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Moving In

Israel's displaced Jews wait to go back home

Photos: Elchanan Kotler, Flash90

At first glance, it looks like the most amazing summer camp, with piles of donated toys, clothing, games, and colorful balloons, and a dining room with a five-star menu. But look carefully at the faces of the adults, and you’ll see an expression that doesn’t say anything like, “This hotel is the best vacation.” It’s more like, “We’ve survived a massacre.” Or, “Our homes are no longer safe. Where do we go from here?”

When the makeshift orchestra of dozens of children playing darbukas struck up Baruch Levine’s classic “Vezakeni,” a prayer for one’s progeny, few adults at this improvised concert in a Jerusalem hotel lobby could stifle their tears. The youngsters, concentrating on maintaining the song’s rhythm, likely paid scant attention to their surroundings. Yet, each parent appeared to be mentally sifting through their memories — perhaps reflecting on what they had witnessed or lived through, contemplating those no longer present, or pondering the path forward after the unimaginable blow endured by the Jewish people in southern Israel.

This Jerusalem hotel lobby isn’t exactly the hospitable terrain of the yishuvim these families left behind, situated just a few kilometers from the Gaza Strip. They are not alone; tens of  — thousands have adhered to the IDF’s request to evacuate the conflict zones. In a matter of hours, shrouded in uncertainty about their return, these families hastily assembled toothbrushes, basic toiletries, and a change of clothes and departed their homes in protected convoy. Conflicting emotions vied for attention: the hardship and trauma of being uprooted from their homes, juxtaposed with the joy and incredulity of surviving to recount the horror of Shabbos, October 7. Yet there is a palpable feeling here that the only way forward lies in the unity of the nation.

As the “orchestra” conductor segues into “Am Israel Chai,” the parents join in. This emotional paradox encapsulates the experience of the thousands of Jews displaced from their homes, collateral victims in the war against terrorism. It’s a narrative in which the undeniable pain of leaving home coexists with the certainty and joy of knowing that, even in the face of this formidable challenge, they are exceedingly fortunate: Death came perilously close.

At the Shalom Hotel at the bottom of Jerusalem’s Bayit Vegan neighborhood, Doron Vatkin is holding court. Even in the unexpected context he must navigate, Doron maintains a smile, speaking with the calm demeanor of a seasoned leader, even as the crowd around him clamors to seek his counsel.

“In crises like these, it’s important to show everyone that, no matter how difficult, the situation is under control,” he says.

The Shalom Hotel is the temporary haven for the community of Naveh, a religious moshav in the south of Israel not far from the Egyptian border, established in 2008 by evacuees of Atzmona after the expulsion from Gush Katif, with many of today’s residents graduates of the Har Hamor yeshivah.

Doron played a key role in the inner circle that decided to mobilize the moshav, which thankfully survived the region’s terror onslaught. In his early 60s, Doron, it’s fair to say, is one of the most prepared individuals to face an evacuation. Forty-five years ago, he was part of a group from the Mercaz HaRav yeshivah that founded the settlement of Atzmona in the Yamit region of Sinai in response to the Camp David Accords. When the peace deal with Egypt was actualized, the northern Sinai yishuvim were destroyed, many of their residents rebuilding their communities in Gush Katif.

Vatkin and his friends were evacuated from the original Atzmona in 1982, and the community resettled in Gush Katif, only to be evacuated again — this time with a wife and children — with the Disengagement in 2005. After that, he and 20 other families founded Naveh.

“I have friends from other yishuvim who said they wouldn’t leave this time, that they couldn’t abandon their homes for the third time. But this time I feel we’re leaving so we can come back, and we’re doing it as a way of supporting our soldiers,” Vatkin says. “Still, although this is a temporary evacuation from a combat zone, the trauma of those previous times, of that suspended feeling of displacement, comes back again.”

The government has so far organized the evacuation of around 70,000 residents of the south and about 60,000 from the north, housing them in some 225 hotels around the country. (As tourism has plummeted since October 7, about half the hotel rooms in the country were standing empty.)

As per military regulations, communities within four kilometers of the Gaza border in the south and with two kilometers of Lebanon in the north (a total of 14 northern towns) have been forcibly evacuated; between four and seven kilometers of the border in the south, and two to five kilometers in the north, they’ve been advised to leave (but without full hotel compensation). So far, 97 communities have been displaced, at a whopping government price-tag of 600 million shekels.

“The Sunday after the massacre, it was recommended that we leave the yishuv,” Doron relates. “The army explained that a long war was looming, and it was crucial for the IDF to focus solely on the conflict without the added concern of civilians in the vicinity.”

For this reason, Doron advised the residents of Naveh to heed the warning and leave the area. Naveh, though, is just under seven kilometers away from Gaza, meaning the IDF couldn’t force them to leave, but only strongly suggest. It also meant that, if they did leave, they had to do so on their own, without state assistance (although hotel stays for evacuees are at rock-bottom cost).

