Walking through Kfar Azza where 58 Jews were brutally murdered was gut-wrenching. Literally. Even a month later, you could smell death.
This was just one of the searing memories I will carry with me from a three-day solidarity mission to Israel together with 30 Masorti (Conservative) rabbis and lay leaders from around the world.
From the outset, it was clear that this was going to be a different and intense experience. After landing, the first thing our guide did was point out the bomb shelter in the airport and explain what to do if a siren sounds. When we went outside, she explained how to take cover on an inner-city bus. The instructions continued at each site where were told how much time we had to make it to a shelter: by Gaza, 15 seconds, in Tel Aviv, 90 seconds. Luckily, we never heard a siren. We felt perfectly safe the entire trip and I would not hesitate to go back.
Long ago, Israelis got used to the sirens that warn of incoming missiles. In fact, they set their clocks by them and with humor. In Tel Aviv, for example, we were told people don’t shower at 9 p.m. That is when Hamas usually fires missiles, and no one wants to go to a shelter wrapped in just a towel. So, they wait 10 minutes for the all-clear signal before entering the bath.
Thanks to the Iron Dome, Israelis had come to almost these accommodations in stride. Until October 7 when Hamas’s attack forced Israelis to say, “Enough! We can’t go on like this.” No one explained it more powerfully to us than Or Tzuk, a 27-year-old woman we met in Kfar Azza.
As we walked the charred neighborhood, Or pointed to house after house and told us what happened: “Those were my cousins. They were killed. Those were twins who were taken hostage. She was my neighbor, killed. He was my friend, hostage.” Or’s parents were slaughtered while her brother, covered with his mother’s blood, hid, and survived.
“This used to be the most beautiful kibbutz,” she said. “Now? Decimated. And neither I nor anyone else is going to move back with Hamas as neighbors. We won’t come. I am third generation here. My grandparents built this place. And I would love to live here but not if it means going back to the way it was. I don’t feel safe with Hamas next door.”
And that is exactly why this war is necessary and why defeating Hamas is essential. It is not to expand Israel’s borders. It is not to take revenge. It is to bring people home – yes, the hostages. But also, the quarter of a million evacuees like Or who are now bunched in the middle of the country.
There is a strategic imperative to repopulate the south. Doing so spreads out the population and secures Israel’s borders. And it sends a critical message to Israel’s enemies that she is strong, vital and cannot be easily uprooted. None of that can’t happen as long as Hamas remains in control in Gaza. Because who wants a barbaric terrorist group as neighbors?
And that is why I am going to march in Washington, D.C. next week. Believe me, I’ve had enough travel. I’d be happy to stay home. But I am going because in addition to calling for the release of hostages, protesting antisemitism, and standing with Israel, Israelis shouldn’t have to live in fear of terrorists or get used to sirens. This war is just and sadly necessary, and Or deserves to return home.