This past Shabbat, the Englewood and Tenafly Jewish community kicked off an ambitious and unprecedented new project to partner with a community devastated on Oct. 7. Netiv HaAsara was infiltrated by terrorists arriving by air and land on that fateful day, which resulted in the murder of 20 residents of the moshav and the destruction of several homes. Netiv HaAsara is a close-knit community of 300
families where everyone knows everyone, so the losses are closely felt by every single resident. And their displacement from their homes has taken a heavy social, emotional and mental toll.
Several months ago, members of the Englewood Jewish community were put in contact with representatives of the moshav through personal connections. At the time, Englewood was looking for more ways to support our brothers and sisters in Israel beyond the many urgent fundraising efforts in the early days of the war and find a project that would make a tangible, lasting impact.
Partnering with a community affected by the attacks of Oct. 7 to support its residents in their current displacement and help them rebuild became the obvious project to pursue. More importantly, we were looking to build a relationship with a community that would involve more than just fundraising. In addition to raising funds to help meet their needs, there was strong interest in generating a lasting relationship through various programs that would connect members of the two communities with each other to create new friendships and strong bonds. We have all witnessed how this tragic moment in our history has been met by a surge of Jewish unity, as Jews from communities that never spoke to each other before are now working side by side to support each other.
The partnership with Netiv HaAsara involves shuls from all streams of the Englewood and Tenafly Jewish communities, demonstrating this renewed sense of unity. Participating shuls include Congregation Ahavath Torah, Kehilat Kesher, the East Hill Synagogue, Temple Sinai, Chabad of Englewood, and Shomrei Emunah. The Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey is also supporting Netiv HaAsara with funding for mental health support and after-school programming. In April, they will bring 21 of the students from the 12th grade class who lost two of their classmates on Oct. 7 to northern New Jersey for a week of fun and getting to know our high school seniors.
Connecting with the Netiv HaAsara community began in earnest in January when members of Cong. Ahavath Torah and Kehilat Kesher traveled to Israel to visit the moshav and meet with displaced residents in the two hotels where they have been evacuated and currently live. While in the moshav, they saw the devastation that occurred and could hear loud booms coming from Gaza throughout the visit, which the residents, able to tell the difference between the sounds of the rockets, calmly reassured them “Don’t worry. Those are ours.” They are used to living under threat. They are used to sirens and shelters. But as we all well know, what happened on Oct. 7 was unprecedented and unimaginable.
Following the visit, it was obvious we needed to bring Netiv HaAsara to New Jersey for our community to meet and experience the stories of this brave and inspirational community. This past Shabbat, Englewood and Tenafly hosted eight residents of Netiv HaAsara who shared their personal stories among close to 1,000 people throughout the weekend. Events included several oneg Shabbats, many meals, and remarks during davening Shabbat morning in each shul. Motzei Shabbat we held a community-wide musical Havdalah and heard personal stories followed by an emotional singing of “Hatikvah.”
We heard from Benny Ladom, a 55-year-old father of two daughters who had recently retired from the moshav’s security team. He shared how one of his best friends died in his arms while he both tried to comfort him in his last moments of life and keep him quiet so the nearby terrorists wouldn’t hear them.
We heard from Alon Keren, who is a member of the security team and was fending off terrorists in the moshav while his 17-year-old son and friend went missing while fishing during the early morning of Oct. 7. Many hours later he identified his son’s body at the hospital morgue.
We heard from Yael, a mother of three, whose husband handed her a gun, telling her there were seven bullets and she must do what was needed to protect her family in their shelter while he went to bring his elderly father and a neighbor with a two-week-old baby back to their shelter.
We heard from Ronen, who after leaving for an early morning walk, hid for 12 hours in a greenhouse, separated from his family, doing everything he could to maintain calm and communicate in some way with his wife and children.
We heard from Sara, a farmer who lost her whole season of farming and along with it, her income. On Oct. 7, she was in a shelter near her farm on the moshav for many hours with 11 Thai workers as her husband gave their 16- and 18-year-old sons guns in their shelter at home and left them to try and get to Sara.
During each of the events, Englewood and Tenafly community members were able to speak one- on-one with the residents of Netiv HaAsara. Bonds were formed, partnership ideas were exchanged and hugs were abundant throughout the weekend.
Englewood and Tenafly are fortunate to have the rabbi emeritus of Cong. Ahavath Torah, Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, participating in the project from where he lives in Israel. He was in attendance this Shabbat and spoke of how important it is for we Jews in America to feel a sense of responsibility in this moment, specifically as individuals. Each of us has something to contribute, which is why this partnership is so beautiful; it provides opportunities that are not strictly financial for people to get involved.
Reflecting the wisdom and sensitivity for which he is known, Rabbi Goldin imparted a critically important lesson not to view this partnership as American Jews providing for our downtrodden brothers and sisters in Israel in need of our help. No. Jews in Israel are strong and resilient. And they are granting us the privilege of standing with them as they navigate this difficult journey to secure our homeland and rebuild their communities. They are supporting us as much as we are supporting them. It is with this approach and understanding that we look forward to building our partnership with Netiv HaAsara for many years to come.
Rabbi Chaim Poupko is the rabbi at Congregation Ahavath Torah.