Shahar Schnorman (left) and Ayelet Cohen at the entrance to their home in Kibbutz Kfar Aza, with rescue forces' graffiti on the wall behind them, on January 25, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)
Shahar Schnorman (left) and Ayelet Cohen at the entrance to their home in Kibbutz Kfar Aza, with rescue forces' graffiti on the wall behind them, on January 25, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)
Inside story'Kfar Aza must rise again'

Resilience amid ruins: Kfar Aza’s first two returnees hope to forge a path of renewal

While some contemplate leaving the hard-hit kibbutz forever, one hardy couple believes that moving back is showing others the way forward

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

Shahar Schnorman (left) and Ayelet Cohen at the entrance to their home in Kibbutz Kfar Aza, with rescue forces' graffiti on the wall behind them, on January 25, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

Sipping an espresso in the yard of his small home in Kibbutz Kfar Aza, Shahar Shnorman proclaims: “I am an image of victory.”

Last month, Shnorman, 62, and his wife Ayelet Cohen became the first residents to return to their kibbutz, where Hamas terrorists on October 7 murdered about 80 people – one in 10 residents — and abducted another 18.

For 45 days, the couple were the sole residents of what is essentially a sprawling crime scene. At the vacant and scarred shell of a once-vibrant community, the only sounds are thuds of war from Gaza, bird chirps and the winter winds strumming the yellow police tape that spans the doorways of many of their neighbors’ homes.

Recently, a reinforcement came: Last week, a woman who’d stayed away with the rest of the surviving community returned from the hotel where she’d been staying. “So, when it gets dark now, the lights go on in two homes,” Shnorman remarked with satisfaction.

The returnees of Kfar Aza, whose evacuated community is now housed in two complexes near Tel Aviv, underscore both the resilience and the difficulties of tens of thousands of displaced Israelis who left their homes after the October 7 onslaught. Many are champing at the bit to return.

“What would I tell my parents and grandparents, who built this country and fought for each grain of sand, if I let it shut down by staying away,” said Shnorman, who grew up in Kibbutz Shoval not far from Kfar Aza. “No, Kfar Aza must rise again. Children must return to play on these lawns.”

In recent weeks, some towns, kibbutzim and moshavim in the evacuated zone – defined as being within 7 kilometers (4.3 miles) of the border – have seen more than 100 returnees each, said a rehabilitation official who spoke to The Times of Israel anonymously.

Among the evacuated communities with 100 returnees or more are Tal Or, Shokeda, Kfar Maimon, Ibim, Shuva and Zimrat, the rehabilitation official said. Caring for them and for evacuees is the Tekuma Authority, a body with a NIS 18 billion ($4.8 billion) budget set up to manage the rehabilitation of the border-area region now bearing that name.

Gaza is seen in the background of a field in Kibbutz Kfar Aza on January 25, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

Some 60,000 southerners from communities near Gaza, half of them from the city of Sderot, have been living in government-funded accommodations since October 7, when some 3,000 Hamas terrorists invaded Israel and killed about 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and abducted another 253.

The onslaught prompted a massive ground maneuver in Gaza by Israel, which is working to both dismantle Hamas and free more than 136 hostages still held there after the release in November of over 100 captives in a prisoner swap. Hamas has been firing countless rockets into Israel, mainly in the south, during the fighting.

The government on January 1 began offering thousands of dollars a month in resettlement grants to evacuees if they return. Relatively few have done so, however, partly due to the absence of operational schools and other critical services. Only about 2,000 of Sderot’s 30,000-odd residents are believed to have returned.

The government announced plans on January 3 to gradually end its accommodation arrangement for the evacuees – most are staying at state-funded hotels – starting March 1. Rehabilitation officials shared with individual communities, through their elected representatives, the projected timelines for resettlement.

