Nola Israel solidarity mission bears witness to the unbearable

The memorials at the Nova Music Festival site

It is one thing to read about it on the news. Seeing what happened, where it happened, is something completely different.

From March 19 to 21, a diverse group from the New Orleans area Jewish community visited Israel on a solidarity mission, learning about Oct. 7 and its aftermath, and visiting with Partnership2Gether community Rosh Ha’Ayin.

The mission was organized by the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans, chaired by Susan Green.

Linda McFadden-Bogates said “I felt the bullet holes on the kibbutz walls with my own hands, stood in the Nova field that has changed from celebration to mourning and smelled the smoke from the Gaza strip. We heard stories and exchanged hugs with survivors who lost their loved ones.”

Kibbutz Be’eri

Rabbi David Gerber of Gates of Prayer in Metairie said that Israel was unusually quiet, with many of the normally busiest areas “eerily” quiet from a lack of foot traffic. Part of it was the collapse of tourism, but also many businesses were closed due to military callups.

“I have also never felt so appreciated by Israelis,” Gerber said. “They were touched that even in a time of war we would come to visit. They can feel our support from afar and it is not taken for granted.”

Luke Prest, a senior at De La Salle High School, noted that “Throughout this trip, I realized how much diaspora Jews matter to Israelis. Being there meant the world for these people.”

On the final day, Prest went to the Mahane Yehuda market with a friend, and met three soldiers. They paid for the soldiers’ lunch, and gave them letters of support from back home. “Speaking with these guys, who are my age and risk their lives for Israel and the Jewish people was truly inspirational and I will never forget their faces and how happy they were to just talk to us,” he said.

After arriving in Israel, the delegation met with Mordechai Rodgold of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Then, they met with Natalia Ben Zvi, whose 24-year-old son, Sagiv, was murdered on Oct. 7 at the Nova festival. As with many others, Sagiv’s murder was filmed by the perpetrators, and his mother viewed it.

She told the group that she knew her son’s final thoughts as he stared directly into the terrorist’s eyes — “You can kill me today. You can win now. But you will not win. The people of Israel will win, and the people of Israel will prevail.”

On that day, around 1,200 Israelis were murdered by Hamas operatives who broke through the fence separating Gaza from Israel. Others paraglided over the fence, looking to kill as many Israelis as they could. Another 250 Israelis were taken hostage and brought back to Gaza.

The group visited Shalva, Israel Association for the Care and Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities, seeing the range of services they provide for thousands of people. “What struck me were the perceptive words on one of its walls, ‘Color My World with Hope’,” Federation CEO Robert French said.

They also visited the Jewish Agency, where regional program director Algom Ben Horin discussed the Fund for Victims of Terror.

To get the full story of Oct. 7, the delegation headed to the Israeli areas near the Gaza border, including the site of the Nova Music Festival, where 364 were murdered in the early morning. It has become a national memorial, with visitors planting trees among makeshift tributes to the young people who did not escape. The New Orleans delegation planted an olive tree as a symbol of peace.

“It’s very moving to be here, and very powerful,” French said.

Prest said “it was personal because these party goers were my age. These free souls, who loved life and simply wanted peace, could have been my best friends.”

Planting a tree at the music festival site

The group also visited Kibbutz Be’eri, seeing the devastated houses and talking with one of the survivors. The community of 1,100 saw over 100 killed and 26 taken hostage, and at least half of the buildings burned to the ground.

They saw a bomb shelter that had long been a lifesaver from Hamas rocket attacks. But on the day of the invasion, it was the opposite, as terrorists were able to corner people in the shelters. That bomb shelter, painted with a cheerful forest scene, was where 40 had taken refuge in a space meant for 10, and all were killed.

After seeing what Hamas did, McFadden-Bogantes said that calling the terrorists inhuman “would be to excuse them from accountability” for their evil.

Gerber also referred to Hamas as evil, as “they actively seek to end as many Jewish lives as they can while simultaneously hiding in civilian clothes in populated areas.” For Hamas, he said, “dead Jews fulfill their mission. Dead Palestinians help their cause.”

Despite everything, the overriding goal for Israel continues to be peace, Gerber observed. “Even a surviving member of Kibbutz Be’eri, who lost hundreds of neighbors to the Oct. 7 attack, felt no ill will toward the Palestinian people. He wants Israel to live in peace, and he wants the Palestinians to live in peace.”

But, McFadden-Bogantes said, “to live in peace with our neighbors, we need neighbors who want to live in peace with us.”

Mission participants were thankful for the opportunity to go to Israel and bear witness.

October 7 was Prest’s 18th birthday, the celebration of civic adulthood. Instead, as he saw the news from Israel on television, he “felt like a little boy. Alone and scared.” Even more so afterward, because nobody asked how he was doing or expressed concern. Since then, he had longed for the chance to go to Israel. “I couldn’t move on until I showed my family that I was there for them.”

McFadden-Bogantes said she arrived angry and left even more so, feeling that there must be Jewish unity at a time like this. “This war goes beyond politics and the differences in our beliefs and practices,” she said. “This is OUR family hurting and we must stand in solidarity together with them, not against each other divided.”

For Sara Lewis, the trip put what she had seen in the news into context “and made clear to me something I couldn’t put into words: Hamas did not complete an attack against Israel on Oct. 7. Oct. 7 is the continuation and escalation of a war.”

The 3,000 Hamas terrorists, backed by Iran, had a coordinated effort to attack villages in Israel, while Iran-backed Hezbollah continues its attacks in the north. “The battle at the police station in Sderot lasted for three days,” she noted. “For weeks, people remained in their homes afraid that one of the 3,000 terrorists who entered Israel would be at their front door.”

Dinner with friends: Rosh Ha’Ayin visit

Lewis said that the media portrays Oct. 7 as a single event “and Israel as an aggressive retaliator,” but for Israel “the attack is ongoing” with Iran’s proxy war using Hamas and Hezbollah, and the anticipation of an attack from Iran itself, which would come a few weeks after the New Orleans mission.

The most prevalent ongoing part of Israeli life post-Oct. 7 is the desire to have the hostages back, Gerber said. Hamas has entertained offers of large numbers of Palestinian prisoners who have been convicted of terrorism in exchange for the Israeli hostages, but in recent weeks has kept upping the price and rejecting the deals, and Gerber feels Hamas will continue to not accept the proposals.

Gerber said the group’s tour guide is a terrorism survivor, and the terrorist who attacked her and killed her friends had been freed in an earlier prisoner swap.

Back in Jerusalem, the delegation visited one of the tents where families of hostages and of those murdered on Oct. 7 have been living for months, near the residence of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. While the tents are to maintain visibility for the hostage issue, displays bearing the images of the hostages are everywhere throughout the country.

They also visited the Knesset, meeting with members representing several parties, from northern and Southern Israel.

A highlight of any trip to Israel is a visit to Rosh Ha’Ayin, New Orleans’ Partnership2Gether community, where the group heard about how the community has been affected by the war. Several residents of Rosh Ha’Ayin have been killed on and since Oct. 7.

The visit included musical presentations and home hospitality for dinner.

Prest concluded, “I will be back, and I promise to my people that through what I learned on this trip, I will do everything I can to stop the lies and hatred that is spread about Israel and my people.”