April 8, 2024
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Experiencing October 7 on the MTA Mission to Israel

October 7 continues. This past week I had the privilege of joining 30 other students from my high school, Yeshiva University High School for Boys (MTA), on a mission to Israel. The purpose of the mission was to bear witness to the atrocities committed by Hamas on October 7 as well as to do chesed for people affected by that day and for the IDF chayalim. One of the hardest parts of the trip was going from the sites of horror and hearing the saddest stories, to dancing and smiling with children who were just allowed back home in Kfar Maimon. Normally one would need several days or months to cope with hearing so much bad news or seeing something so terrible, but here in a matter of hours we were experiencing a once-in-a-lifetime emotional roller coaster that I will attempt to describe.

 

Numbers

We always hear numbers but we rarely get the opportunity to see and fully grasp numbers. On the first day of the mission, we arrived at the newest graves on Har Herzl. Taking a deep breath, I smelled the newly laid concrete and stone placed just a few weeks ago. For me, this was the first time that I saw a number. Before the mission, I heard about the 300-plus soldiers who were brutally murdered, but I never understood what that number represented. Yet here I was standing at the entrance of the newest section in Har Herzl where hundreds of graves lie before me. Walking through this section, I passed a grieving mother who was mourning the murder of her son on my left, and on my right I passed a little boy with tear-filled eyes wondering why this was the only place he could see his sister from now on. The pictures of the brave soldiers next to their graves, who are just a year or two older than I, will stick with me forever.

On the second day of the mission, we were joined by Yeshiva University Vice President Avi Lauer, who was an active participant as part of the mission. We began the day by volunteering at the Balaban Nursery, a greenhouse that was relocated from Gush Katif. We had the opportunity to hear from the owner about her experience during the 2005 disengagement in the hopes of achieving peace. As we stood in the greenhouse, now damaged by rocket fire, it was evident how distant peace still was. The owner shared with us the challenges of rebuilding her life and business after the disengagement, pointing out the places on her property where rockets had landed.

Visiting Har Herzl.

We continued to Tekuma where all the attacked vehicles, including the infamous Hamas white pickup trucks were placed. This was the second time on the mission that I could put an image to represent the numbers I heard. The cars of mothers, fathers, teenagers and delivery truck drivers lay riddled with bullet holes, and many cars were burnt beyond recognition. I stood there staring and trying to understand how any human could fire over 40 bullets into one car with a baby seat in the back covered in blood. On top of the violent attacks on these cars filled with families, hundreds lay burnt to make sure no part of the body was left inside. This is something that I will never forget. Unfortunately this was just the first time I would face the horrors committed by Hamas terrorists on October 7.

The next stop on Day 2 was the Nova Music Festival. It was surreal. We heard the story of two women who were there on October 7. They told us how excited they were for the sun to rise because the festival began at night and when the sun rose they could see everyone smile. At 6:30 a.m., when they began to see the faces of the others around them simply loving life, the music stopped, and their lives changed forever. They ended up being separated from two of their friends and managed to escape. However, their two friends were hiding in a bomb shelter with 50 other civilians when a Hamas terrorist threw a grenade inside, killing everyone.

The Israeli people show incredible strength and resilience. When you hear a rocket siren or a distant boom, your Israeli friend will be the one to reassure you that it’s normal in Israel and that everything will be OK. But during our conversation, one of the survivors visibly jumped at the sound of a distant boom, showing clear signs of PTSD. This is why October 7 is still happening—the emotional and physical scars from the trauma still linger on. My heart hurt as I walked through the Nova site, the sea of photographs of smiling faces, young and vibrant, just starting their lives before they were tragically taken from us.

Visiting Yeshivat Hesder Sderot.

Roller Coaster of Emotions

With a stinging heart, still processing more trauma than any 18-year-old should ever hear or see, I continued with the group to Kfar Maimon. Kfar Maimon was miraculously saved by a team of IDF soldiers, and no terrorists entered their community. However, the children and families have lost a lot of friends and family and it has been an extremely difficult time for them. They had been displaced to a hotel in Jerusalem for many months, and were finally allowed to return home.

My friends and I had one job: bring the smiles back. We set up and managed a full carnival where everyone in the community came out to join us. One smile at a time, the children really comforted me more than I could even try to comfort them. We played, we ran, we laughed, we hugged; it was one of the best couple of hours of my life. The kids and mothers came in with a noticeable frown and tension amid the ongoing situation, but within 10 minutes everyone was so happy and filled with joy. From bean bag toss to cotton candy, the children loved every minute. It is so hard for me to contrast the emotions from earlier in the day followed by the happiest smiles.

Our joyride continued as we drove to an army base filled with soldiers just arriving back from battle. We grilled steaks and burgers along with yummy desserts for the soldiers. The morale of these chayalim is something that filled me with joy. After the meal we sang and danced with the soldiers; I am still trying to figure out if I comforted them or they comforted me. Seeing the smile of the kids in Kfar Maimon and of the soldiers we grilled for, was beyond amazing.

