Witnessing the October 7 aftermath reaffirms commitment to Israel

Many of you have asked us, “How was Israel”? While the Canadian Leadership Solidarity Mission took place over the course of three short days, the answer to the question is long and layered. We travelled with CEOs and presidents of Jewish Federations across Canada, together with five MPs from Ontario, Quebec, Manitoba, and Alberta: Melissa Lantsman, Marco Mendocino, Anthony Housefather, Marty Morantz, and Michelle Rempel-Garner. 

The short answer is that Israel has changed. Israel is a country in national grief, but the people are united in their resolve to eradicate Hamas. The people are taking care of one another, with great heroism and volunteerism. As Israel’s former Prime Minister, Naftali Bennett, shared with us: “What began as Israel’s darkest hour is now emerging as Israel’s finest hour.”

We met with all segments of Israeli society: Thought leaders, politicians, academics, survivors of the massacre at Kibbutz Kfar Azza, families of hostages, IDF reservists, and more. We met with members of displaced communities and the mayor of Sderot. The prevailing sentiments of the Israeli people at this time are their grave concern for the antisemitism that has been unleashed worldwide, and their ability to live in Israel in peace and with security, without fear of another pogrom or terror. 

It will take a generation for Israel and the Jewish people to recover from the events and aftermath of October 7. The trauma it has produced is palpable, the effects ripple. If the world is to have a Jewish state, Israel will need us. It will need our support, our interest, and our philanthropy. We saw firsthand how our Israel Emergency Relief Fund is being put into action and how our ongoing support is going to be needed. 

We learned from the head of the Victims of Terror Fund at the Jewish Agency for Israel that between the inception of the fund 20 years ago to October 6, 9,000 individuals benefitted from the fund.  Since October 7, another 9,000 individuals have sought assistance from the fund. The Jewish Agency is the first organization to show up when someone is impacted by terror, with immediate and urgently needed funds to see them through the initial days until government support flows. Along with all Canadian communities, our funds are supporting activities and therapies for children and families, medical aid, and more.

At times our experience was raw and challenging. We not only had our finger on the pulse of what was occurring, but like a surgeon, we had the heart of Israel in our hands—we could see and feel the vulnerability yet we knew we were holding something precious in our hands. We visited the Gaza envelope and spoke with Sderot Mayor Alon Davidi.  Once a bustling small city of 30,000 inhabitants, it is now a ghost town. We visited the police station which is now a pile of rubble with an Israeli flag in the centre. It was bombed by Israeli forces as it had become the headquarters of Hamas terrorists on October 7. Alon inspired us about the power of community.  Despite his constituents being in hundreds of different hotels across the country, he remains responsible for providing them with support. 

Alon will tell you that people will not return to Sderot until there is an assurance as to their safety. With rockets still landing in the region, civilians fear the threat of Hamas “inflicting another October 7, again and again” (Hamas’ words, not Alon’s). We asked Alon how he withstands the pressure of living and leading in Sderot. He told us when he is most upset, he goes to the top of a hill at the north end of Sderot and looks out towards Gaza, shouting, “You are so stupid; you are so evil; you are so unfair to the people of Gaza. Just look at Sderot and what you could have built and what we will rebuild again.” Alon is a true leader. One day he may lead the country. One thing that stuck with us is that even in these hard times and even with him staying in Sderot while all others are evacuated, he left us with an important message—Sderot is still a better place to live than Winnipeg.  

From Sderot, we inched closer to the Gaza border, stopping to see the carnage at Kibbutz Kfar Azza. Life stopped at Kfar Azza on October 7. Life ended at Kfar Azza on October 7. Bicycles remained out on front yards. Sukkahs were still standing. Election posters from the regional leadership race to be held in mid-October still on the fences. Tragically, the Kibbutz leader running for regional council was one of the first to exit his home when he heard that the Kibbutz was being invaded. He, ran up the lane with a pistol in hand, and was murdered. His election poster was still displayed in numerous places—a stark reminder of what life was lost that gory morning.  We witnessed the destruction of houses, riddled with bullets with burn marks evident. The smell of death was still lingering. We were briefed by an IDF spokesperson and a Zaka first responder who have remained on site since October 7, collecting bodies and body parts. We saw a crib riddled with bullets and were shown photograph evidence of the beheading and burning of babies by Hamas terrorists. 

While the images will be imprinted on our hearts forever, we had two impactful moments while standing between rows of empty shells of houses in the Kibbutz’s neighbourhood for young families. The first was the honour of presenting a letter of support for Israel to the speaker of the Knesset, Amir Ohana, from our speaker of the Alberta Legislature, Nathan Cooper, along with the flag that was flown on the day at our vigil for the hostages. The second was when Rabbi Poupko of Montreal exclaimed that unlike the Holocaust where Jewish life did not return to Europe, Israel would once again rebuild Kibbutz Kfar Azza, and there will be Jews living and laughing here again. It is a sacred obligation to bring back the stories and to share the strength and beauty of our people with the world. Everywhere we went, we were implored to share their stories and ensure the world maintains the truth as to what happened on October 7. 

The same day, we visited the makeshift car junkyard, where the burned-out vehicles from kibbutzim and the Nova Festival were gathered, being combed through for DNA and for insurance purposes. We visited with troops on a mobile artillery brigade and at a junction which served as a staging point, equipped with a food truck, ultra-Orthodox entertainment in the form of music and other necessities.  Morale was high—soldiers happy and excited to see our support. Along with everyone else we met, they were appreciative that we all took the time to fly out to a country at war, and lend our support. We felt that we were being welcomed as family.

While there are so many more stories and experiences we want to share with you—and we will— we wanted to say what a privilege it was to represent Edmonton in these moments, to bear witness and to express our solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Israel. 

Am Yisrael Chai.

This trip crystallized for us how important it is that we continue to fight for the future of the Jewish people and the State of Israel. It solidified our interconnection with Israel and how our concern for Israel is matched by their concern for us in the diaspora. We were reinvigorated to maintain a strong Jewish community here in Edmonton. 

We’ve both been to Israel more than 30 times combined. Almost nobody has ever heard of Edmonton. However, Israelis expressed deep concern to us when we told them where we were from, as Edmonton is now on their radar. They all had heard in the last number of weeks of the terrible antisemitism at the University of Alberta, in particular at the Sexual Assault Centre, where the (now former) director and the centre itself had signed a letter questioning whether Israeli women were in fact raped on October 7. Discussions about this was a theme that followed us wherever we went. Israelis are aware, they care, and they want for us what we want for them—peace and security.

We will show some pictures of our trip at our annual general meeting on Wednesday, December 6 at 7 p.m. at Beth Shalom. Please register so we are sure to have enough seats and cookies. We will also begin speaking with synagogues and groups about our experiences. If you would like to arrange for a small presentation, please be in touch with Stacey.