“It wasn’t the first time they asked us to leave the yishuv,” Doron explains, commenting how the regional council head, Gadi Yarkoni, was shocked that tough, idealistic Naveh had agreed to leave. “It’s true — we don’t believe in abandoning Israeli territory. However, after consulting with the leadership and rabbanim, we understood that the best thing we could do for Israel this time was to leave our homes so the army could have the territory free.”

While they aren’t eligible for state subsidies, they did receive a military escort for a convoy of over 150 cars and several buses to a safer area. After that, they had to fend for themselves. “We understand the government is dealing with a more significant crisis, and we had to handle it on our own,” Doron explains, echoing a sentiment repeated among the displaced: avoiding the label of “victim” when it’s clear that there are so many others who have had or are having a rougher time.

It’s estimated that as of last weekend, 15,000 displaced people had been relocated to Jerusalem. Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Leon estimated that Israel’s capital can accommodate up to 25,000 more. Many hotels in areas such as the Dead Sea, Netanya, and Eilat have been used by the government to house residents from affected areas.

Survivors of Kibbutz Ein HaShlosha, which was hit hard by the terrorists, have found refuge in Eilat. “We’re about three kilometers from Gaza, and the kibbutz was deemed a war zone, so we were forced to leave,” explains Sergio Kohan from Eilat. “It’s the first time the kibbutz received a total evacuation order. Only a few colleagues are rotating, traveling to milk the cows once a day, although ideally, it should be three times. They spend the night in an area a few kilometers away and return the next day.”

When the Kohan family emigrated from Argentina in 2019, settling in Ein HaShlosha seemed like the logical step. The kibbutz was established shortly after the independence of the State of Israel by South American immigrants, mainly with a center-left political orientation. In recent years, the kibbutz had experienced a new wave of Ukrainian immigrants.

The evacuation of the kibbutz, according to Sergio, resembled a military maneuver like you might see in the movies.

“They took us out in a commando operation,” he says. “Groups of about 20 soldiers came, house by house, and told us, ‘go with your car to the kibbutz gate.’ There, we formed a convoy, with private cars and armored trucks that the army provided for those without cars. Jeeps, ambulances, and special units accompanied us, and we were instructed not to pass the car in front.”

For security reasons, the army used a backwater route until they reached the kibbutz Mishmar HaNegev, on the outskirts of Beer Sheva. There, they were welcomed with refreshments and separated into buses that took all of them — over 300 people — to hotels in Eilat. Families were arranged according to their kibbutzim so that each community could stay together.

The fact that the entire community could go through this challenging time together was something highlighted by everyone fortunate enough to experience it that way. Doron Vatkin, who was part of the decision-making process that led the residents of Naveh to the Shalom Hotel in Jerusalem, says this was a fundamental condition when deciding where to go. “Originally, we didn’t want a hotel. It’s just not us. We don’t need carpeted floors or five-star accommodations. We’re simple people. But what we did need was to be together. So that influenced our decision.”

Rivka Friedman, 18, echoes a similar sentiment as she wanders through the hotel lobby. “Here we are with friends, the kids have familiar faces, and we don’t feel so alone,” she says. Rivka had spent Simchas Torah at the home of a family in Sderot, and once the attack started, alongside the panic of knowing terrorists were on the loose, she also grappled with uncertainty about her own family’s well-being back in Naveh.

“We locked ourselves in the shelter and didn’t come out until they assured us that the situation had calmed down,” she says. The images of death and destruction she encountered were horrifying, and road closures prevented her from returning to Naveh with her family. Later, she would reunite with her parents and nine siblings, all now accommodated in the hotel. “The younger ones are still very scared,” she says, “they hardly let go of my mother, and they don’t like to stay alone.”

Many displaced individuals have opted to try to contain their children by returning to some semblance of routine. Some have improvised classrooms in the hotels, while others obtained permission to use local schools. Naveh residents reached an agreement with Shalva, an institution that provides services to families with disabled children. Shalva had a state-of-the-art campus just a few minutes away from the Shalom Hotel and made some classrooms available for the displaced children.

“For us, it’s important to maintain a framework, an order, because that’s what gives the kids the most security,” explains Rabbi Neriah Tsur, director of the Naveh Talmud Torah. “That way, they know they wake up, there’s tefillah, breakfast, study, and activities. They have solid ground to stand on every day.” Rabbi Tsur acknowledges that it’s not so easy for these kids to readjust, but says that those who are struggling the most are those whose parents are in the military. Forty percent of the yishuv’s fathers are on the front.

The most common question from the children is, “How long are we going to stay in the hotel?” The general answer is, “A few weeks,” but according to Rabbi Tsur, it’s not so much the time frame, but the fact that they are all together, that’s the biggest reassurance for these kids.

“They know their fathers are in the army,” he says, “and we tell them that really, all of us are soldiers and we all have to do our part.”

IN Eilat, the displaced residents of Kibbutz Ein HaShlosha are also attempting to return to some semblance of routine. Perhaps due to having experienced the terrorists’ brutality firsthand (they entered and killed four residents in a firefight, including Sergio’s neighbor, took hostages, and burned down many of the houses, while a standoff between the attackers and the residents’ security team lasted six hours), a team of mental health professionals has been on hand to provide emotional support to families. Additionally, large tents have been set up where the children have been able to resume classes and to return to remote learning with teachers and classmates from other kibbutzim with whom they shared the school.

