March 4, 2024
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Norman Itkowitz and Israel’s Forgotten Families

There are an estimated 200,000 Israelis who have been forced to evacuate from the southern areas near Gaza and the northern border near Lebanon. More than half of the evacuees are living in hotels; others are living with family and friends in safer areas of the country.

Most of us cannot imagine the hardships and difficulty of uprooting your family in 24 hours and relocate somewhere else.

Norman Itkowitz can.

A former resident of Stamford, Itkowitz moved with his family to New Orleans in 2003, when he accepted a psychology fellowship in PTSD. In 2005, his home was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. Except for a few clothes and some furniture, Itkowitz lost everything, including important records, photos and other keepsakes.

As soon as Itkowitz realized that the hurricane was heading directly to the area in which he lived, he packed up two bags, and along with his wife, two kids and his dog, headed to Memphis. “We went down to New Orleans with a huge moving truck,” said Itkowitz. “When we relocated to Memphis, all the belongings we took were placed in a small U-Haul.”

His children were in fourth grade and kindergarten at the time. Itkowitz enrolled them at the Margolin Hebrew Academy in Memphis, but it wasn’t an easy transition for them. The youngest had major adjustment issues; the older child felt that he couldn’t plan for anything anymore after unexpectedly being forced out of his home. Itkowitz said that the hardest part of adjusting to being an evacuee is accepting help from others. The rabbi in Memphis, Rabbi Shai Finkelstein, convinced Itkowitz that it was a mitzvah for his congregation to help his family … and for Itkowitz to be able to accept it.

As to the current situation in Israel where many had to evacuate, Itkowitz thinks his situation was a little different.

“We had a place we could move to,” explained Itkowitz. “We had a community to take care of us, and we weren’t under constant threat from missile attacks like the people who were displaced from their homes in Israel. I believe they must take it one day at a time and develop a plan for the future. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be in their shoes right now, even though I had somewhat of a similar situation. I guess the current evacuees do have a community amongst themselves, and they also have Israel and all of Klal Yisrael trying to help them, but it is hard to accept that you might never go back to your home.”

In fact, Itkowitz, along with about 20 members of the Stamford Jewish community, recently had a chance to meet with evacuees as part of a volunteer and learning trip to Israel organized in conjunction with Ohr Torah Stone. I was privileged to be part of this group.

We spoke with several evacuees from Kibbutz Or haNer, located near the Gaza border. They had all been relocated to the Orient Hotel in Jerusalem. The kibbutz was extremely fortunate in that the Hamas terrorists did not destroy their kibbutz, as they did to Kfar Azza and Kibbutz Be’eri. Everyone from the kibbutz was saved.

However, 650 individuals from the kibbutz, including 200 children, had to evacuate immediately, first going to Tiberias and then relocating to the Orient in Jerusalem. Some of the kibbutzniks left on Saturday when they heard what was happening in nearby areas; others stayed in safe rooms for many hours until an official evacuation notice came on Sunday.

It’s difficult to imagine the mental trauma these evacuees are going through. Many of them have lost loved ones or have friends who were killed in the massacre of Oct. 7. The survivor’s guilt must be enormous. Their children are going to new schools … assuming they have been placed back in school at all. They likely will never be able to see their homes again.

However, when I asked them if they wanted to return to their communities and rebuild, they all said that once it’s safe to go back, they want to return. They were amazingly optimistic in spite of the severe hardships they have been forced to endure the past two months.

In many ways, these evacuees are Israel’s forgotten families. Since the war began, I have been besieged by individual requests and organizational fundraising efforts for equipment and supplies for our brave soldiers. The hostages — and their families — have taken center stage, as they should. There has also been an enormous amount of attention directed to the grieving families who have lost loved ones in the massacre and the soldiers who have fallen defending our land. Our students at our day schools have been writing letters to soldiers and to those who sustained injuries in the massacre and are recovering in hospitals. However, there has been much less attention directed to the hundreds of thousands of Israelis who are living in hotels and other temporary shelters, and while they might not need our financial help as much as other groups, they certainly need our moral support.

The war against Hamas has affected everyone in the country in some way. Let’s not forget the 200,000 people who have been displaced from their homes and who are trying to rebuild their lives as best as they can.


Michael Feldstein, who lives in Stamford,is the author of “Meet Me in the Middle” (meet-me-in-the-middle-book.com), a collection of essays on contemporary Jewish life. He can be reached at [email protected].

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