Sderot residents protest against the government’s intention of returning them to their homes, in Jerusalem, January 22, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

According to unconfirmed reports, the deadline may be extended to July, but the rehabilitation official who spoke to The Times of Israel anonymously said the deadline was still March 1, despite protests by many evacuees, including Sderot Mayor Alon Davidi, who say conditions are not yet ripe for a return, including the lack of a sense of safety.

People from Kfar Aza, Be’eri, Nir Oz and several other badly hit communities that will take months or more to rehabilitate may stay in state-funded accommodations until 2025 at least. Returnees to those places, like Shnorman and Cohen, are eligible for the resettlement grant from January 1 onward, the Tourism Ministry confirmed. (Shnorman first heard about this from The Times of Israel, he said.)

In Israel’s north, another 40,000 people have been evacuated as well, as Hezbollah terrorists began launching projectiles into Israel shortly after October 7. No deadline has been announced for their return and they are not eligible for resettlement payments.

‘Yes or no, stay or go’

Some in Kfar Aza are considering not returning at all.

Keren Flash-Schwartzman grew up in Kfar Aza, where her parents, Cindy and Yigal, were murdered on October 7. She and her husband Avidor Schwartzman are mulling over the issue in Shefayim, a kibbutz near Herzliya where about half of Kfar Aza’s population lives in mobile homes placed there for them by the Tekuma Authority. The other half are living in the dorms of the nearby Reichman University.

“We’re not 100% certain [about returning],” says Keren, a 35-year-old Pilates instructor who has a 16-month-old daughter named Sa’ar.  “We’re having these conversations of ‘yes or no, stay or go, live in Kfar Aza or find a place in Beersheba,’” where Avidor grew up and where they lived before moving to Kfar Aza, she said. “It’s totally on the table. It’s too early to decide.”

Avidor Schwartzman and Keren Flash-Schwartzman stand in the outdoor cafe of Shefayim on January 18, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

The decision will come down to safety, said Avidor, a 38-year-old media consultant. “Kfar Aza has many parents of small children, like us. And our main directive as parents is to keep our children safe. So returning is going to be difficult unless the place is safe.” Right now, he added, it does not feel safe.

Avidor has not been back to Kfar Aza, where the couple had lived for only two months before October 7, when they survived the Hamas attack in their shelter. Keren has visited three times, and each time she was confronted with what she called “the broken pieces of a dream.”

Many of Keren’s classmates lived in their neighborhood. A long waiting list meant houses were hard to come by, so the Schwartzmans took a unit with a less-than-ideal design, Keren said. “Our dreams just got smashed to pieces, and now I’m confronted by the aftermath,” she said.

Remains of the Hermesh family house at Kibbutz Kfar Aza, close to the Gaza border, on January 2, 2024. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

Keren recalled sitting in her new living room on October 5 after Sa’ar went to sleep. “I was thinking to myself: ‘This was a good decision, coming here. We’re on track.’ I was thinking of opening a Pilates studio.”

Living among the rubble

Back in Kfar Aza, the aftermath of the massacre is an inescapable presence. Buildings are charred, bullet-riddled dumps and the doorways of all the homes, including that of Shnorman and Cohen, bear the colorful graffiti of rescue forces detailing the number of people or corpses they found inside.

Shahar Shnorman (left) and Ayelet Cohen have coffee in the yard of their home in Kibbutz Kfar Aza on January 25, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

“Going back is horribly difficult even if your house was spared, like ours. You go outside and you see the home of your murdered next-door neighbor, in our case Nira Ronen of blessed memory,” says Shnorman, who also survived the onslaught in his shelter with Cohen. He is too traumatized to work at his job as a forklift operator in Kibbutz Sa’ad, he said. “It’s too dangerous. I forget stuff and get distracted,” he explained.

After the onslaught, Shnorman and Cohen, who don’t have children, spent weeks living with family and then in a luxurious apartment in Tel Aviv, provided as a goodwill gesture by the owners.

