A Winter Vacation Trip I’ll Never Forget

Since I returned to the States, I can’t stop thinking about how inspirational my recent trip to Israel was. I finally saw with my own eyes the exact meaning of the words “מי כעמך ישראל”. There is literally no one like our people! Throughout my trip, I met so many incredible heroes and angels who are literally spending their entire days giving to Am Yisrael.

My visits to the South of Israel impacted me personally because of a tour I took with my extended family over Sukkot. On Thursday of Chol Hamoed, 36 hours before the attacks of October 7, I toured the Gaza border with a group of 35 people. We visited kibbutz Nahal Oz, had lunch in Netivot and went bike riding in Kibbutz Be’eri, all areas that were subsequently destroyed by Hamas terrorists.

Thirty-six hours after our tour, our guide Ilan Fiorentino, a”h was killed. Ilan, who had run tours of the area for years, spent his last tour ever with my family. Here is a picture of Ilan on our tour, with Gaza right behind him. On the tour, we met many people that lived on the kibbutz. We also took photos with soldiers standing on their tanks at the closest bases to Gaza. A lot of these people are now either killed or in Gaza. Thirty-six hours after our tour, the entire kibbutz was infiltrated by terrorists.

If I had to label Am Yisrael, I would call us “A Nation of Strength and Resilience” because that is the essence of our people. At the Kehillat Eretz Chemdah Chizuk Night that I attended on the last night of my trip, Rabbi Efrem Goldberg of Boca Raton shared: “On October 7, the Hamas terrorists tried to bury us, but they didn’t realize that we were seeds. Since that horrible Shabbos in October, we grew back stronger and more resilient than ever before.”

The South of Israel is famous for its red crown anemone “kalanit” flower, the national flower of Israel. Many of these flowers were destroyed on October 7 by people’s cars or by terrorists’ vans, but just three months later, these beautiful flowers were blossoming more than ever before.

This is who we are. This is what Am Yisrael is all about. Through all of the trials and tribulations, we are the nation of strength and resilience.

Am Yisrael Chai!

 

Day One

Hanging out with a Kfar Aza survivor baby on the plane.

The plane ride was a very special flight. Before we took off, my brother recognized a 10/7 survivor he heard speak a week ago at Beth Abraham, and we went over to her to talk. When we got on the plane, we just so happened to be sitting right next to this family. Throughout the duration of the flight, we were talking to the family, hanging out with the kids and taking care of their baby. It turns out that the family was from Kibbutz Kfar Aza and was just coming back from a month in America speaking to a lot of different communities about the horrors they experienced on October 7.

When we got off the plane, it was painful to see all the pictures of the hostages lining the ramp en route to passport control and the dog-tag memorial. We need to continue to daven hard for the safe return of all the hostages. May they all come home safely to their families very soon.

The hostage posters and Dog Tag Memorial in Ben Gurion Airport.

 

Day Two

We started off today at the Kehillat Eretz Chemdah’s warehouse to package items for chayalim. I worked on packing boxes of toys to give out to displaced children and packing backpacks full of toys for soldiers’ kids. We were given lists of the soldiers’ kids’ genders and ages, and our task was to then choose age- and gender-appropriate toys from their massive collection and pack the bags. It was very inspiring to see how much people are donating to support the war in Israel.

A view from a binocular looking out at Gaza from Sderot.

Our next stop was Mamila and the Kotel. As I was davening Mincha at the Kotel, I really thought of the chayalim and hostages, since the second bracha of Shemoneh Esrei says ״סומך נופלים ורופא חולים ומתיר אסורים״. It was very special to see all the different types of Jews davening at the Kotel, ranging from one who did not wear a kippah and had tattoos to a Chasid. We need to continue davening for all the chayalim and hostages to come home in the coming days.

We ended the day with tying tzitzis for Kehillat Eretz Chemdah in Yerushalyaim. It was really amazing to see how many people were there contributing their time and efforts to this incredible campaign.

It was also amazing to see how many flags there are on people’s cars all around Yerushalayim!

 

Day Three

We started off our day at Sderot and stopped at a lookout to understand exactly where we were and how close we were to the Gaza border. We then drove around the silent city of Sderot and saw all the empty houses of the displaced families.

Sderot Police Station where the “Sderot Battle” took place on October 7.

We went to the Sderot police station where the battle took place on October 7. We heard from our guide, Moishe Norman, that a man stole an Israeli soldier’s gun, climbed up the side of a building, broke a window to be able to properly position himself on a ledge and shot the Hamas sniper on the top of the police station. Throughout the day, we kept seeing holes in the walls and the streets from bullets and rockets.

Then we went to the two car cemeteries containing all the “broken,” burned and crushed cars from October 7. It was so crazy to see how Hamas literally acted like animals. In one car, we saw someone’s phone still in the phone holder, and in another car, we saw a special needs girl’s wheelchair. We saw people’s personal items including coffee cups, baby wipes, candies and slides.

