Israel-Hamas war: Gaza border community finds safety in Jerusalem

Moshav Naveh, a Religious Zionist agricultural community of 162 families located 13 km. from the Gaza Strip, was evacuated after the start of the Israel-Hamas war due to the extreme security threat.

The community considers it their great miracle that no one among them was wounded or killed on October 7 when Hamas terrorists infiltrated southern Israel, murdering 1,200 people and kidnapping 240.

Zion Leshem, spokesperson for Naveh, told In Jerusalem that on October 7, “We were attacked with missiles; there were terrorists on their way to us. Luckily, they didn’t make it. We took care of wounded fighters from neighboring towns and casualties. It was an intense day.”

Finding a safe haven in Jerusalem after fleeing Hamas

Except for very few Naveh evacuees who had other options, such as moving in with relatives, they have all been staying together at the Shalom Hotel in Jerusalem’s Bayit Vagan neighborhood since the war began. These large families, with the average number of children being eight or nine, plan to return home next week.

“Baruch Hashem [Thank God], the moshav remained unscathed, and none of us was hurt. The army said we can go home,” Orit Francko, a mother of 10 who lives on the moshav, told In Jerusalem.

‘IT’S IMPORTANT to understand that to allow another person to perform an act of kindness is also kindness.’ (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

“It was traumatic for the children. The youngest ones had never experienced shooting attacks so close by. All the sirens, so many rockets falling. We couldn’t leave our homes for almost three days and spent most of the time in the safe room,” she said.

As for the moshav families’ adjustment in Jerusalem, she said, “First of all, the children are used to open spaces, freedom of movement, going place to place on their own. Here, they were living in a building with several floors, the opposite of what they were used to. But the most important thing was that the community remained together. We insisted on that.

“Second, the children’s education was taken care of immediately. The week we arrived, they had already put together a Talmud Torah for the boys and, a few days later, a school for girls. Then a daycare…

“The Jerusalem community welcomed us in an amazing way, and they continue to do so,” she stressed. “Everyone stepped in. The children are happy here. They feel the love. So much was done for them – outings, projects – but of course, they want to go home.”

Many children and teenagers will require trauma therapy, she added.

WHEN DR. Nosson and Sara Westreich – residents of Thornhill, Ontario, in the Greater Toronto Area – visited the Shalom Hotel and fell in love with the Moshav Naveh community, they had no idea that Toronto and their synagogue already had a longstanding relationship with them.

“How we got involved was amazing and serendipitous,” Westreich told In Jerusalem.

“Historically, the Toronto philanthropic community, led by the late [World Mizrachi president] Kurt Rothschild, the late [real estate developer] Herb Green, Jewish National Fund-Canada, and UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, have been involved in developing Moshav Naveh and Halutza Region,” said Jack Feintuch, trustee of the various Joseph Tanenbaum Foundations.

The Beth Avraham Yoseph of Toronto Congregation (BAYT), of which the Westreichs are members, was established in 1981 by the late Joseph Tanenbaum and Rabbi Baruch Taub, who made aliyah in December 2010 and is now rabbi emeritus.

The Westreichs were in Israel on October 7 when 350,000 IDF reservists were called up. Since then, manpower has been short. Volunteers have been filling the gaps as much as possible by helping at farms, babysitting for children, cooking, delivering food to evacuees, and much more.

“We decided not to leave the country right away and were looking for volunteer opportunities,” said Westreich, a semi-retired child protection lawyer who worked for Jewish Family and Child Service. Before the outbreak of the war, her husband – a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Sunnybrook Hospital and assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto – had interviews scheduled at Israeli hospitals because the couple is hoping to make aliyah next year.

Meanwhile, she received an email from the director of Canadian Friends of Shalva, for which she volunteers, saying that Shalva – a nonprofit that supports and empowers individuals with disabilities and their families in Israel, based in Bayit Vagan – was serving as a national emergency and response center for “families from the South, providing both the physical safety and emotional support they so desperately need.”

The next day, she saw an ad in The Jerusalem Post about Shalva’s role. So the couple went there.

