Earlier this month, nearly 40 JCC lay and professional leaders from North America participated in JCC Association’s Leadership Solidarity Mission to Israel. During a five-day visit, they toured sites and communities where Hamas terrorists brutalized, killed, and kidnapped more than 1,200 Israelis on October 7. They went to bear witness, and, having now returned home, they are sharing their stories and the truths they saw and heard firsthand throughout the journey.
In this powerful essay, Jennifer Mamlet, executive vice president of JCC Association, reflects upon the group’s unscheduled visit to the scene of the Nova Music Festival. As she noted in a staff meeting this morning, yesterday that meadow in the desert was the site of many tree plantings—in memory of the hundreds who lost their lives there and, in a demonstration of resilience and strength, in honor of Tu B’Shvat, the Jewish holiday that marks the new year of the trees.
A week ago, I was in Israel along the Gaza border, and it has taken this many days to find these words.
We weren’t supposed to stop at the site of the Nova music festival—but then again, neither was Hamas some 100+ days earlier.
At 6:30 a.m., just after sunrise on Saturday, October 7, Hamas fired a barrage of missiles toward Israel as thousands of its fighters breached the Gaza border fence on their way to a devastating killing spree. At the same time, a few thousand concertgoers were gathered in a field near Kibbutz Re’im—about three miles from the Gaza border. They were there for an all-night rave with more than a dozen DJs from around the world set to play 15 hours straight through Saturday night. Think Burning Man. Or Woodstock. A weekend of music, dancing, love, light, community.
And then, as dawn broke, literal hell broke loose.
We now understand that—like us—Hamas didn’t intend to arrive at the site of a music festival but came upon its unhidden location on their way to kibbitzim only kilometers away. They came by vehicle, motorcycle, paraglider, and on foot. Firsthand accounts from those who survived reveal harrowing and haunting tales of unimaginable brutality and unrelenting evil. By the time Hamas was done, 364 people at the rave were indiscriminately shot, beaten, butchered, raped, and/or burned to death. Forty more were kidnapped and dragged into the dungeons of Gaza.
One-hundred and three days after October 7—on our way to Kibbutz Nir Oz where Hamas killed and kidnapped one out of four of its residents—we suddenly found ourselves driving by the campgrounds of Re’im, the site of the Nova rave, and we got off our bus to bear witness.
There we were. Standing in a circle. We closed our eyes. A moment of silence. Hearts in our throats. It felt hard to breathe. My friend and colleague, Rabbi David Kessel, sang El Maleh Rachamim, a remembrance prayer for the soul of the departed that means “God full of mercy.” We said we’d take a few minutes and our group dispersed in every direction. I chose to walk alone and stepped carefully, constantly wondering what secrets the soil under my feet was keeping.
Tears fell easily. It wasn’t hard to imagine the scene 103 days earlier. At first, I tried to picture them dancing and happy. And then, aided by images and footage I unsuccessfully tried to avoid, pictured them running. Hiding. Frightened for their lives. This once beautiful but entirely unremarkable meadow had become a killing field. I was comforted that we weren’t the only ones there to pay tribute on this now-sacred ground.
Makeshift memorials were everywhere. I walked slowly as if instinctively giving my heart time to catch up to what my eyes were seeing. All my senses were overwhelmed. The air seemed to stand still as if the souls of those killed were hovering above our heads, begging us not to let their memories be forgotten. Sounds of gasps and whispers were pierced by occasional and inconsolable crying from that young girl over there, the woman over there, that group of friends over there. I asked an Israeli to translate handwritten messages scrawled on stones in a memorial rock garden. I’m not sure if it was his broken English or broken heart that made him hard to understand. A friend later translated the sign that marked that area: “There are flowers that infinitely remain a melody.”
Nearby, I came upon a more heavily wooded area where banners hung from tree trunks with the names and faces of those missing and killed. I couldn’t help but wonder how many had fled to this wooded area, hoping the trees would provide protection and hiding. The site of that memorial area suggests they were unsuccessful.
Surrounding the edges of the field, I was struck by the beauty of new flowers growing in the desert. Bright red anemones in a sea of small yellow buds. Preparing this post, I looked up what anemones represent and teared up once again reading this line: “Red anemone flowers symbolize death or forsaken love.” Even Mother Nature is paying tribute.
As I walked back to the bus, an explosive boom! stopped me in my tracks. Earlier that day, 50 rockets had been fired from Gaza into nearby Netivot. I didn’t have to say a word before our Israeli guide was assuring us it was the sound of IDF fire. Temporary relief that it wasn’t anything more gave way to more tears as I realized I was hearing the live sounds of war.
Deep breath. Before I stepped on the bus, I took one more look around, then closed my eyes and prayed. May those still in captivity be brought safely home. May the memories of those killed forever be a blessing. May all who survived find the strength and the will to one day dance again. And may all who bear witness find the words and the courage to tell their story.
Am Yisrael Chai | עם ישראל חי
Shabbat shalom | שבת שלום
Executive Vice President
JCC Association of North America