ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 235

Ofer Halperin-Rothschild. (Dafna Talmon)
Photo: Dafna Talmon

'We understood we couldn't go back. I'm not willing to do that to my children anymore. If I had any doubts before October 7, they've been settled'

Married mother of three, art teacher, evacuated to Shefayim ● This is her story

Photo: Dafna Talmon

This is part of a series, “Uprooted.” Each column is a curated monologue from an individual among the tens of thousands of internally displaced Israelis during the war with Hamas who were evacuated from the country’s northern border and the Gaza envelope.

Saturday, October 7

On Saturday at 6:30 a.m., sirens started in Kfar Aza. My 1-year-old Maayan and 10-year-old Ariel were already awake. Then my 5-year-old Lior woke up. We gathered everyone, including the two dogs, one of which is deaf and needs to be convinced to move, and we went into the bomb shelter.

My first thought was, “Who did we kill last night?” and then we heard another siren and another one and another one. After 10 minutes, I asked my husband Matan to get us water. My kids are scared of the sirens, so at first we danced and sang in the shelter to disperse the tension.

Suddenly, we heard gunshots close by. We live in the line of houses next to the armory and we heard unusual gunfights. I thought about the possibility of a terrorist infiltration, but I assured myself they would soon be killed, and then we got the message from the kibbutz security team that there were terrorists in the kibbutz and we should stay in our shelters and keep quiet.

How do you keep quiet with children? What did you tell them?

I told them there were bad people in the kibbutz and we had to stay quiet. Lior started asking questions: “Why are they bad, and what do they want to do?” I explained to her that they want our territory, and don’t want us to live here, and that this is a fight of many years. She suggested that if they come into our house, we can give them money and they’ll go.

Toward 9 a.m., the electricity went out. We lit up the room with a little chain of Christmas lights that I had bought the prior day. We made makeshift fans, we urinated in Maayan’s diapers, we lay embraced and waited for the time to pass, for someone to come.

Kibbutz Kfar Aza, near the Israeli-Gaza border, in southern Israel, October 10, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

My parents were abroad with three other retirees from the kibbutz. Their house was completely destroyed. They were messaging me and knew better than me what was happening outside, but didn’t tell me. My sister, who lives in another neighborhood in the kibbutz, was with her kids at the neighbor’s, and at around 9 a.m., they left the kibbutz for Mitzpe Ramon.

How did those hours pass for you?

I was in denial, I didn’t internalize the magnitude of the event. The children switched off and slept most of the time. Thirty hours passed until the rescue arrived, and when it did, I took the basket with laundry I’d folded the day before, spilled its contents into a suitcase, collected some clothes for the children, and we left.

Outside the house stood soldiers with weapons and an armored personnel carrier. We took the dogs, I sat on the floor with the children, and Matan stood. On the way, I asked him what he was seeing, and he said, “You don’t want to know.”

The evacuation

In the first stage, they evacuated us to Kibbutz Mishmar Hanegev near Rahat. On Sunday evening, we drove to Shefayim. Anyone able to get out on Saturday night was evacuated to Eilat. On the way to Mishmar Hanegev, we stopped for gas and I saw a friend. I was going to joke about the adventure we had been on, but then I saw his face was puffy from hours of crying.

He told me his sister and brother-in-law were murdered. Only then did I start to connect the dots and form a picture. I found out that close friends of ours (Smadar and Roee Idan) were murdered and that our friend Hagar Brodutch was taken hostage to Gaza with her three kids. Her husband, Avichai, was with the emergency response team and survived.

Chana and Yoav Halperin’s demolished home in Kibbutz Kfar Aza. (Home Front Command)

I sat on the ground and sobbed. I felt survivor’s guilt. How was it that there were 10 terrorists in the house next door, members of the emergency response team were murdered in the house behind us, and there were victims in the house opposite us, but they didn’t even come inside ours?

Kfar Aza has some 800 members. Sixty-five were murdered, 18 were abducted, and five are still hostages: Doron Steinbrecher, Emily Damari, Keith Segal, and the twins Ziv and Gali Berman.

It was hard for me to deal with the series of funerals, so I only went to those of people I was close to, like Avi Hindi, deputy head of security; Nadav Amikam, a former classmate of mine and emergency response team member; and Livnat and Aviv Kutz and their three kids. They were four weeks full of funerals, shivas and memorials.

On Monday, we had a kibbutz meeting. We understood our lives had changed completely. I saw that a lot of people were broken and struggled to function. I understood that I was relatively okay, my family was okay, everyone was whole. At the end of the meeting, I turned to the community manager and asked to be responsible for education.