We then moved on to Shokeda where we prepared food for chayalim on an evacuated moshav near the Gaza border. We cut vegetables for sandwiches, ran a pita station, and cooked eggs. We stopped at a gas station and treated a bunch of chayalim to unlimited snacks and ice cream.

Next, we went to the bomb shelter where Aner Shapira ran on October 7 from the Nova Festival. Aner was a true hero—he went down South with Hersh Goldberg-Polin (a current hostage) to the festival, and when the terrorists stormed in, he ran into a shelter where everyone was freaking out. He calmed everyone down (sharing that he was in the army and all would be OK). The terrorists arrived at the shelter and started throwing grenades inside. Aner caught seven grenades and threw them back outside. However, the eighth grenade exploded in his arms, injured him badly and ultimately took his life. Aner is a true hero for Am Yisrael, and we need to continue his legacy.

The cars that were destroyed on October 7.

We then drove to the site of the Nova Festival where hundreds were murdered. We met two sets of parents of different people killed. One parent shared that their son hid under the stage and sent his exact location on WhatsApp. The family went back to the exact location today to remember him. We wrote messages in a book to someone who was murdered to give her family strength. We also visited the tree memorial created by קק״ל where each family comes and plants a tree in memory of his or her child who was murdered by Hamas on October 7. It was heartbreaking to see how young people who came to dance and unite ended up being murdered.

We ended our day by giving strength to our chayalim on the Gaza border. Together with 15 other families from Bergen County, we sponsored a barbeque. Led by Netanel (@simchaonwheels), we all danced with the soldiers and sang songs of hope. We davened Maariv for the last time on that base for these chayalim because they are moving up north tomorrow. It was really incredible to see how much the IDF chayalim give to Am Yisrael and Eretz Yisrael each and every single day.

 

Day Four

We started the day by going to pick oranges at the Kibbutz Alumim orchard. The kibbutz has no one to work their fields because many of their workers were murdered on October 7 or left the country out of fear. Together as a group, we filled over 10 huge crates of oranges. It was a fun and fulfilling activity.

A sukkah still standing since Simchat Torah in Sderot.

We revisited the site of the Nova Festival where innocent civilians were murdered by Hamas terrorists on October 7. We first saw the memorial plantation where each family can come and plant a tree in memory of their loved one(s) murdered there. Our guide shared with us that קק״ל  (JNF) plants thousands of trees each year on Tu B’Shevat around Israel. This year’s trees are being planted in the South and dedicated to all the people who were murdered at the festival.

A rabbi on our trip shared that all the countries bordering Israel were planning a simultaneous attack on October 11 where they would all surprise Israel at the same time from every front. The Gazan Hamas terrorists realized that the festival was going on and decided that it would be a good opportunity to attack on October 7. The guide said that the people at the Nova Festival were true heroes because they saved Israel from a much bigger disaster. We also helped plant flowers with the aunt of Lior, a volunteer who was murdered at the festival on October 7. She was 36 years old and leaves behind a 7-year-old daughter.

We then visited Ohel Shlomo, a Bnei Akiva school in Be’er Sheva. From the beginning of the war, they have been hosting chayalim who are stationed in the South. They provide food, dorms, laundry, and lots of care for all of these soldiers. We heard from various chayalim while we ate lunch.

Giving out ice cream to chayalim at a gas station near the Gaza border.

We ended our day by giving chizuk to chayalim stationed on Har Giloh, right next to an Arab village, by preparing a barbeque for them. When we arrived, we thought we were at the wrong place because there was a huge red sign that said that Jews are not allowed to enter. It turned out that one turn away from this IDF army base is Area A, where Jews are forbidden to enter. The lady who organized the barbeque told us she is not scared when she drives with a huge Israeli flag on her car in dangerous areas because the malachim are on her sides (מימיני מיכאל ומשמאלי גבריאל), the flag is in the front, and Hashem is on top. She is a woman of much strength and was an inspiration to us all.

Planting a memorial for someone who was murdered at the festival.

 

Day Five

We started the day by going to the Eran’s Angels warehouse at the Tel Aviv Expo Center. We helped pack and organize different types of items for soldiers and displaced families.

We then went to Hostage Square, which was very powerful and meaningful. We first walked through a mock Hamas tunnel that demonstrates how the hostages feel in the dark tunnels each and every day. Seeing the light at the end gave me hope that all the hostages will, one day, iy”H, see the light at the end of the tunnel once released. There was a lot of different artwork all labeled with signs that said, “BRING THEM HOME NOW!” While there, we went inside the Kibbutz Nahal Oz tent and heard about Ilan Fiorentino, z”l, who was their head of security. He was our tour guide on October 5. We were his last Yatar tour.

