Horror and Heroism: Voices from Israel

By Barbara Crook

KATZRIN, Israel -- Dr. Tamar Shlezinger’s phone rang the morning of October 7th, 2023, as sirens blared in the north of Israel and the country was just beginning to understand the scope of the horrors of the Hamas terror attacks in the south.

She learned that Michael and Amelia Idan, 9 and 6, were alone in a tiny closet in the safe room of their house in Kibbutz Kfar Aza. Their parents had been murdered before their eyes. Their four-year-old sister, Avigail, was missing.

They were paralyzed with fear.

Although she was hours away from the Gaza Envelope and the children were strangers to her, Dr. Shlezinger, who teaches in the Social Work department of Tel-Hai College, sprang into action. As a volunteer with Israel’s United Hatzalah emergency medical services who had also received training in mental health first aid at Tel-Hai, she knew she had to communicate with the older child and give him a sense of control over a horrific situation.

“You are doing the right thing for you and your sister,” she told Michael in the first moments of their phone call. “You are in the right place, staying in the safe room.

“Are you holding your sister’s hand? That’s a good thing to do as well. And I will wait with you until someone comes to help you.”

Dr. Shlezinger was true to her word. She stayed on the phone with Michael and Amelia for 12 hours, until an Israeli soldier rescued the children.

Avigail had been kidnapped but was released in November. The children are being raised by their aunt and uncle.

Dr. Shlezinger’s first actions with the children – cognitive communication and giving them a sense of control – are three of the “6 C’s” of the innovative mental health first aid protocol developed by her colleague, Dr. Moshe Farchi, head of Tel-Hai’s Social Work department and founder of its Stress, Trauma, and Resilience Studies track.
The protocol, which is used throughout Israel, also calls for challenge, commitment, and continuity, all of which she applied that day.

Tel-Hai, soon to be the University of the Galilee, is a key partner in the Coast-to-Coast Partnership 2Gether among six Canadian Jewish communities -- including Ottawa -- supporting five communities in the Upper Galilee.
Along with Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg, and Atlantic Canada, we are connected with the North through joint projects in education and infrastructure, school twinnings and other people-to-people connections, including our recent solidarity mission to Israel.

In addition to annual allocations from the Partnership’s core budget and private donations from our Partnership communities, Canadian Jewish Federations have provided over $47M in relief funding, since October 7. This has helped support over 100,000 displaced people in our partnership region in the North.

Micah Garten, Victor Rabinovitch, Bram Bregman (who made aliyah in August but has maintained personal and professional connections in Ottawa) and I joined a dozen other professionals and lay leaders from the Partnership in the five-day “Real People, Real Stories” mission in February.

It could have been called “Horrors and Heroes,” for we had first-hand accounts of both.

Such as the story of Ben Mizrachi, 22, originally from Vancouver, who had managed to escape the Nova Festival massacre but returned to the scene to use his skills as a combat medic to save others. He was murdered by Hamas terrorists – one of nearly 400 young people killed or kidnapped at the festival.
Such as Netta Epstein, 22, who dove onto a Hamas grenade at Kfar Aza to save the life of his fiancée, Irene Shavit, also 22.

“I have to live my best life now, otherwise Hamas will have won,” Irene told us.

Such as Adi Vital-Kaploun, 33, whose mother Jacqui Rivers-Vital grew up in Ottawa. Adi was alone with her two children when she heard the sirens warning that something was wrong.

She had the presence of mind to warn her father, Yaron, to barricade himself in the safe room of the house where he had been staying during his Sukkot visit, and to call her husband, Anani, hiking with friends far from home, to refresh her memory about how to use their rifle.

When the terrorists invaded her home in Kibbutz Holit, she managed to kill one of them before being gunned down in front of her sons, four-year-old Negev and four-month-old Eshel. The terrorists kidnapped the boys and a neighbor but released them soon after they crossed the border into Gaza.

“She’s one of 1,200 who died that morning, but she’s ours, she’s yours, she’s Canadian,” Jacqui told us. “It’s our job to keep the story alive.”

In the North, the stories were less bloody but still compelling. 

Quick action by the Israeli Defense Force’s (IDF) Northern Command to put troops near the Lebanese border within hours of the Oct. 7 massacres forestalled an immediate attack by the Iran-backed Hezbollah terror organization.

But Hezbollah is making its presence known with rocket attacks that have damaged or destroyed more than half the homes in Kibbutz Manara, incinerated homes in Metulla, and caused death and destruction in Kiryat Shmona.
As a result, more than 80,000 people have been evacuated from the Upper Galilee since the day that some Israelis call “the Black Sabbath.”

They are safe, yes, but the social fabric that holds these communities together has been stretched and torn.
Some communities have been evacuated to one place, such as the residents of Kibbutz Dan, who have created a temporary community at the Dan Carmel Hotel in Haifa.

