Reporter's Notebook

Kibbutz Kfar Aza, devastated on October 7, becomes a grim place of pilgrimage

Groups of Americans seen alongside soldiers, researchers, friends of the dead, parents of serving soldiers, and curious onlookers who want to ‘feel close’ to what happened

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

A group of observant Jewish men, mostly from New York and Brooklyn, visit Kibbutz Kfar Aza, close to the Israeli border with Gaza, January 3, 2024. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)
A group of observant Jewish men, mostly from New York and Brooklyn, visit Kibbutz Kfar Aza, close to the Israeli border with Gaza, January 3, 2024. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

It’s not often that one can see a group of Orthodox men touring a secular kibbutz. But on a wet and windy Tuesday this week, 16 of them, mainly from New York and Brooklyn, visited Kibbutz Kfar Aza, close to the Gaza border, as part of a whirlwind 24-hour trip to sights associated with Hamas’s October 7 onslaught, when 3,000 Hamas-led terrorists massacred some 1,200 people, mainly civilians, and took some 240 hostages.

Carrying two guitars — to “deepen the emotional experience,” they said — they were heading later in the day to the site of the all-night Supernova rave near Kibbutz Re’im, where some 360 revelers were murdered by the invading Hamas terrorists, and to conclude their tour at another decimated kibbutz, Be’eri.

Only one of the men in the American group had a direct connection — his brother was serving in Gaza.

The rest — like so many this reporter met wandering around Kfar Aza that day — said they had come to “feel close to” and “experience something” of what happened.

Kfar Aza lost 62 people on October 7, in brutal circumstances, and an additional two — Yotam Haim and Alon Shamriz — escaped their kidnappers in Gaza, only to be shot dead mistakenly last month by Israeli troops.

Nineteen people were taken hostage, including a Thai worker. Of these, 11 have returned, Haim and Shamriz were killed, and five people, including two women, are believed to still be held by Hamas.

Former fellow rock band members of Yotam Haim, shot dead by mistake by Israeli soldiers as he escaped abduction by Hamas terrorists in Gaza, visit the remains of the late Haim’s house in Kibbutz Kfar Aza, close to the Israeli border with Gaza, January 2, 2023. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

The horrors of October 7, the physical after-effects of which are so vividly on show, have turned the site into one of somber pilgrimage.

Not all the visitors are sufficiently sensitive to the fact that they are traipsing past — and sometimes even into — the homes of residents, the vast majority of whom have been evacuated to Kibbutz Shefayim on the central coast.

Adi Shay, who runs the kibbutz archive, and travels between Kfar Aza and temporary accommodation in Tel Aviv, said that when she popped back to her house a few days ago to take some belongings, she found two young female soldiers photographing there and taking selfies.

Adi Shay in her home at Kibbutz Kfar Aza. (Courtesy)

Her lawn had been churned up by army vehicles bringing these and other soldiers for a military awards ceremony.

She said that some documents and photographs had reportedly disappeared from the kibbutz armory, whose door was broken open on October 7 and had not yet been repaired.

“My fear is that a souvenir industry will develop here,” said Nirit Shalev Khalifa of Jerusalem’s Yad Ben-Zvi research institute, head of a team that is documenting and storing objects that tell something about October 7.

“I’m sure people are taking mementos,” she went on, stressing that she and her colleagues had to work quickly.

A kibbutz spokeswoman insisted that only people who obtain permission in advance are entering Kfar Aza.

Visitors spotted by this reporter included a group of soldiers serving in Rantis, north of Ramallah, in the West Bank, who had come to learn what happened on October 7, a large group from Yad Tabenkin — the Kibbutz Movement’s research and documentation center — and various groups of visiting Americans, one from Teaneck, New Jersey.

Coming out of the armory was Beryl Eckstein, his wife Doreen, a son and a son-in-law, and a kibbutz electrician who said he’d been asked personally to give them a tour.

Beryl and Doreen Eckstein (center and right) pose with a kibbutz electrician outside the weaponry store at Kibbutz Kfar Aza, close to the Gaza border, January 2, 2023. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

The couple spend half the year in Israel, half in Florida, and had flown in especially for their visit.

“When you speak to people who live here and that have experienced it, it brings you closer,” said Eckstein, the younger brother of the late founder and head of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, as Israeli artillery boomed in the background.

“In the US, everyone has relatives here [in Israel]. Everyone has friends or friends of friends who were killed or taken hostage. My cousin was killed in Gaza. The daughter of a childhood friend was killed in Holit [in the southern Gaza border area] on October 7. And the grandson of my neighbor in Florida is a hostage.”

He was referring to Hersch Goldberg-Polin, who had his arm blown off below the elbow by a grenade during the attack on the Supernova rave near Kibbutz Re’im on October 7 and was then abducted to Gaza.

Hersh Goldberg-Polin, who was taken captive by Hamas terrorists from the Supernova desert rave on October 7, 2023 (Courtesy Rachel Goldberg)

The Ecksteins, in Israel for a week, were planning to help pick fruit in the Gaza border area before heading to Safed in the north. Following his brother’s death, Eckstein has been sending large quantities of donated goods to Israel for the poor, and now also to communities displaced by the war, and even to the army. A distribution was set to take place in Safed through the Orthodox organization Kolel Chabad.

Rehavia and Malka Omessi stand close to a perimeter gate at Kibbutz Kfar Aza, close to the Gaza border, January 2, 2023. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

At one of the gates of the kibbutz perimeter fence, through which buildings in the Gaza Strip can be made out with the naked eye, stood Rehavia and Malka Omessi from an agricultural community near the southern town of Ofakim, where dozens were killed on October 7.

“You hear all sorts of things about what happened. You have to come and see for yourself,” Rehavia Omessi said, as his wife peered through binoculars at the Hamas-controlled enclave.

Several people were wandering around one of the saddest areas of the kibbutz — the young people’s quarters, where so many were murdered, and their houses set on fire.

Two young men were entering what remained of rock musician Yotam Haim’s little house. “We played together in the same band,” they told The Times of Israel.

Yotam Haim (Courtesy)

One woman in a bulletproof vest had come from the northern coastal town of Caesarea with her daughter and her husband, who was dressed in military uniform, having taken time out from serving in the IDF reserves.

Her eyes reddened as she fought back tears, and she explained that she had three sons serving in Gaza and wanted her daughter to see why all the family’s men were in the army.

A double rainbow spanning Israel and the Gaza Strip, seen from Kibbutz Kfar Aza, close to the Gaza border, January 2, 2023. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

“Can seeing something like this really help?” this reporter asked.

“Nothing helps,” she replied.

On the way out of the kibbutz, a double rainbow formed, one leg in Gaza and the other in Israel.

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