While the evacuation of the communities in the south — and especially those who lived through the massacre — has gone smoothly, when the government called for evacuation from the north, it was already very difficult to find available places to accommodate large groups of people. According to Omer M. of Kiryat Shmona, a city of 25,000 whose proximity to Lebanon means that they’re a constant Hezbollah target, there’s a certain degree of reproach toward the authorities.

“I was lucky to find a relative in Jerusalem who welcomed me and my family. But officially, the government evacuated the city, yet didn’t provide housing for the displaced. Moreover, officially, I was not relocated anywhere.” Omer says he understands the huge difficulty in evacuating an entire city, but says that even after the evacuation order, many people have remained in their homes because they have nowhere else to go. “Personally,” he says, “if I didn’t have these relatives, I would still be in the shelter in my house.”

While there was no group evacuation for Omer and his family, he still considered it crucial for his children to have some routine, even though being separated from their friends made the task more challenging.

“At home, we try to give the kids a daily routine,” he says. “Morning prayer, activities, writing letters to the soldiers... Also, we look for other friends from Kiryat Shmona who found places to stay here in Jerusalem, and we arrange for them to get together so they can be with friends for a few hours a day. My oldest daughter was allowed her to join classes in the area school, where she was given a warm and supportive welcome, and she’s made a new group of friends who keep her busy after school as well.”

At stressful times like this, Omer emphasizes that you really see how big the heart of the people of Israel is.

“Leaving the house like that means packing a suitcase without knowing whether to take winter or summer clothes. What to leave behind? What’s worth taking?” he says. “It’s kissing the mezuzah and not knowing when you’ll return. But with all that angst, the response from the people has been amazing. Everyone I know asks how they can help — many people have even taken unknown evacuees into their own homes.”

“One of the benefits of us all being together is how to deal with all the help offered to us,” explains Sergio Kohan from Ein HaShlosha. “We’ve designated different people to manage and distribute the donations so that all families receive the same assistance. In our case, we also had to handle paperwork with the government. For example, all my credit cards, documentation, and other valuable papers were stolen, and different neighbors from the kibbutz took care of dealing with the authorities to facilitate the procedures.”

Naveh’s residents were grateful for the donations from so many goodhearted people who just want to help, but sometimes, says Doron, the amounts can be overwhelming, and even unnecessary or contrary to the simple lifestyle they’ve chosen to live. For example, a company offered to give a certain amount of clothing, and Naveh made a counteroffer: to organize a subsidized sale where families could buy clothes for prices between 5 and 10 shekels, but they had the option to choose what they wanted and what they didn’t. And when there was a huge new stock of toys, some of them a bit were too extravagant for their lifestyle, they decided to create a “toy library,” where each child can “check out” a toy they want for a specific amount of time, and then return it.

Like the children, the adults also face uncertainty about how life will continue. Sergio Kohan from Kibbutz Ein HaShlosha says that since he was forced to evacuate, the authorities have given the residents a tentative date: “In principle, they assured us that we will be here in Eilat until November 14,” he says. For the Naveh residents, the information was more vague: anywhere between three months to a year. This doesn’t mean that they’ll return right back home by those dates. Even if, G-d willing, the war ends soon, the return to the homesteads will take much more time.

In Sergio’s case, not only for technical reasons but also emotional ones. “I’m not going back to Argentina, but at this point, I’m not in a position to guarantee that I would return to that area. First of all, you have to see the security conditions. I heard that the army is going to create a new border five kilometers wide, but I don’t know if it’s true. And even if it were, I don’t know if I would live there again. I mean, in Israel, for sure. Ein HaShlosha, we’ll have to see,” he says.

The people of Naveh have a different take, fueled by a strong sense of mission to populate all parts of Eretz Yisrael. “If the army tells me I can go back home, I’ll go back tomorrow,” says Avraham Zukenik as he walks through the lobby with his wife and young children. “That was the hardest part of all this: feeling that, by leaving, we were betraying our ideals, our principles. We understand that we are doing it for the good of the country, in support of the soldiers. But I can’t wait to go back,” he says. “We want to see Jews inhabiting the land and safeguarding the Torah, from the north to the south. What are we going to show our enemies? Weakness? Fear?”

The “conductor” has already stored his instruments and left the hall. In the lobby, some children still run around, and groups of adults sit in the armchairs generally reserved for shidduch dates. Tamar, Avraham Zukenik’s little daughter, is wandering around, and when her father picks her up, I take the opportunity to ask her, “Are you enjoying the hotel? Do you have many friends?” The shy girl hides her face against her father’s shoulder, but then Avraham puts her down, and she’s off, running around with the other children. Almost as if she’s saying, “That awkward moment is over. Now, I can move forward.” We can only hope our displaced brothers can say the same soon. —


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 983)

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