Did you understand then that an educational framework was needed?

Yes. I saw kids clinging to their parents and the parents talking over their heads, and I realized that we needed to make sure the children weren’t exposed to the horror stories and that the parents were given the space to mourn. One of the kibbutz members took on the logistical management with the hotel, and someone else was in charge of collecting donations.

The Halperin-Rothschild family. From left to right: Ariel, Matan, Ofer, Maayan, and Lior, summer, 2023. (Ron Rahamim)

When Operation Protective Edge started in 2014, we were evacuated to Nir Ha’emek, a WIZO boarding school near Afula. We were there for two months. My friend, who was the education coordinator then, asked me to help her keep the preschool and primary school kids busy. I was a graphic designer then with no experience in education. We contacted Ramat David and suggested joining forces. It was a hit.

This time, we decided not to mix because we understood that we had experienced something unprecedented and needed a unique framework. Almost every day, we add a therapeutic lesson like working with animals, movement, yoga and art therapy. After Protective Edge, I left graphics and moved to education.

On October 11, we opened three kindergartens in the hotel. Teams from the kibbutz movement came to help, at first voluntarily, and then with a salary after a month. We were given donations of equipment from IKEA and from good people: chairs, children’s tables, art materials and more. When we saw things stabilizing, we brought in a paid kindergarten teacher.

I think the fact that I was busy with positive activities for the future and for life protected me and helped me deal with the strange situation we found ourselves in. It was a mission to help those who were less capable. Slowly, we started to lengthen the kindergarten hours and split them into two classes. Two weeks ago, the children joined the Environmental Education School in Ga’ash.

From Shefayim to Rishpon

After three weeks, we heard a rumor that there was a two-bedroom apartment in Rishpon, close to Shefayim. The loss of our place and our home was the most difficult thing, especially for Ariel, who was missing his corner with his legos and toys.

The conditions in the hotel are not easy, especially for a family with three small children. I wanted to cook for my kids, eat family meals with them, and for them to have a room with beds and toys and for us to have a room of our own. I wanted a feeling of home.

Ofer Halperin-Rothschild in Shefayim, January 2024. (Dafna Talmon)

The wonderful people of Rishpon prepared the house and others for evacuees. We walked in and I teared up. Everything was just given to us ready to go. The fridge and the pantry were full and we didn’t need to bring anything.

The kids were excited, and the move was good for them because in Shefayim, they were crazed both because of the amount of sugar they consumed (we were given massive amounts of candy) and because the hotel was full of people mourning, crying and laughing. Emotional craze.

Single visit in Kfar Aza

A month after we moved to Rishpon, I went to Kfar Aza with my father to pick up a few things. I parked with the trunk toward the door. I didn’t want to see the kibbutz. I packed and my dad loaded the car, and I didn’t even go to see my parents’ demolished house.

Seven terrorists took up residence in their bomb shelter with lots of explosives. My childhood photo albums are riddled with bullet holes, and the whole house was destroyed because there was fighting in it. They had a menorah that they inherited from my great-grandmother who immigrated from Holland. That menorah survived the Holocaust with her.

On Hanukkah, Brothers in Arms helped my dad rescue some objects from the house and found the menorah whole. A few days ago, we celebrated his birthday and we brought him a house-shaped cake. Here and there, we’ve developed black humor.

‘New path’ or ‘No return’

The local council and the kibbutz management have been encouraging us to return to Kfar Aza to rehabilitate the south and show the image of victory everyone is hoping for. Matan and I have concluded that we’re not able to go back. I’m not willing to put my kids through it anymore. I ended the experiment with the children. If I had doubts before October 7, they have now been settled.

Yoav Halperin with his house-shaped birthday cake (left), Chana Halperin lights Ofer’s great-grandmother’s menorah (middle), which was saved from the demolished home by the IDF’s Home Front Command (right). (Courtesy: Halperin-Rothschild family)

I want to start anew in a place without gunshots. I’m part of a group of families with a “We’ve suffered enough, no more,” agenda. We want to move together and are looking for a new place. We’re talking about 20 families out of 40 who announced that they wouldn’t return to the kibbutz.

In a few days, we’re supposed to get a caravan in Shefayim. It’s a project that has been built because of the war and the number of evacuees. The demand is growing, and there isn’t space for everyone. Grieving families and families with small children are at the top of the priorities.

The caravan in Shefayim is a house with a slightly longer horizon. If we want, we can stay there even after part of the community moves to Kibbutz Ruhama in nine months. Return to the kibbutz is not happening in the foreseeable future because serious rehabilitation work is needed, mainly for residents’ souls.

