From top left: Hilton Burke, Monica Levy and Noa Kalash of Rosh Ha’Ayin talk about the situation in Israel.
Rosh Ha’Ayin, the Israeli sister city of Birmingham and Partnership2Gether community of New Orleans, may be relatively far from Gaza, but it is by no means unaffected by events of the past couple of weeks.
On Oct. 22, the Partnership among the three communities held a multi-generational panel online to discuss current life in the central Israel city. Located east of Tel Aviv close to the pre-1967 Green Line, Rosh Ha’Ayin has seen several red Alerts for incoming rockets from Gaza, and has reported several residents killed either in the Oct. 7 Hamas massacre or the subsequent military operations.
Amit Zehavi, a Partnership coordinator, noted that there had been plans for a Momentum women’s trip, a cycling group and community missions in the coming months, and “hopefully we can get back on track when all the dust settles.”
Florina Newcomb, assistant executive director at the Birmingham Jewish Federation, reiterated the partnership among the communities, saying “we have had some very good times in Birmingham, New Orleans and Rosh Ha’Ayin.”
Robert French, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans, told the Israeli participants on the call that “we stand with you 100 percent, we think of you every day. We are mobilizing ourselves to support you in every way possible.”
Escaping the Nova Festival massacre
Noa Kalash started the program by describing her experiences in escaping the Nova Dance Festival, the outdoor music festival near Gaza where about 260 were killed in a direct Hamas attack.
She said she had been taking a break after telling the world about losing one of her best friends and barely escaping the festival herself. She went to the festival with her boyfriend, arriving right before sunrise, around 5:30 a.m.
She met Noam, her friend, “and we ran to the rave area. We started dancing together, and after 15 minutes of freedom, joy, dancing and beautiful people, I started seeing rockets over us.”
The sky “was shining” from the rockets, fired indiscriminately from Gaza toward Israeli communities. The 3,500 in attendance did not know what to do, though they were aware of the possibility that something could arise from Gaza.
She said they went back to their cars and she started driving back to Rosh Ha’Ayin, though driving during a volley of rockets is very dangerous. After a couple minutes, they saw the rockets were continuing, so they stopped on the side of the road and went into a small shelter near a bus stop to wait for calm. But after 20 minutes, she decided to try and go home “even though everything was still happening and it wasn’t safe.”
Just 10 seconds after she headed out, cars in front of her started suddenly turning around, and she could hear shouts of “terrorists shooting.”
She turned around, then stopped in the middle of the road as a friend told her he had been shot in the leg and needed help. “We started driving the other way, toward the entrance of the party… there was a huge traffic of cars getting out.” The friend found someone to help him, but they figured there were terrorists all around.
“Security and police told us, just run, run to the fields, run and hide. They didn’t have anything else to tell us,” she said.
She and her boyfriend, Maor, took off, and she called Noam to tell her to run away.
“At the time,” she said, “we didn’t realize how many terrorists were in the area. We just figured it was a small terror attack. It’s sad to say, but it sounded like just another day in Israel.”
Thousands of festival-goers were running, and “we could hear the terrorists running after us, shooting at us.”
For a while, they hid in a bush. Then, they heard gunshots in the direction to where they had been running, and wound up turning toward an open field with nowhere to hide. “My boyfriend said no way we are running that way, we ran to the nearest bush we saw” and burrowed deep inside. They were there for the next eight hours.
“We heard everything around us… helicopters, terrorists, shooting really close, we heard motorcycles passing close to our bush.”
Another girl was hiding in a nearby bush. “After three hours, we heard them passing by and they kidnapped her. We heard them speaking Arabic, then heard a car, then silence.”
Four different groups tried to rescue Noa and Maor, but some encountered terrorists and had to retreat. Still, when they heard calls in Hebrew, they remained silent, lest it be a Hamas trick. Only after someone called out her name did they respond. She added that she was so deep in the bush, Maor had to pull her out.
Her friend, Noam, was killed in the initial attack, but Noa didn’t know that until the following Saturday. “They just couldn’t recognize the body for an entire week.”
She said she does not know where her friend was found, nor what happened to her. “It’s probably better that way.”
While she was still hiding in the bush, her 25-year-old sister was already being called up to her unit in the IDF.
Noa said the current fight in Gaza “is not about choosing sides, or ‘I stand with Gaza or Israel.’ I stand with humanity. I stand with things that are bigger than politics.”
She said it is not about choosing sides, “it is helping Israel and the Palestinian civilians to fight against terror” and against “people who have pure evil. It’s something I can’t understand, how a human being is capable of doing what they did to my friends.”
