Two weeks ago, we announced the addition of Rachel Sachs to our team in the newly created role of Director of the Israel Office.
Rachel is already a crucial part of our ability to respond effectively. We and members of our Israel and Global Engagement Committee have worked with Rachel in other capacities over the years, and we are delighted that she has joined us full-time on the ground in our partnership region of the Upper Galilee.
As a non-profit executive, Rachel brings over 25 years of experience in strategic planning, content development and program execution in Israel and abroad. Upon moving to Northern Israel, Rachel joined Tel-Hai College, where she served as Vice President for Global Partnerships and Development for nearly a decade.
In this capacity Rachel led the college’s development initiatives and served as liaison to the college’s donors in Israel and abroad. She has also worked closely with individuals and families from North America on their own, unique philanthropic journeys in Israel.
Rachel lives in the partnership region and is already working closely with our partners on the ground and assessing where we can make the greatest impact.
Here's what's happening in our Upper Galilee partnership region:
With troops massed along the Gaza border and poised for a ground offensive, there is a serious concern that when that begins, we will see a second front open in the north. Our partnership region is narrow and most communities are within a few kilometres of Lebanon. There have been small-scale incidents already and tensions are high.
As of yesterday, approximately 300,000 Israelis have been instructed to leave their homes, of which about 60,000 are from the north. Approximately 30 communities in our partnership region have been evacuated, including Kiryat Shmona, Metula, and many kibbutzim and moshavim. People have been dispersed across the country to approximately 200 hotels and kibbutzim.
Rachel is working closely with Meytal Novidomsky-Mazeika, Director of the Coast-to-Coast partnership, and Sarah Mali, Director General, Israel at Jewish Federations of Canada-UIA, to keep up to date with their precarious situations and changing needs.
Hodie Kahn, a member of our Board and chair of our Jewish Day School Council, was in Israel when Hamas attacked and she joined Rachel and Sarah on a mission organized by the Jewish Agency for Israel. We will share more from Hodie later in this message. First, we want to share a summary of what Rachel has sent to us, so you can see how close she is to the organizations and the needs on the ground.
Rachel and the mission participants met with survivors from Kibbutz Kfar Azza, who shared their harrowing accounts of tragedy and survival.
Hearing what they went through, and are still going through, was painful beyond words. Some have family members who have been abducted, some murdered, and all of them have been through hell and have a long road ahead. Their hotel is now referred to as “the shiva complex”, a name that says it all.
They also visited the Brothers in Arms Headquarters in Tel-Aviv.
This has become a central hub of volunteering activities in a myriad of realms, and they have received a lot of attention for all they do, including in The Times of Israel. They are doing massive work throughout the country, on every level possible, from shampoo to washing machines to tech teams assisting the efforts to locate those missing. (More on this organization from Hodie in a moment).
Rachel then traveled to Southern Israel.
She visited the Revivim Cemetery, where members of Kibbutz Beeri are being buried temporarily. Funerals take place throughout the day, and some in the night. It is heartbreaking. Also visible are the many army units that are training in the area.
Rachel also met with the mayor of the Ramat Negev Regional Council and his team, visited with evacuees from Kibbutz Erez, the director of the Sde-Boker field school in Midreshet Ben Gurion, and individuals who have taken on volunteer duties in support of the evacuated communities that are in their midst. Impromptu schools have been set up overnight, along with a myriad of activities and support facilities across the region.
She reported finding this multi-layered support – regional council, local communities, and individuals – coming together to host and support the evacuees in their midst, an inspiring version of the wide-scale mutual support and aid that is taking place throughout Israel.
As the mayor of Ramat Negev, Eran Doron, said to her, “We are focusing on doing the right thing, and doing things right. And that is helping our brothers and sisters who need shelter, food, security, and support.” Rachel said that the multi-layered “we” in this case, was a boost of morale for her, reminding her of Israeli resilience and arvut hadadit (mutual responsibility for one another).
I want to thank Rachel for the great work she is doing and for traveling throughout the country to keep her finger on the pulse of the needs.
Now, I want to say turn it over to Hodie and thank her for sharing her experiences in her own words. And her words are powerful. So powerful, that we are not going write a closing paragraph to this message. Today, the last word goes to Hodie, and you'll see why.
I am not sure if being in Israel now is a) being in the wrong place at the wrong time, b) being in wrong place at the right time, or c) being in the right place at the wrong time. Last Sunday, I confirmed what I knew in my heart. It is none of these choices. It is d) being in the right place at the right time.
I am in Israel now because I need to be the bearer of the stories of the survivors and victims of the Holocaust of 2023.
I am here to be an eyewitness to what is happening in the aftermath of the unspeakable assault on our people. To share in what it means to be part of our Jewish homeland, and to witness our strength. We have come together in defiance and unity. Yes, we are broken. But we are not defeated. Those who lived through October 7 are proof. They lived through hell. Some are still going through it. I owe it to them to be here. I owe it to them to honour them by sharing their stories of resilience, strength and survival.
