the festival is when the sun rises.  On this day, that would happen at 6:29 am.  

And then the rockets start coming in.  

At first, some thought they were a part of the production and were fireworks.  But soon it was clear that they were coming in from Gaza, and the Iron Dome was trying to intercept them on their path.  Because of the number of rockets coming in, some people chose to leave the party and head for safety.  Sadly, those who left were the ones who were ambushed in their cars on the blood path. They were shot and their cars burned.  The scorch marks are still on the road we drove. 

The weight of these words hits us deep in our core.

Those that chose to stay soon heard the shooting and began to run and hide.  It turns out the choice of which way one chose to run was the choice between possible survival and death or kidnapping.

The words hit even deeper.

And then we heard the first BOOM.

Our reminder that we were in an active war zone.  The boom was loud and earthshaking.  We all looked around to see what we should do.  There was a group of soldiers near us and they seemed unfazed by the sound, and our guides shared that this was “the good guys,” Israeli artillery being shot into Gaza, so we continued with our experience.  Somehow, these sounds that would repeat themselves throughout our visit to Nova and Kfar Aza were a part of the tapestry of the reality of where we were.  And we could only imagine how it must have felt on October 7.

We were then given some private time to walk the memorial on our own.  I was grateful for this privacy, for the ability to interact with Nova on a personal level.  The memorial is simple, yet impactful.  Each victim has a photo on a stick that appears at eye level, with memorial candles and rock decorations and other odds and ends that make each stick unique.  As I started to walk, tears flowing down my cheeks, I tried to make eye contact with each poster.  


I noticed that in each picture the victims were smiling, so full of life.  More tears.  As I wandered I could almost hear the music playing, and I could almost see these kids dancing and celebrating the beauty of life.

BOOM.  This time, with the sound of fighter jets flying over head.

I wondered what their stories were, what they loved to do most?  I invite you to look at each of these photos and stare into their eyes and feel their presence.  I could feel their presence.

I lit a memorial candle for Adir Tamam and Shiraz-Shiran Ishmereni.

I am not sure what drew me to their photo, the two of them together, but I feel connected to them will carry their memory with me.  


We gathered as a community and held a brief memorial service.  

As we were singing Eili Eili, some of the IDF soldiers that were visiting the site came to stand with us.  

I remember how I felt singing Eili Eili last Fridays night as we sang the sun into the ocean on Erev Shabbat, and how it felt to sing it the next night at the hostage rally.  This version we were singing at Nova was filled with pain.

More tears.

This Kaddish was one of the most difficult prayers I have ever recited.  As easy as it is to praise God for the lives of these victims, acknowledging and accepting their death is impossible.  We should not be there saying this prayer for them.  They should not be gone.  

We finished our service by singing Hatikvah, our hearts so heavy with grief, but carrying the hope that one day we will be able to dance again like those beautiful souls danced on October 7 before 6:29 am.

When our service was over, one of the soldiers addressed our group.  I encourage you to listen to his speech in the video below.  He uses some colorful language, my apologies, and you can hear one of the BOOMS I have been talking about.  We are all Israel.  We are all in this together.  One of the other soldiers had tears streaming down his face, matching the endless tears from all of us.

And as we were walking back to the bus, we walked through the memorial one more time, trying to hold onto each soul that was lost there.


We drove in silence to Kfar Aza, one of the many kibbutzim who was attacked on October 7.  We met Orit, our guide, who was a resident of Kfar Aza.  I say was, because the kibbutz is now deserted, and she tells us it will be at least two years before she can return home, if she decides to return home at all.

Orit was born and raised in Kfar Aza.  Her father was one of the founders of the kibbutz, following Ben Gurion’s request to settle the lands on the outskirts of the Israel.  She said that growing up there was a really good relationship with Gaza with no problem with the border.  She used to cross into Gaza as a child all the time, remembering fondly how she would go to the beach in Gaza.  


She said her childhood was great on the kibbutz, where everything was shared.  You wanted a bike, you just borrowed the first one you saw.  You wanted clothes, everyone shared all of their clothes.  Everyone took care of everyone.  Most homes had no kitchen, because there was a communal kitchen they all shared.  Life was really good for her and the other families on the kibbutz.

In 2001 there was a loud noise and a rocket landed in their kibbutz for the first time.  All of the kids went to go and look at it.  They thought it was a mistake…. After all, why would Palestinians want to kill them? They welcomed the Palestinians into their kibbutz and gave them jobs.

And then it started happening again and again.


They had hoped that when Israel pulled out all civilians from Gaza in 2005 that it would change things. Sadly it didn’t, and after Hamas took charge they continued to launch rockets at the kibbutz, only this time they were more destructive and dangerous.  

