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An Ofakim Story, A Story Of Hope

This blog post was written by Jordyn Cummings, a Yahel Social Change Fellow living and working in Rishon LeZion

Metal anemone flowers cover the roundabout in the center of Ofakim's Mishor Hagegen

neighborhood, where Hamas attacked and killed 53 residents on October 7th. Yahaloma Zechut, an activist who founded the Community Resilience Center, opened her meeting with my volunteer cohort, acknowledging that these flowers, like Ofakim, are "frozen in time." Yet something is symbolic in the anemones, representing new life after tremendous grief. In their vibrant shades of red, the flowers remained a reminder that life can continue in the most dire times and amid devastation beyond comprehension. The flowers, standing in stillness, represent the act of protest that the choice to remain is — a fitting descriptor for the people of Ofakim.

As our group stood in the center of the roundabout, there was a quiet stillness in the streets of Ofakim enshrouding us. At the same time, Yahaloma continued to tell us of the terror attack she lived through on her 45th birthday, leading her to form her resilience center. She recounted her close brush with death in the middle of a restaurant, a gun jam being the only thing separating herself from an untimely end. A decade later, she would live through a missile hitting a building where she lived, evoking the frozenness and horror she had felt ten years earlier. This second encounter with terror directed her towards creating an organization dedicated to assisting victims almost immediately after their trauma occurs. Naturally, her resilience center has become instrumental to victims of the October 7th events. Yahaloma described to our group in great detail the stories of herself and her neighbors that morning, the vulnerability of being in their homes in pyjamas or engaging in typical daily activities like walking their dogs. She described the confusion the residents of Ofakim experienced as sirens alerted them to flee to bomb shelters; unbeknownst to them, Hamas terrorists had been waiting to shoot them as they ran out into the street.

While internalizing these heavy stories, we walked quietly to the next place Yahaloma wished to

show us, a mural painted by Arad Levy entitled, in the English translation, "A City of Heroes,"

describing Ofakim exactly. Not only between the off-duty service members who bravely helped

to fight the terrorists on October 7th but in the everyday civilians who remained and have every

day since dedicated themselves to serving the community. As we viewed the mural, an elderly

community member named Shuki approached us and asked if he could share his story and

countenance of events. It was clear that his grief compelled him to approach us; it was not that

Shuki had been entirely alone, but rather, he could not share with the outside world what had

happened to him and his neighbors that day. Although he spoke in Hebrew, which I am not fluent

in, I understood from his eyes, in his gestures, and the repeated usage of the word "yahud,

yahud, yahud," the terror he and his neighborhood lived through. Shuki described hiding in the

bomb shelter with his neighbors as he positioned a bike tire against the handle; a Hamas terrorist

had fought to get in but eventually gave up. They remained there for hours, without phones or

any contact with the outside world. But as he continued to finish his story, he shared the

sentiment that there is nowhere else he'd rather live; the bright yellow balconies lining the

buildings, for him, are proof that joy exists there and that "it's a place people want to live." As for

the bullet holes that still cover the outside of his building, he has declined repairs as he "wants

future generations to remember." His words and choice of staying remain a testament to the

strength of Ofakim's people.

True resilience followed in every other place and meeting our volunteer cohort experienced that

day. From Rabbi Schneor Koenig, whose team at the Chabad Stew House has prepared 800-1,000

meals a day for those in need since the start of the war, to Almaz Aguchau, the first Ethiopian

woman elected on the Ofakim council, all the way to Bruria Noiberge, the head of the resilience

center in the Mishor Hagefen neighborhood, the day was full of the hopefulness felt through

Jewish and Israeli resilience.

At our last stop, we were received into the home of Orna, who can most accurately be described as an electric soul. From the start of the war, she has regularly fed soldiers, hosted them in her home, and given them access to hot showers with fresh towels and toiletries she and her husband provide. Now, she works in a soldier tent in Ofakim on Fridays, cooking food for them and dancing with them to bring them joy despite their hardships. Though she also spoke to us only in Hebrew, her smile and laughter radiated a certain infectiousness in the room as we snacked on the bountiful spread of food she prepared for us. Her unyielding generosity and vibrant nature amidst the situation she is living through filled me with an optimism that seemed a strange juxtaposition to many of the stories we heard. But it is people like Orna, Yahaloma, Rabbi Schneor, Almaz, Bruria, and Shuki who are reminders of the remarkable human spirit and what it can achieve in the face of the unthinkable. Not only the human spirit but also the Israeli spirit, the Jewish spirit, and the spirit that lives on in the people of Ofakim.

Many news sources won't show stories of what we saw that day in Ofakim. They won't show the

buildings lined with bullet holes or the empty homes once filled with families that became

overtaken by terrorists on October 7th. There won't be personal accounts like the one we

received from Shuki or talks of the organizations and individuals dedicated to rebuilding Ofakim.

They won't feel the stillness of neighborhoods once buzzing with life or the strength of people

who survived and chose to rebuild their community. Though my cohort and I witnessed and felt

all of these things, and in the act of bearing witness to such triumph of resilience, we will retell

the story of Ofakim—a story of hope.


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