Here are five of them from a mini-mission I was invited to join last Sunday, arranged for a small group of CEOs, leaders from the Jewish Agency and overseas Jewish Federations.
It started at Kibbutz Shefayim. The kibbutz is located about 15 minutes north of Herzliya, right on the beach. The grounds and buildings are beautiful. However, I am not sure how much of that beauty registers with the special guests who have joined us in the crowded meeting room. They are four evacuees from Kfar Aza, and a young couple, seated side by side facing the circle of about thirty strangers seated and standing around them. A hush falls over the room as the meeting’s moderator introduces them one by one, and invites them to share their stories with us.
The young couple speak first.
They simply want us to know that the wife’s father and mother, Keith and Adrienne “Aviva” Siegel are hostages. They circulate their “Bring them Home” posters to the group. “Please”, they implore us. “You must do something.”
Next we hear from the first of the evacuees.
Ofer (Winner) is in his early 60s. He is quiet. His pain is raw. His discomfort etched on his face. He cannot summon his words. They are locked inside him together with the trauma of his 29-hour ordeal and the unfathomable losses of October 7. He spent from 6:30 a.m. Saturday until 11:30 a.m. Sunday in his shelter. He is able to tell us only that he is the father of four adult children. Some of them also lived on the kibbutz. He thanks us for coming.
Shaylee (Atary) sits beside Ofer.
She is his daughter-in-law. She is a singer-actress-filmmaker, with classically beautiful Mediterranean looks, and a thick mane of tight dark curls that frame her face and cascade past her shoulders. Fitting, for she is a lioness. Shaylee holds her arms tight to her body. One of her crossed legs swings back and forth, back and forth. She begins to speak.
Within minutes of hearing the terrorists outside their home on Saturday morning, she and her husband, Yahav (Winner), a celebrated young Israeli filmmaker, took refuge in their bedroom with their one-month-old daughter, Shaya. Her name is a combination of both her parents’, we are told. The bedroom was their safe room. With nonverbal gestures, Yahav indicated to Shaylee that he would hold the door handle (which had no lock from inside the safe room), and she would hold their baby. The terrorists outside began to pry open the protective bars on the bedroom window and Yahav did his best to fight against them. Yahav glanced at Shaylee and signaled she should take the baby and run. Shaylee ran out of the door to their home with Shaya in her arms and hid in some nearby bushes. She could hear terrorists shooting all around her, and yelling to one another, “Ta’eal, ta’eal,” (Come, come). As soon as she could, she left the bush to seek a safer refuge, praying she would not to be shot. She ran inside a shed. Once there, she grabbed a hammer and chisel, and placed a large bag of chemical fertilizer on her and Shaya to conceal them. The baby, who had been asleep until then, woke up and started to cry. Shaylee realized the crying would bring the killers. She said she kept thinking as she fled again how she and the baby would be prizes for the terrorists. She ran to the home of a neighbour and knocked on her door. The neighbour, thinking Shaylee was a terrorist, initially did not respond. But when she looked on the home security camera, she recognized Shaylee, opened the window of her safe room, and beckoned Shaylee to join her and her three children inside.
Shaya would not nurse and Shaylee was worried her cries would endanger the woman and her family.
But the woman stayed resolute that Shaylee and the baby stay, an act of heroism that put her life and those of her own children at risk. Shaylee is at a loss for words of gratitude for her neighbour and her heroism. The six of them survived in the safe room for 27 hours, with nothing more than a yoghurt, some spoiled milk and a few bottles of water to sustain them all. After being rescued by the IDF, Shaylee and Shaya were taken to the hospital. Shaya was so dehydrated she had no tears when she cried.
Shaylee got to the hospital, knowing nothing about the fate of Yahav. Her brother went to look for him. It would be several days until he would find the answers. The soldier who found his body said he found Shaya’s stroller wedged under the handle of the front door. Yahav had done everything he could to stall the terrorists to give Shaylee a chance to save herself and their baby. He was killed by a gunshot to the head. Shaylee tells us Yahav only ever wanted to be a father, and explains how she was desperate to find his body so she could arrange to have his semen extracted posthumously in order to be able to have more of his children. Her brother opened 60 body bags before he found Yahav. But it was too late. The semen was no longer viable.
“I don’t have enough room in my heart for all the sorrow,” Shaylee ends. “I cannot talk to God. I only talk to Yahav in my head.”
Mandy is an expat from the U.K. She is clearly in shock. She is clearly suffering. Her words flow in a chaotic stream that she tries desperately to tame. She tells us she is sorry she is British. She is sorry she survived.