 

Witness

By the third day of our mission, I was still trying to understand all the emotions running through my body; from coping with seeing the sites of horror to some of the happiest moments I have ever experienced was confusing to say the least. We began the morning in Kfar Aza. As we entered Kfar Aza we saw a few roads filled with the most beautiful trees and very nice, peaceful homes. Little did I really know that 200 feet ahead was something more like Auschwitz. As recommended by loved ones and members of my school and community, watching any videos from October 7 was considered a bad idea; the emotional trauma was just not appropriate for such young minds. Yet, here I was, about to turn the corner and see and feel more than any video could show.

I am not sure where to begin. The amount of bullet holes on the walls and ceilings or the burned-down homes. I could not believe this was real; it couldn’t be. No human could possibly do this to another. Yet here I was standing, smelling, seeing, and feeling it all. It hit me like a ton of bricks: I had been shielding my eyes from the horrors of October 7 up until now. However, as I looked around, I realized it was far too important to bear witness. October 7 happened and it was a thousand times worse than anything you could imagine, unless you go to Israel and see it for yourself. Although difficult, it was an important part of the trip and I will never forget what those monsters did to my brothers and sisters just because they were Jewish.

After that, we traveled to Sderot to meet with residents of the city including our tour guide, a local police officer named Shai as well as the rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Hesder Sderot, Rav Fendel. They all shared deeply personal stories from October 7 and the heroes who defended the city. The sense of resilience from the people of Sderot was palpable and extremely inspiring.

Heroes

The next stop was Kibbutz Zikim where we met and spent a few hours with Elior, a local resident and head of the kibbutz’s rapid response security team. Zikim is a beautiful, serene beachside kibbutz on the northern border of the Gaza Strip. Elior told us how he and his team fought off the invading terrorists and how he successfully stopped small groups of terrorists from infiltrating, even three weeks later. We got to tour the beach and see the bullet-riddled bathrooms and destroyed cabanas. Elior gave us all strength through his courage and bravery. We ended the day with a pizza party and dancing with soldiers in Chevron. These soldiers rarely get visitors, let alone people who provide them dinner, as most of the focus is on the soldiers in the South. They were so appreciative that we thought of them. More smiles that will continue to carry me through tough times.

Our last day began with volunteering for OneFamily in Jerusalem, where we packed bags for mishloach manot for different families affected by terror. After packing over 300 packages with the group, we heard from an observer for the IDF named Ariella. By far the most emotional moment of the trip, Ariella took us through everything she experienced. Ariella was one of the soldiers in charge of watching everything unfolding inside a certain area in Gaza over the last year. She took us through the pain she and her friends felt when they reported unusual acts by Hamas, but it was not fully recognized by her military superiors.

Ariella told us what happened as her base was infiltrated. She lost 46 of her friends on October 7, and four of her close friends were kidnapped to Gaza. She told us that just last week, she tried calling her friend to share a story, but when it went straight to voicemail, she remembered she had no one left. She participated in two funerals for one friend because after the terrorists killed him, they mutilated his body, and IDF troops found a piece of his body in an ice cream truck in Gaza. Despite all of the horrors, last week, Ariella returned to her base, the same base where she lost everything, with blood stains on the wall, and she continued to do her job. She is a real hero.The story of Ariella will live inside of me for a long time; my heart hurts for her and the friends she lost on October 7.

We left with a sense of deep pain and love for Ariella and all the soldiers fighting the trauma post-October 7. We spent some time dropping off lunch and handing out snacks to soldiers at Kever Rochel, where we had the opportunity to daven, before we went to Sheba Hospital in Tel Aviv. In the rehabilitation wing, we had the opportunity to hear the stories of injured soldiers and give them some letters and treats. The soldiers we spoke with were kind enough to talk to us about how they were wounded and are currently recovering. Their bravery and heroism are unmatched. They were grateful for visitors from New York and appreciated that we came to spend time with them. It gave me a lot of strength to see our injured soldiers smiling and happy to share their experiences, despite their current situation.

We ended our trip with a visit to Hostage Square in Tel Aviv to hear from Julie, whose son Bar is currently being held hostage by Hamas in Gaza. Julie shared with us how she stays strong during such terrible times. Hearing the pain in her voice was gut-wrenching and truly hard to digest.

As I gather my thoughts after a week in Israel, the enormity of what I witnessed weighs heavily on my heart. From the grim realities of October 7 to the resilient spirit of the survivors and soldiers, the emotions I felt were raw and real. October 7 isn’t just a date in history; it’s an ongoing struggle for healing and repairing. We can’t afford to forget or look away. The pain is still fresh, the wounds still raw. I implore you, as I implored myself, to come to Israel, to see, to listen, and to understand. It’s about facing the truth, confronting the darkness, and striving for a brighter tomorrow, together.


Eitan Isaacs is a senior at MTA.

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