The Israeli government said they would make things safer by constructing safe rooms for the residents, and by 2009 all of them had thick concrete shelters and a siren system (on this kibbutz the siren is a woman’s voice saying “red alert”).  Orit shared that they have a mere 15 seconds from when the alert is called to get to a safe room before the rocket hits.  The government also put electric fences around each kibbutz.  But it was not designed to shock the invader, it was designed to send an alert to the army base nearby that there was someone touching the fence and the government said the army would be there within 5 minutes to protect them.  They built a civilian guard group and were trained by the military which was designed to protect the residents until the army could arrive.

But on October 7, everything collapsed.  

We stop by the armory where Orit continued with her story.  The kibbutz residents did not want guns in the homes of the residents, so they created an armory where they could be stored safely.  

We learned of Roi a resident who was on a morning jog when the alarm first sounded.  But it was not just one alarm, 15 of them, one after another, after another…. Roi was able to see 4 paragliders heading towards them.  

He saw they were wearing IDF uniforms.  

He wondered why they would be doing this on Shabbat and Simchat Torah?  

As they got closer he noticed they were wearing sneakers and were holding Russian rifles.  

These were not IDF soldiers.  

He immediately calls Shachar, the commander of the kibbutz guard and tells him that people are invading the kibbutz.  Shachar orders the 15 members of the guard to head to the armory to get their weapons to defend the kibbutz.  As they approached the armory, right where we were standing, there were two terrorist snipers on the roof of an adjacent building who started shooting.  7 were killed immediately.  We could see the memorials all around us.  We stood in silence recognizing we were a standing in a cemetery.


Of the 300 families in Kfar Aza, 64 people were murdered by Hamas, and others were taken hostage to Gaza.  Orit explained that each person was like family to them, and that some families were murdered all together..

We walked further into the kibbutz.

Orit took us to her mother Batya’s house.  Batya is in her 90’s and lives alone in the home where Orit grew up.  Her mom heard the sirens and went to her safe room.  Orit lost contact with her mom at 7 am.  At 4 pm, Batya heard a huge explosion and felt like her home was lifted up and put back down again.  Then she could hear voices in her home, clearly the voices of the terrorists.  It sounded to her like they were using her home as a kind of war room, planning the next part of their attack.  Why weren’t the terrorists going into her safe room and killing her?  Orit learned the answer why later…

It turns out the loud boom Batya heard was a direct hit of a Hamas rocket on her home.  And the damage caused completely blocked the pathway to the safe room, meaning the terrorists had no way to get to her. Batya survived 30 hours in her safe room completely alone.  We were able to enter Batya’s home to see the hole in the roof.

We were able to see other direct rocket hits on homes on the kibbutz.

Orit took us to another part of the kibbutz with a makeshift memorial made from a piece of a surfboard. Orit was married to Omer and together they have four children.  Even though they separated 4 years ago, they still raised their children together.  She shared some of her love story with Omer, who loved to surf and passed that love to their children.

Orit said that she has a sixth sense and could tell that something was brewing, that an escalation was coming.  At 2 am on October 7, she woke up with an uneasy feeling and she decided to go to a friend’s house in Tel Aviv, just in case.  

At 6:30 am she wakes up to the alarms.  She calls her children and they let her know they are safe in Tel Aviv.  She then calls Omer and there is no answer.  She is starting to really worry, so she calls the mayor of the kibbutz, but he didn’t answer either.  Turns out he was already murdered by Hamas.  She then called the mayor’s wife who did answer, but only said “Everything is done.”  What does that mean? 

We stood in silence.  

She didn’t know Omer was murdered for 24 hours, shot by Hamas while trying to get to his car.  She said that the only consolation was that he was found in one piece (while she spared us the details, she shared that many were not found in one piece).  We were standing in the place where he was murdered, and she showed us a photo of the tattoo her children got that matched one their father had. A beautiful collective memorial for their fallen hero.

More tears.

Orit shared that the terrorists infiltrated the kibbutz through three different sections of protective fence surrounding the kibbutz.  They estimate that there were as many as 500 terrorists in Kfar Aza, with the battle so fierce that it took days to clear the kibbutz totally.  Orit stopped us in front of a building to share what the spray painted letters and numbers meant.  

The painted numbers represented the date the IDF inspected the home and the “c” meant it was clear.  We asked why there was a second date on the homes and she shared that after the initial clearing of the homes they found explosives and had to call in a special bomb unit and reinspect all of the kibbutz.

And we walked further, as if there could be more to see.  We had no idea what we were approaching.