Mandy has three children. Her daughter lived in a little section of the kibbutz designated for young adults. Friday night, her daughter had gone to a party and gotten drunk. Mandy texted her in the morning to tell her she was upset with her but that she loved her. Her daughter had responded with a heart emoji. A short time later, the terrorists started their assault. Mandy went into her safe room. She got a text from her daughter saying she and her neighbours were under attack. She told her mother that she hoped she would not be taken hostage. It was the last communication between mother and daughter. Mandy’s son came to the kibbutz to try and save his sister. He managed only to rescue his mother. The group of young adults who lived in Mandy’s daughter’s neighbourhood were either murdered or kidnapped.
Her daughter has been confirmed as one of the kidnapped.
Mandy finishes her narrative by wondering aloud if it would be easier if her daughter were dead. Or whether to continue to hope she is alive, and just not thinking about what they have already done or might do to her.
(Mandy’s husband, 64, has early onset Alzheimer’s. He was in a care facility elsewhere but was evacuated to a different facility that Shabbat. It was another layer of trauma for Mandy, who explains that it was a terrible location for someone like him. It was a place for drug addicts and alcoholics. Thankfully, she has since managed to settle him in a better place.)
Ronen is a father of three. He and his wife have one daughter, and two sons.
The daughter was not at the kibbutz on October 7. One son was in Sri Lanka, on a post-army trek, and the other, a 21-year-old soldier in the IDF, was home. The family’s house, which Ronen built about four years ago, was right on the edge of the kibbutz, facing toward Gaza. Their nightmare began early Saturday morning. It would last for 30 hours.
Ronen, his son, his wife, and her mother, who is wheelchair bound, went into their safe room minutes before four terrorists burst into the home set about trying to break into the shelter. Father and son fought to hang onto the door handle from the inside, while the terrorist fought to wrench it open from the other side of the door. This tug of war went on for about half an hour. The terrorists took a recess, returned, and shot at the door, which caused some shrapnel to hit the son in the chest. But he would not relinquish the handle. The terrorists subsequently shot through the door handle, and the bullet went through the son’s hand. Father and son still refused to let go. The terrorists turned their attention to ransacking the house. Ronen could see them through the bullet hole in the door.
At one point he was eyeball to eyeball with a terrorist.
The terrorists finally left with their booty. Many hours later, Ronen heard a tractor outside with people calling. But he feared it was the terrorists trying to lure them out of their safe room to kill them. So, he did not respond. In the meantime, his son in Sri Lanka, who was in touch with the rescuers, was told by them that they had been trying to contact the family but had heard nothing from his home and the family must be dead. Rescuers eventually returned and evacuated the family.
My next stop was theח׳׳מל , an acronym for war roomחדר מלחמה , more accurately war rooms, set up by Brothers in Arms at the Tel Aviv Expo. If the name of the group is familiar, it should be. Brothers in Arms was at the forefront of the 40 weeks of protests in Israel against the judicial reforms. They exhorted army reserve soldiers not to volunteer for military duty unless the government backed down from its agenda to overhaul the judiciary. However, all that changed on October 7. Within hours of the massacres at the kibbutzim, Brothers in Arms pivoted from protests to war relief, creating a massive network of support for the military and the families affected. Their initiative is one of many that have sprung up in Israel, all civilian run. What does it look like? Picture religious and secular Israelis experts from high tech sitting together in different spaces, hunched over their laptops, with org charts displayed on digital whiteboards, as they plan and coordinate disaster relief and a mega Hadassah Bazaar, complete with an Amazon-like order fulfillment center staffed by thousands of volunteers from young to old. If it were a movie, the soundtrack would be the lyrics from the Shabbat song, Hine ma tov, “How good and how pleasing for people to sit together in unity.”
The last stop on this day tour is a major Israeli medical center.
I am led to the basement which now houses the paediatric intensive care unit, a 60-bed unit for preemies, and space for pregnant mothers. Part of the space also has empty beds set up in a section normally used for underground parking, with hospital bays neatly lined up between the markings on the ground for each parking spot.
The physical set up is impressive. But it is the stories shared with us by the chief doctor in charge of this operation that rob us of breath.
One was an account of a family from Kfar Aza. A father, mother, and their one-and-a-half-year-old daughter. The family took refuge in their safe room, which unfortunately turned into an inferno after the terrorists set fire to the home. The father, already severely burned, managed to open the window of the room and, seeing no terrorists nearby, escaped through it with his wife and child and ran to hide under a nearby tractor. For nine hours they lay together, the father’s body wrapped protectively around his wife, who embraced their baby. They were evacuated to the hospital in a medical transport. It was only when they arrived that the mother finally let go of her baby, handing her to a waiting paediatrician. The father suffered burns over 90% of this body, the mother 70% and the baby 30%. Their road to recovery will be long.
The other story shared with us is about two children at the hospital who have been undergoing regular chemotherapy treatments. Two days before our visit, the mothers of each child were informed separately that members of their families had been killed, including a father of one patient and siblings of another. The doctor debriefing us confessed that the situation has been stressful for staff, and mentioned to us that one nurse found it especially challenging. Her son is 21 and in the IDF, posted to the south. The patients are from Gaza.