It was 11:30 a.m. on Friday morning when they arrived – about five hours before Shabbat. “They were hustling to get everybody ready. There were so many pregnant women, men were running in uniform. People were rushing,” Westreich said.

While her husband, who has experience in trauma therapy, looked for the medical clinic, she looked for the organizers and approached a group of women.

“We really want to help,” she told them.

“Are you serious?” they asked.

“‘Yes, we have hands, feet, and a car. Please tell us what you need.’ They finally conceded that what they really wanted at that moment were white plastic tablecloths for Shabbat.”

Mission accomplished. “They were so happy,” Westreich said.

“It was a sight you wouldn’t believe. People in jeans were bringing flowers… games, toys… They were desperately trying to make these people feel better.

“So, now the joke goes: ‘What should those well-trained psychiatrists with experience in trauma therapy do for victims of terror? Buy them plastic tablecloths because hessed [kindness] is doing what they need you to do, not what you think they need you to do.’

“We returned Saturday night and asked what should be done next. They needed electrical items, such as toasters, microwave ovens, and sandwich-making machines. The hotel was providing them with meals, but not everything they needed.”

The Westreichs recruited Shelly and Jerry Javasky, native Torontonians and fellow BAYT members now living in Jerusalem, to join their efforts to help the evacuees.

“We returned to the hotel Sunday morning, together with Shelly and Jerry, and we discussed some of the bigger issues,” like security for the moshav so that they could go home sooner rather than later.

“We discovered along the way that Kalman Weber’s sister is a resident of the moshav,” she said. Kalman and Tolly Weber are BAYT members who made aliyah recently. “That’s why there are three ambassador families from the BAYT for this initiative – Westreich, Javasky, and Weber.”

With the enthusiastic support of Rabbi Daniel Korobkin, BAYT’s current spiritual leader, the synagogue raised $50,000 for Moshav Naveh within five days, to be used for trauma therapy.

Westreich was profoundly impressed by the women in Naveh. “They are incredibly brave,” she said, calling them “engines of hessed.”

“About 70 percent of the men are in miluim [reserves]. The women are the ones who usually run the meal trains. They’re not used to being on the receiving end. They’re very modest. I had to fight with them to accept help.”

Asked what it was like to suddenly be on the receiving end, Francko said, “It was very hard for many of us. But it’s important to understand that to allow another person to perform an act of kindness is also kindness. The entire nation – not just here in Israel but also in the Diaspora – was so shocked by what happened on October 7, and they badly wanted to help. It strengthens them to be able to make a difference, and we can’t take that away from them.”

MOSHAV NAVEH is a young community with very few people over the age of 60. Many of the couples among them were teenagers living in Gush Katif in 2005 when the residents were evacuated and the communities destroyed as Gaza was handed over to the Palestinian Authority in yet another bid for peace. They refuse to relocate yet again.

“After the very unfortunate and misguided Disengagement from Gaza in 2005, two legendary Toronto Jewish communal visionaries determined that the displaced people deserved and needed sponsorship if they were to successfully rebuild their lives as well as possible and to be able to re-establish their communities outside of Gush Katif,” Larry Zeifman, a longtime advocate for Israel, told In Jerusalem.

Green and Rothschild “wanted Diaspora communities to each adopt a Gush Katif community. They started with Netzarim and Atzmona – two very special small communities. Herb and Kurt hoped that Toronto could become a model for other Diaspora communities. That never really happened, to my knowledge. But Toronto stepped up and helped those two communities to establish Bnei Netzarim and Naveh in the Halutza Sands area just east of southern Gaza and just north of the Egyptian border.

“Together with UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, Mizrachi Canada, and JNF-Canada, they helped the new communities with infrastructure funds and support. The beautiful synagogue in Bnei Netzarim was dedicated by Herb. The annual BAYT mission to Israel, then under the leadership of Rabbi Taub, visited both Netzarim and Atzmona on several occasions and visited the nascent communities as they were being built. BAYT and Mizrachi hosted a gala dinner in 2015 – to support the communities -–that was addressed by then-minister Jason Kenney and journalist Rex Murphy, two stalwart friends of Israel,” Zeifman said.