When you turn 18 on Kfar Aza, you get a free apartment to live in, as long as you are fulfilling your military service.  For these young adults, this is a time of independence and great joy, as, after their military work is done, they come home on the weekends and they, as a community, celebrate together and let off steam as young adults tend to do.  Orit shared that the young adult part of the kibbutz is full of energy on the weekends and the weekend beginning on October 6 was no different. The party went well into the early hours of October 7 in this part of the kibbutz, ending at around 4 am.  


Orit took us around the corner and we got our first glimpse of this section of the kibbutz. The devastation is indescribable.

Orit shared that at 6:30 am, the terrorists came and went from apartment to apartment killing everyone in sight.  If you can imagine it being even worse, they didn’t just kill them.  One of these kids was found without his head.  When they buried him, they used a mannequin’s head so his parents wouldn’t know the state they had found him (the body was placed under a sheet for the burial).  The parents demanded to see their son, but were refused.


Three weeks later, his head was found, and his family had to hold a second funeral.

This is just one story, one of many tragic stories from that day that will continue to haunt Kfar Aza.  It will haunt us all.

We had some quiet time to walk down this path of destruction.  As I did at the Nova site, I tried to make eye contact with each photo, showing the house where they were murdered.  As you look at these photos, be sure you recognize that each poster, each destroyed home represents a soul lost.

At the end of the row of homes, we are told that the families of the two young adults that were murdered there want us to enter the home and see it from the inside.

In all, 13 young adults were murdered on October 7, and 4 were kidnapped and are still in Gaza.  Orit prays that they are still alive and that the young women are not pregnant.  

My heart aches.

From the end of this devastation we see one of the fences where Hamas infiltrated, and in the distance, we can see Gaza.  

When there are no words to describe a moment, we choose to sing, and we offered a prayer of healing for Orit and all of Kfar Aza.  

She thanks us for being there, and shared that it gives her strength for us to be there with her to hear the stories coming from Kfar Aza, stories that somehow the world is ignoring.


It is as if those sounds are supposed to wake us up.

May we bear witness and be their voices.

We boarded our buses and headed to our final stop for the day, the army base called Urim.  Here we would have the honor of serving more than 400 soldiers a delicious barbecue dinner and then have the chance to dine with and get to know the young warriors defending our homeland.  

Urim is the main communication base in the south.  On October 7, the base was mostly empty because of Shabbat and Simchat Torah, and Hamas infiltrated and murdered the soldiers who were there.  Once this base was knocked out, communication in the south was much more difficult and the terrorists could go where they pleased.

After serving food to the soldiers I sat with two young soldiers, Lior and Lior.  They had just met each other that day on the base.  The female Lior started her service on November 6.  Thankfully, she did not have any friends or family that were killed on October 7.  The male Lior shared that he had friends that were killed by terrorists in Ashkelon, a father and his two young children.  It was a privilege to get to know these soldiers and we prayed for their safety.

We joined in an impromptu song circle with some of the soldiers as our evening came to an end.  I was talking with a good friend and colleague and we were taken with how young these soldiers were.  They were young kids, who were taking up arms and going into Gaza to defend the right for Israel to exist. They are heroes.

Today was one of the heaviest days I have ever experienced.  It was filled with “and” moments. Moments of tragedy, tears and devastation “AND” stories of true heroes, of people who were willing to give their lives to protect others.  “AND” with all the heaviness today brings comes a sense of determination that I will share these stories to anyone who will listen, and shout them to those who won’t.  The memory of those lost will forever be a blessing and an inspiration to bring light to a world that feels filled with darkness.  

Am Yisrael Chai.

This mission has had a profound impact on my life.  I am so grateful to have been able to have these experiences, so many "AND" moments that show both the pain and resiliency of the Israeli people.  This trip has shown me the strong, unbreakable bond I feel with Israel and Israelis, sharing in their pain of October 7, a day I promise I will never forget "AND" the strength of our resolve to continue the Zionist vision of being in charge of our own future.  This trip has enabled me to feel the pain of October 7 "AND" acknowledge the devastation happening in Gaza today.  It has made clear to me the existential threat Israel faces from too many adversaries to count.  I pray that the 120 hostages held in Gaza are brought home to their families and that peace can descend to Israel and beyond, a lasting peace where all sides can live as partners in a region that desperately needs to seek out peace.  To expand on what Uri said to me in Hostage Square, we are all Israel.  Anachnu Yisrael.

Day 8 - Otef Gaza, The Gaza Envelope

Today is a day that I have been anticipating for a long time, ever since the mission to Israel bec ame a reality.     The main reason I want...