Voices of Sderot and Be’eri: One grantmaker’s visit to southern Israel

In Short

Stories of Oct. 7 need to be shared by the people who experienced them, and by the loved ones of those who are no longer here to speak for themselves.

Before going to Israel in March, several people warned me about visiting the sites of the horrific terror attacks of Oct. 7. They worried I might be participating in “trauma tourism,” a term used by critics who fear that such trips exploit historical sites of violence to increase charitable giving.

As a grantmaker with the Seattle-based Samis Foundation traveling to visit grantees and attend the Jewish Funders Network conference in Jerusalem, I took this to heart. I did not want our day trip to the South to put potential grantees in traumatic situations through retelling their stories from 10/7.

Being on the ground changed my mind. I am sensitive to the power dynamic of funders coming to visit, but I also learned that for some survivors, the urge to share their stories had nothing to do with whether their visitors were funders or not. For many, they share what happened because their loved ones cannot. 

The first stop on our trip to the South was Sderot, a border town that has been under rocket fire from Gaza for years. We met students, teachers and administrators at the Amit school; most had only just returned from temporary housing in the Dead Sea, where whole families lived in one hotel room each for the past five months. Over 90% of this town of 28,000 were evacuated, and its inhabitants were slowly returning.

Each resident we spoke with shared their Oct. 7 story. One 16-year-old student attributed her survival to oversleeping that morning: She would have been at synagogue for Simchat Torah with her grandfather had she woken up on time; instead, she and her grandfather hid in a closet for 24 hours until they were rescued and evacuated.

We learned about Hamas’ attempt to seize the Sderot police station, and their plan to use Israeli police vehicles to infiltrate synagogues that would be packed with worshippers for Simchat Torah and Shabbat. In a now-legendary story of incredible courage, the Sderot police and community volunteers held off hundreds of terrorists for several hours until help from the IDF finally arrived. After an intense battle where the terrorists barricaded themselves inside the police station, the building was destroyed.

Israeli soldiers walk in front of an Israeli police station in the town of Sderot that was damaged during battles to dislodge Hamas terrorists inside, on Oct. 8, 2023.
Israeli soldiers walk in front of an Israeli police station in the town of Sderot that was damaged during battles to dislodge Hamas terrorists inside, on Oct. 8, 2023. Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images

Today it is an open lot, with wires and remains of rubble still present along with a memorial to the eight police officers and other residents of Sderot who were killed in the attack. Two large murals depicting the Simchat Torah battle and honoring both victims and fighters adorn the walls outside.   

Next, we traveled to Kibbutz Be’eri. Founded in 1946, it was strikingly large and industrial. We entered through the main gate and were escorted to a tree-lined square surrounded by a theater and dining hall. Upon entering the main administrative offices, we saw photos of the nearly one hundred residents who were murdered on Oct. 7, as well as pictures of the hostages still in captivity. 

Our guide was Astrid*, who is originally from Scotland. Astrid told us how she fell in love with the kibbutz community 30 years ago and never left. She raised three children, now adults, in Be’eri.

Nearly six months after Oct. 7, only about 90 kibbutz members, Astrid and her adult children among them, were able to return. The kibbutz remained an open crime scene, and no families or elderly were allowed. As we traversed the walkways between homes, all of which had been destroyed, forensics teams were collecting soil to test for DNA.

Many families are still waiting for definitive news about their loved ones. 

If you closed your eyes and replaced the burnt-out scenes of horror with ordinary, neat homes, you could imagine the idyllic community that Be’eri was just six months earlier. You could imagine what a safe and loving place this was to raise a family. But the carnage was vast and in every direction. Not a family was left unscathed. 

Astrid recounted the morning of Oct. 7. When the rocket sirens started screaming, residents initially felt safe because it sounded as though the barrage was being aimed at cities in the distance. They realized all too soon that this was just cover for the ground invasion. 

Within minutes, they heard and saw terrorists infiltrating their kibbutz. Many ran to their safe rooms, but even when the doors could be locked, terrorists set fire to the homes to smoke out whole families. Some survived by sheer luck, but far too many perished by fire in the “safe” rooms or when they were driven out by smoke and flames and shot by the terorists.

Numerous signs stand in testimony before burnt-out homes, recalling victims and hostages. Not a single house is without such signs. As of this writing, 11 members of Kibbutz Be’eri remain hostages in Gaza. 

The trauma was palpable and pervasive. Still, it was very clear that for the people whom we met, telling their stories was cathartic. Of course, for every person we meet, there may be a dozen who don’t want to meet or even speak to anyone. We need to understand that, too. 

This is a national trauma, an indelibly Jewish trauma, and we were there to listen to each story and bear witness. We have a whole world of people trying to downplay the atrocities, some saying they didn’t even happen. The victims and their families know this, and it only increases their anguish and pain. That is why coming to these sites, even if it is to look into their tragedy, is so important. Bearing witness provides both emotional and practical support. 

Coming to Israel now and visiting the South is not tourism. It is an act of Jewish unity. It is a tangible way to stand with our Israeli family and declare we see you, we hear you, we believe you — and we will carry your stories across the globe so no one can ever deny what happened here. Am Yisrael Chai. 

* Names and some details have been changed to respect the subjects’ privacy.

Melissa Rivkin is the director of day school strategy for the Samis Foundation.