By: Jonathan Levin  | 

Paradise Scarred by Flame

Lush grass. Manicured yards. Flowering bushes. Palm trees. Sunny skies. Chirping Birds.

This is the scene that greets you when walking into Kfar Aza, one of the kibbutzim attacked by Hamas on Oct. 7. Without the loud booms of artillery fire that cause you to jump until, as a soldier, it doesn’t faze you, you would be forgiven for thinking that it was paradise. In truth, it once was.

Kfar Aza, like many of the other locations our group of nearly 40 YU students visited on a Sacks Center trip to Israel during break, was once paradise. That is, until Hamas terrorists brought bloodshed on the morning of the 7th of October, turning the garden of Eden into the valley of slaughter.

The beautiful lawns where Roee Idan, a photographer for Ynet, and his 3-year-old daughter Avigayil flew kites emblazoned with messages of peace became a grave. The once beautiful home of the Itamari family now was just burnt beams and flame-scarred walls. The idyllic white homes of a section where college-age residents of the kibbutz would receive homes to start their life were left in ruins, pockmarked with bullets and shrapnel, the fridges still containing the food intended to serve as the holiday meals of its residents.

63 people were murdered in Kfar Aza. 17  — including Avigayil — were kidnapped from paradise to dingy, humid and dark tunnels beyond the fence near Roee’s home. The smell of the burnt houses and bodies are long since gone. The decapitated babies are long buried. What remains is the destruction and the posters with pictures of the slain at the entrance of their homes.

What was seen at Kfar Aza was repeated everywhere we went. At the site of Nova Music festival, the only things to remind you of the slaughter are freshly dug graves kept as a monument, the rat-tat-tat of not-so-distant machine gun fire, photos of all those slain and posters on trees asking to keep an eye out for human remains. 

For us students on the trip, these were jarring images — a far cry from what we have all seen on TV. One could almost experience the lives of those who lived and died there. One could experience a taste of how glorious their lives must have once been. One could feel the sorrow in the air, even if the smoke and smell of death have long since dissipated. 

This is what we saw on our mission to Israel. Yet, though we saw the horrors of Oct 7., we also had the chance to partake in the remarkable unity and strength of the nation of Israel, a strength that has long enabled our people to persevere over tragedy after tragedy for millennia. 

In Ofakim, we danced for hours, across the town, as the community celebrated the inauguration of a Sefer Torah in memory of two soldiers slain defending the community on that fateful day. Despite the sorrow, we and the community, as one, danced joyously, making up for the Simchat Torah that was stolen by death. Personally, as I danced with everyone on what was effectively my first visit to Israel (I had only spent two and a half days in Israel nearly seven years ago), I couldn’t help but recall the levels of joy King David expressed as the Aron was brought into Jerusalem just three months after the first attempt ended in tragedy.

Just as Ofakim was filled with the twinning of sorrow and joy, our emotions throughout the entire trip oscillated between joy and sorrow. We could be picking beets and grilling for soldiers one day, and paying a shiva call the next. While we could be playing with kids one day, we knew that they would return home — if they even could return home — to a table missing a plate due to a slain relative or a father fighting in Gaza.

As a people, we are used to sadness like this, and many of our joyous occasions are marked by a ritual in the middle as a zecher le’churban, a memorial to destruction. Yet the wounds of Oct. 7 are too recent to even be covered with a scab, let alone heal. As a people, we can’t even bandage our wounds, as we wait in agony for our brothers and sisters to be returned from the hands of evil.

We have all felt the pain of shever bat ami, our catastrophe, in the past few months. As a group of students, we got to see it raw, with our own eyes, beyond the limiting effects of screens and ink. Our own feet touched the ground once littered with glass, metal and blood, not the carpeting of the Wilf or Beren libraries. Our feet touched the blood-drenched soil of the land of our forefathers, not the concrete of Manhattan.

Yet regardless of where we are or how close we saw the horrors visited upon our people, we all have felt the pain of our people. As we start a new semester and the days of this war go past three digits, we all have a psychological impulse to try to move on, to bury the pain and try to live. Yet while living is the best way to spite our haters, whether they live in Gaza or New York, we must not forget. We cannot forget. As 2024 wears on, we must ensure that despite our own traumas and our dissociative desires, we still make space to help our people in what we can, in the ways each of us are uniquely able and qualified to do so.


Photo Caption: A house in Kfar Aza, post Oct. 7

Photo Credit: Jonathan Levin / The Commentator