Others are scattered across the country. After the Second Lebanon War in 2006, the IDF assured the residents of Kiryat Shmona, a city with a population of about 25,000, that they would never be evacuated. As a result, there was no full-scale evacuation plan on Oct. 7, and residents were displaced to 229 locations as far south as Eilat.

What is remarkable is the speed with which every evacuated cohort moved to develop order and routine, especially for children and youth who are still recovering from the social and academic disruptions of COVID.

Prof. Mooli Lahad, founder of the world-renowned Community Stress Prevention Center in Kiryat Shmona, which our Partnership supports, told us a few weeks before the trip that one of the key elements in a community’s resilience after a crisis is to re-establish a sense of routine and make everyone aware of the “new normal.”

The first priority was education. If evacuated children and youth could not attend regular schools in their new locations, community leaders moved to fill the void. 

“We established four schools within two months, in Tiberias, Tel Aviv, Eilat, and Jerusalem, as well as 54 kindergartens and daycares,” said Elad Kozokaro, CEO of Kiryat Shmona’s Community Centers Network.

“Long before Oct. 7, The Coast-to-Coast Partnership had built the kinds of infrastructures that are now helping us with new challenges. Less dependency, more inter-dependency.”

Tel-Hai had to evacuate its main campus in Kiryat Shmona but continues virtual and in-person education from a satellite campus in Katzrin.

One of the Partnership’s biggest investments in recent years has been working with Tel-Hai to establish STEAM Education programs (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) for elementary schools and some junior high schools in the region. 

The day after the war started, Dr. Meira Schneck and her colleagues at Tel-Hai’s  Sidney Warren Academic Center for Youth started moving out equipment and machinery for the STEAM programs before the campus was formally evacuated.

Within two weeks, they were running science activities and STEAM projects for evacuated children in hotels. They have since worked with more than 2,000 children and youth, including 42 who will be able to complete the final projects needed to graduate.

Despite being a mere 200 metres from an Iron Dome missile interceptor, the Clore Center for Music and Dance has continued its programs so that students can get their final credits. One of its bands will be travelling to Vancouver to perform at Yom HaAtzmaut festivities.

Shaul Zohar, the Israeli chair of the Partnership, travels hours every day to continue his tennis classes with evacuated special needs students from Renanim School, some of whom also gather weekly at the Tel-Hai campus in Katzrin.

But these interim measures, no matter how generous and innovative, are no substitute for the comforts of home. The novelty of hotel life wore off quickly, and exhausted parents find themselves longing to do ordinary things like laundry.

Many families moved out of the hotels after a couple of months, and some have created new lives far from the North.

According to new research by the Regional Knowledge Center, PTSD levels among Eastern Galilee evacuees are skyrocketing, and up to 60% of evacuated residents aren’t sure if they will return to the North when the current war is over.

Almost half of the self-employed evacuees, many of whom work in tourism-related fields, have lost significant income. The big economic engines of agriculture and food-tech are running on fumes. Abandoned wineries could take years to recover.

But the even bigger issue is security. At the end of the Second Lebanon War in 2006, United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701 called for Hezbollah to withdraw to north of the Litani River, 29 kilometres from the border with Israel.

But Hezbollah never obeyed the agreement, and the intended “buffer zone” to provide some security to the North never materialized.

Some residents say they will not return unless Resolution 1701 or its equivalent is implemented and enforced – even if that means military action. 

“1701 or 07.10” is a common refrain.

So is “the day after,” which means so much more than the end of the war in Gaza.

“The government failed, the IDF failed, but the people of Israel didn’t fail,” said historian and Zionist activist Gil Troy.

“(The people) repelled the attack within 24 hours. That’s a Zionist moment. Changing the world. Fighting when necessary, but rebuilding always.

“We need to think in three time zones. Today we must win. The day after. And then the future. What is the Israel we want to dream about?”

Michal Raikin, regional development consultant and founder of the Galil East leadership program, believes that the North can not only survive this crisis, but thrive.

Her research indicates that by Israel’s centenary in 2048, 13 million people will live in the centre of Israel, compared to 1.6 million in the Negev and 2.4 million in the Galilee. 

Without radical changes, resources in larger cities will be stretched to the breaking point. But assuming that the security situation is resolved, that could make peripheral areas such as the North more attractive – especially since post-COVID remote work opportunities prompted many families to escape the pressures of big city life.

The role of our Partnership will be more important than ever.

“Winston Churchill said, ‘Never let a crisis go to waste,’” she quoted. “This is a golden opportunity to do an upheaval, so that Northern communities can become the most desirable. 

“In this terrible darkness, you can suddenly see the stars above.”

-Barbara Crook is the Canadian chair of the P2G (Partnership 2Gether) Coast to Coast Partnership.