There was a huge hostage poster with a mirror that read, “It could have been you.” It really hit me hard because I was in the South (Kibbutz Nahal Oz and Kibbutz Be’eri) on Thursday, October 5—36 hours before the attacks began. If the terrorists had come 36 hours earlier, it would have been me…

The site of the Nova Festival.

From Hostage Square, we went to the Tel HaShomer Hospital with Rav Rimon. It was one of the most inspirational moments of my life. We met with injured chayalim—those who were injured while fighting for us to be alive. We gave out all different types of presents including iPhones, AirPods and computers.

One of the injured chayalim we met is a dentist in Yerushalayim and entered Gaza to identify Israeli bodies based on their teeth. While he was in Gaza, a bomb landed directly on top of him. He said that he saw images of angels when he went up to Shamayim, but suddenly, he was pulled back and survived. He is an example of a true hero of Am Yisrael.

“It could have been YOU,” a sign at Hostage Square.

Rav Rimon shared with us that his team spends around $100,000 each week on gifts for chayalim and displaced families. He also shared that we all have the power to take the darkness of Hamas and turn it into the light of Am Yisrael.

We ended our day by going to a Koolulam. (Search “Koolulam” on YouTube or Google to find more information.) It was amazing to sing and unite with almost 500 other members of Am Yisrael during these difficult times.

Meeting Rav Rimon.

 

Day Six

We started the day by going on a shuk tour with Joel Haber. We tried many different types of foods. Our tour guide said that eating the food at the shuk is like eating a sandwich of the achdut of Am Yisrael. It was very interesting to learn that so many Jews came from so many different places all over the world to Israel and therefore, the shuk contains such a vast variety of foods.

Later that day, we went to the Aish Hatorah World Center for a concert with displaced families and children from Sderot. Netanel ran the dancing and entertainment and I helped run the games. Netanel sat everyone down and asked different people what they are thankful to Hashem for. The most memorable answer to me was when a young child raised her hand and said, “Thank you Hashem for my life.” After going through such pain on October 7th, she didn’t care about all the little things; she just wanted to thank Hashem for keeping her alive. That concert was very inspirational.

We then went out for dinner with Yoni, my cousin. He shared his experiences as a chayal in Gaza and up North during this war. It is crazy to hear how chayalim risk their lives on a daily basis to protect Am Yisrael and Eretz Yisrael.

Alex Katz, founder of Kehillat Eretz Chemdah, introducing the Night of Chizuk.

Day Seven

In the morning, we walked around Yerushalayim and got in some of our last steps in Israel for this trip.

During the afternoon, Netanel ran a concert for displaced families and children at the Orient Hotel. We danced and spoke with evacuees from the South.

We then went to the Kehillat Eretz Chemdah Chizuk Night event. We heard from many speakers including Rav Pinchas Biton, Rabbi Shlomo Katz, Rabbi Benji Levy, Rabbi Efrem Goldberg, Rabbi Judah Mischel, Rabbi Shalom Rosner, Rabbi Dovid’l Weinberg, and Aryeh Lightsone. In addition to these amazing speakers, there were also singers to bring chizuk through music including the Moshav Band, Akiva, Yonatan Razel and The Shapiro Brothers. In his speech, Rabbi Efrem Goldberg shared: “On October 7, Hamas tried to bury us but they didn’t know we were seeds; we just grew stronger!” The Chizuk Night run by Alex Katz and Kehillat Eretz Chemdah was one of the most inspirational events I’ve ever been to in my life.

From there, we went to the #Challot4Chayalim warehouse at Shira and Dov Katz’s house in Modi’in. It’s amazing to see how many challot are sent out each week from their house to chayalim on the front lines. Since the first Shabbos after the war, Shira Katz and #Challot4Chayalim have delivered over 30,000 challot each week to chayalim fighting for Am Yisrael. It’s truly amazing to see my aunt and uncle running this huge operation.

The #Challot4Chayalim HQ at my aunt and uncle’s house.

We then went to the airport. It was so sad to see how empty the airport is during these difficult times. The saddest part was that the hostage posters are still there on the ramp going into the airport departure gates. The hostage posters were the first thing I saw when I arrived to Israel and the last thing I saw when boarding my plane and leaving Israel. Those signs really summed up my entire trip.

My trip was a trip of true inspiration and really showed me the true meaning of the words “מי כעמך ישראל”. There is truly no one like us! Am Yisrael Chai!


Gavriel Katz is a proud Zionist and member of Am Yisrael! He is an eighth grader at Yeshivat Noam in Paramus, New Jersey. Gavriel founded The Chesed Knights, Yeshivat Noam’s Student Chesed club, and “Yeshivat Noam U-Knights for Israel,” a program that runs various projects supporting Israel at Yeshivat Noam. To join Gavriel’s WhatsApp chat— https://chat.whatsapp.com/K2KDDrtFZmV7ii7Du0YdUs