The place “even had an enormous shower, which is appreciated considering the dimensions,” Cohen says, referencing Shnorman’s hulking figure, towering well over 190 centimeters (6′ 3″). He twirled to illustrate her point, and she chuckled at his demonstration.

In Tel Aviv, Shnorman was “an emotional wreck,” he said. “I would break down in tears because I didn’t have the wherewithal to start the car correctly,” he recalled. And Cohen “couldn’t sleep very well,” she said.

The aftermath of a firefight on October 7, 2024 at a fortified building outside Kfar Aza, pictured here on January 25, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

During visits to Kfar Aza, “I felt happier. I had fewer crying bouts and temper tantrums,” Shnorman said. Cohen added: “And I just slept like a baby. So we stayed.”

Cohen, a 55-year-old medical masseuse, said their return to the kibbutz “shows others it can be done,” she said. Kibbutz members who are expressing doubts “will for the most part return all the same. It’s just the trauma talking. I’m sure of it,” she said.

In the daytime, Kibbutz Kfar Aza is bustling. Soldiers, foreign and local media, rehabilitation teams, government officials, park rangers, visiting locals and politicians stream in and out of the place, which now has morning and afternoon traffic jams at its single entry gate.

The Shnorman-Cohen residence has become something of a pilgrimage site, and Shnorman makes an effort to host the visitors. Doing so “is part of the mission” of encouraging a return, he said.

On Thursday, January 25, the visitors included Mayan Dotan, a 47-year-old mother of four who was born in Kfar Aza and, before October 7, had lived in Netiv Ha’asara and worked in Be’eri (all three communities were hit very hard in the onslaught).

Dotan, who was concluding her first visit to her native kibbutz since October 7, called Shnorman and Cohen’s return “an act of bravery.”

But, she added: “Me, I can’t even bring myself to visit my childhood home. I believe neither the army nor the government, only Hamas when they say they’ll do it again. I’m afraid they’ll pop out of a tunnel on me,” added Dotan, who is living in Yavne with the rest of the evacuated community of Netiv Ha’asara.

Mayan Dotan, center, visits with friends the home of Shahar Shnorman and Ayelet Cohen in Kibbutz Kfar Aza on January 25, 2024. (Canaan Lidor)

Multiple kibbutzim and moshavim have moved lock, stock and barrel to urban settings, including Re’im (to Tel Aviv); Nir Oz (Kiryat Gat); and Nahal Oz (Mishmar Ha’emek). Many of Kfar Aza’s residents plan to move from Shefayim and Reichman to Kibbutz Ruhama, which is located near Gaza inside the Tekuma Region.

Is Shnorman and Cohen’s return to Kfar Aza inspiring Dotan to return to her own Moshav Netiv Ha’asara?

“Not at all,” Dotan said. “It makes me fear for them. It makes my heart race.” She cannot imagine herself returning before 2025, if at all, she said. She asked Cohen whether she ever gets scared at night.

“Nighttime is complicated,” Cohen replied. “It’s not scary, it’s just unpleasant. There’s a dead silence and it feels so lifeless and isolated.” The couple leaves their porch lights on all night to “breach the darkness,” as Shnorman put it.

The couple, who fly an Israeli flag and a pride flag on their porch, recently added a black flag to the display. It symbolizes their mourning, said Shnorman, who also tattooed “07.10.2023” on his forearm.

The date, he said, “is etched into my arm just as Kfar Aza is a part of my soul.”

read more:
Never miss breaking news on Israel
Get notifications to stay updated
You're subscribed
Register for free
and continue reading
Registering also lets you comment on articles and helps us improve your experience. It takes just a few seconds.
Already registered? Enter your email to sign in.
Please use the following structure:
Or Continue with
By registering you agree to the terms and conditions. Once registered, you’ll receive our Daily Edition email for free.
Register to continue
Or Continue with
Log in to continue
Sign in or Register
Or Continue with
check your email
Check your email
We sent an email to you at .
It has a link that will sign you in.