But living through that day affected her. She had spent a year traveling Central and South America, making Christian and Muslim friends without a second thought. She travels to Egypt every few months to hang out with friends living there. She would go to the Arab town of Kfar Kassem, located between Rosh Ha’Ayin and the Green Line, “all the time.”
After what’s occurred, “it’s impossible to see a Muslim on the street and not be scared something will happen… we can’t trust anyone. Things are different, and knowing some of the Muslim students in the university support terrorism and Hamas, it’s something I can’t pass by.
“These people killed my friends, these people almost killed me.”
Snapshots of life in Israel
Monica Levy, a member of the partnership steering committee, gave “a few snapshots of what life has become in Israel.”
At 6:30 a.m. on Oct. 7, they were awakened by a phone call from her 88-year-old mother-in-law in Tel Aviv, who was hiding in her building’s stairwell as sirens for incoming rockets went off. “We switched on the TV, and from that moment onward, it was evident that our lives would never be quite the same.”
Though Israel is known for being resilient, “we are far from being alright, we really are not ok!”
Having made Aliyah at age 18, she had never experienced war. Within a couple hours, boyfriends of her 20-something-year-old daughters were called up. “Meanwhile, we sat in the living room, tears flowing down our cheeks, trying to grasp the inexplicable reality before us.”
Then the names started coming in. Friends, former students, sons and daughters of friends… some murdered, others abducted, others reported missing but eventually confirmed as dead. A seemingly endless series of funerals and shiva calls where there “simply are no words.”
The boyfriend of Maya, her 23-year-old daughter, fell ill at his base, and she had the opportunity to visit him. Monica was reluctant, given the situation, but she insisted this could be the last opportunity to see him. She agreed to drive her, “46 tense minutes” where the sirens could go off at any moment. “I couldn’t believe that I was anxious about driving in my own country. It was a surreal experience.”
On the way back, a second daughter called to say her boyfriend needed a second pair of boots he left at home, so she wound up driving her as well. “We made it there and back home, and just 15 minutes later, the sirens began.”
Her youngest son, a combat soldier in the Navy, had been discharged the previous week and had not yet been called up. “All I yearn for is for life to go back to normal… to relish the simple, often taken-for-granted joys, like walking the dog, without fear overshadowing every step,” she said.
Hilton Burke, a newer member of the Partnership committee, moved to Israel from Zimbabwe 23 years ago, and spent two years in the Israeli army at the Erez crossing to Gaza, “the exact place where this happened.”
On Oct. 7, his wife woke him up, and they could hear the Tel Aviv sirens in the distance. A brother in Gadera reported constant sirens and booms. They turned on the television to see what was happening, “what was frightening was seeing the number of those murdered going up,” and then the “atrocious” images on social media.
Two or three rockets have landed in their area, and he says his 5-1/2 year old is scared to go to sleep. “I can see the fear in his eyes… I don’t know what to say other than everything will be okay.”
At work, his entire department is now called up. He told those on the call that “this nation is very strong. Your support to us is so powerful and so meaningful.”
They also said it is important for people outside Israel to be on their social media, amplifying their voices. “The more who are exposed to it, maybe we will get something good out of it, where people will see what is happening day and night,” Monica said. “Everything you see, make sure you post it, tell people, pass the word.”
Hilton said he is hearing from people he hadn’t heard from in years. He says “I appreciate your message, but if you could put something on your feed, that’s most important. Being vocal.”
They rely on each other for support. Noa said there are therapists helping the Nova festival survivors.
With daily life disrupted, stores and workplaces closed, people throughout the country volunteer in whatever capacity they can find, to fill the time and cope with what is happening.
Hilton lives next to a park where kids are brought to play together. “The community aspect is what keeps us going,” he said.
For parents, a common reaction is to keep the television off during the day “so they don’t see what’s going on,” he said. “But they ask questions.”
Eran Katzir spoke about living in Kibbutz Be’eri 40 years ago. The kibbutz saw some of the worst of the Hamas invasion, a community of 1,000 people that saw about 15 percent of their community murdered, and reports are that most victims were tortured before being killed.
A photo circulating online shows a Kindergarten class at the kibbutz, everyone in the photo was murdered on Oct. 7.
Eran said the kibbutz is strong, held together by community. “They are already looking forward to rebuilding their kibbutz,” and their printing factory is already running.
While the past year has been difficult politically, “what we see today gives hope to us.”
Eran said it is a religious war, not a war about territory, just as Sept. 11 was a religious war. “Only radical religious beliefs can drive people to do what they did.”
Efrat Herman said it will be a long war, and “you have to cope with it” and do what is necessary for life to go on.