Most of the community is not willing to return until the war ends, so Ruhama is meant to be another mid-point solution. I doubt how many members will move there, so it seems like the kibbutz is in the process of falling apart, which is sad.

I’ve opened a WhatsApp group for the families who don’t want to return called New Path. We are in touch with the kibbutz movement and Kfar Aza’s management so that they understand that a solution is needed for whoever doesn’t want to return, or those who haven’t decided yet and need more time. The goal is to move house as little as possible. That’s why we’ll stay for now in Shefayim until we find a permanent solution.

New Path is a little like a stick in the wheels of the dreams to rehabilitate the south. We’ve been promised all the luxuries: Gyms, swimming pools and playgrounds. Anything you want, you’ll get. I want it all, but not near Gaza. Why should the person who buys a house, in the place where I was born and grew up, be the one to gain all of those things, while I am neglected again?

Ofer Halperin-Rothschild. (Dafna Talmon)

Day-to-day

Matan and I work and the kids have a routine. I still get a salary from the school I work at, and Matan found a new job in high-tech. Before the massacre, he worked at the Be’eri print shop as a software tester. As long as we live in Rishpon, the state gives us NIS 200 ($53) a day per adult and NIS 100 ($26.50) per child.

I have a friend who lives in Abirim. They evacuated independently, and when they’d finally settled and found a school and kindergartens, they needed to buy another car to get to work and take the kids to kindergarten. At least for us, everything is in one place.

Once a week, I go to teach at Sde Tzvi and am back before kindergarten ends, an hour and a quarter each way. The rest of the time, I’m at the workshop.

The workshop was set up in the hotel in memory of Livnat Kutz and her inspiration. In the primary school in Sha’ar Hanegev, there was a workshop that Livnat started with an emphasis on traditional handicrafts: carpentry, ceramics, embroidery and knitting.

At the moment, there are classes in the workshop from morning to evening. I go to pottery classes and help choose teachers who want to teach there.

That’s how I got to Colors of Hope, which is an initiative started after October 7 by Guy Bar Lev, a resident of Herzliya who opened a command center for equipment for evacuees. One day, he painted a set with his hands. People were excited and that was how the idea was formed: Children’s paintings from the south that are sold around the country and the world and can also be used as public diplomacy materials.

Ofer Halperin-Rothschild and her children do arts and crafts for Colors of Hope. (Courtesy Ofer Halperin-Rothschild)

The idea is to bring the light back into life and the feeling that you can affect your future and how you feel. A child makes a drawing, the drawing is sold at an exhibit, the money goes to the child’s family, and the kid gains a sense of power and capability. It’s a meaningful way to deal with the trauma.

Two weeks ago, there was a Colors of Hope exhibit in Rinatya, and other towns will host us soon. Everything is fresh, in formation. My job is to connect between the south’s communities and the initiative and between the initiative and influencers and artists who I want to advertise us. I also find locations that can and want to host exhibitions.

Three months before October 7, Livnat created a piece called “A Doll’s Wings.” It was supposed to be an ongoing project related to recycling and a vision of placemaking (a form of urban planning that focuses on people more than structures).

The wings, which are made of hundreds of pieces of old toys, were hung on a bomb shelter next to the dining hall in Kfar Aza and survived the attack. On October 28, Livnat was supposed to celebrate her 50th birthday. She always said she didn’t want gifts and that we should volunteer instead. So we turned the day into an arts and crafts day for the community and I made a recreation of the wings here in Shefayim, and we hung them in the workshop.

Did you let yourself mourn?

Yes. I mourned my friends who are gone and I couldn’t get to their funerals. One day, I walked toward the sea and released their names and a few words about each of them to the wind. I held a sort of personal goodbye ceremony. Private. I sent words into the wind with an eye to the horizon and the sea.

‘A Dolls Wings,’ made by Livnat Kutz, hangs in Kibbutz Kfar Aza. (Courtesy Ofer Halperin-Rothschild)

Sometimes I collapse, and I think that happens mainly around the absurdity and uncertainty we live in. When I finished setting up the education programs and hadn’t found Colors of Hope yet, I sank and was sick. Suddenly everything came crashing down on me. The physical and the emotional.

Do you feel you’ve changed?

Yes. In my level of trust. I don’t trust anyone to protect me and care for me. Not the army and not the state. I realized I needed to care for myself and my family. I go with what I believe in and don’t care what other people say, and that’s new to me.

I do what I can to help my community. A good friend of mine lost her husband and cannot focus on the future right now, only on survival. The present. She too, like me, is between the “no returns.” Every time I update her with developments in New Path, she says, “Thank you for doing this also for me.”

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