“For us, the return to our beloved moshav is a moral and emotional imperative; it is not a choice,” Leshem explained. “It is unbearable for our families to leave Naveh abandoned. Our community, the children of Atzmona in Sinai and Gush Katif, has already been through this before. We cannot endure this again. Regardless of the circumstances forcing us into this situation, regardless of the risks involved with being so close to Gaza, as a kehilla [community], we must resume our mission of fully inhabiting Eretz Israel and returning to this precious corner of our land.”

“YOU MIGHT think that staying in a Jerusalem hotel is luxurious,” Rabbi Korobkin said in a conversation with In Jerusalem. However, “it’s really quite difficult for an entire community with large families to just pick up with all their possessions and [each] move into one or two rooms at the most,” he said.

Rabbi Korobkin was in Israel recently, together with the Rabbinical Council of America-MIZRACHI-RIETS mission to Israel, to show solidarity with the people of Israel during this difficult time. He visited the Naveh community at the Shalom Hotel.

“We gave out bracelets that children in our local day schools made for them, letters to the children, and we saw a functional Jewish community living in a hotel,” he said.

“There’s a service provided by the residents of Bayit Vagan that just blew me away,” he said. “Basically, there’s a corner in the lobby where each family will leave a bag of dirty laundry. It gets picked up by different families, they do the laundry, they bring it back and put it in another section of that laundry area with the indication that this was just laundered. And that’s how people are getting their laundry done, just by volunteers in the neighborhood. Everyone is pulling together to support the displaced persons…

“The men are trying to be as productive as possible. Many of them are on active [IDF] duty, which leaves the women to basically spend the day taking care of the children and trying to find activities for the kids. It’s the way that they’re living for now.

“This is a religious community that is very, very idealistic,” he said. “The very fact that they live in a moshav in a scantily populated area near Gaza just shows that they want to be part of the mitzvah of yishuv Eretz Yisrael [settling the Land of Israel].”

PSYCHOLOGICAL COUNSELING will be necessary for the children. The $50,000 (Canadian) raised by BAYT will be used for what “we felt was the most important need for now because many times, when the gashmiut [material side] is taken care of, the ruchniyut [spirituality] still needs to be pulled in. The Jewish education is continuing, that’s being taken care of, but there’s another aspect to the ruchniyut, which is mental health, and that’s something we felt we could contribute towards,” Rabbi Korobkin said. “We would have raised even more, but we made a conscious decision that we want to do multiple fundraisers for multiple causes, so we’re pacing ourselves.”

He explained, “We took a pause for a couple of weeks, and we just successfully concluded our second $50,000 fundraising campaign for Leket in Israel, to help farmers who are struggling right now because of the constraints that are placed on harvesting produce and working the fields.

“When we put out the feelers for the fundraisers, we told people we were giving two weeks to raise the money. The first fundraiser [for Naveh] was completed in five days, and the second fundraiser in six days,” he said, noting “the desire that people have to give” to Israel during this challenging time. “It’s not like we feel it’s our duty; rather, what an opportunity, what a tremendous privilege it is for us to be able to be part of what these people are going through – in a small way, from our Diaspora homes.”

“The more Nosson and I get to know the community of Naveh, the more captivated we are by the people and their story,” Westreich enthused.

“Learning about them, their history, and their vision for the future is like reading a chapter from Tanach. They are biblical figures of epic proportions. There is no other way to describe them. Our lives have been deeply enriched through the experience of meeting them and becoming part of their world. If only the circumstances that brought us together had not been so tragic!

“Nosson and I thank God for the blessing of bringing the people of Naveh into our lives.”

“It’s very important for me to say thank you to all those in Jerusalem, in Israel, and around the world who worry about us and help us. That is what gives us strength,” Francko said. “And we have faith. We understand that this situation brings us one step further to redemption. These are challenging days, but we continue to look forward to the coming of the Messiah and the building of the Temple. Yes, it’s difficult now, but it will make us stronger.” ❖





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