Skip links

Main navigation

The Lesson of the Anemones in Sha’ar HaNegev

By Betzy Lynch

Over the last three years, I have visited Israel’s Sha’ar HaNegev region three times. This incredible community of 10 kibbutzim, one moshav, and one center for Ethiopian olim (immigrants) is situated roughly three-quarters of a mile from Israel’s border with Gaza. My experiences in Sha’ar HaNegev have challenged everything I understood about people and shattered my beliefs about human limitations.

My first visit was in May of 2022 for a master class in co-existence and community building. The residents of Sha’ar HaNegev had imagined and created a home for nearly 10,000 residents who believed they could live in peace with their Palestinian neighbors if they could build a bridge to a better life for all residents of the region. In Sha’ar HaNegev, you could believe in this dream because every few yards there are outside shelters, and safe rooms in every home protect against rocket fire. In Sha’ar HaNegev, you could believe in this dream because people chose to live in kibbutzim that consistently reinforced the message that the “we” was always more important than the “I.” In Sha’ar HaNegev, you could believe in this dream because of the leadership Ofir Libstein, z”l, who inspired and painted a vision of what could be for Israelis, Bedouin, Druze, and Palestinians when we invested in each other’s well-being.

When I returned from my first trip to the region, I saw the power of community in a completely new way, which raised the bar for what I believed my JCC could do for our community in San Diego. We would be stronger because of what I had learned of Sha’ar HaNegev.

My second trip was a master class in partnership and peoplehood. I arrived in Sha’ar HaNegev with 250 San Diegans to celebrate 25 years of partnership between our two communities. Walking through the community campus there, it was easy to believe you were in San Diego—minus a red alert or two. The similarities are striking: the desert horticulture, the warm desert climate, the ease of indoor/outdoor spaces, and the names of the community philanthropists, which are often the same in both places. Our communities are woven together with the thin, yet unbreakable threads of Jewish peoplehood. This sense of family is not built from responsibility and obligation, which can cause family dysfunction. It is built from the foundations of Judaism that allow us to imagine each human being created in the image of the divine and to find a path for each of us to discover what we can bring to our community. On this trip, I came to understand that for Sha’ar HaNegev to fulfill its aspirational vision, we needed to raise our aspirations for Jewish life in San Diego. The San Diego community knew we needed to invest and reinvest in the imagination of Sha’ar HaNegev’s potential to build resilience for their community. We also learned that we needed to expand our imagination of what our JCC could become to create meaningful Jewish experiences for all people to enjoy what appeared to be the golden age of Jewish life in the Diaspora.

My third trip was a master class in grief, loss, and survival. Before I met with our group from JCC Association, I spent time with two colleagues and now dear, dear friends. They lead the community-building efforts for the region. When they picked me up in Jerusalem, we drove south to Sha’ar HaNegev, and along the way, they shared the status of the community. Almost all the residents have been evacuated to other parts of Israel. They worked hard to keep the kibbutzim together in the evacuation, knowing that people would need community and some thread of normal life. As we arrived at Kfar Azza, a kibbutz that was deeply affected by the terror of October 7, I felt my emotions welling up in my eyes. I reminded myself that my friends had lived through this terror and loss, and I needed to hold it together for them. We walked through the destruction of Kfar Azza. We stopped at the olive tree where our friend, former Mayor of Sha’ar HaNegev, Ofir Libstein, z”l, was murdered on that fateful day. And I tried to embrace the irony. A man, a special leader, who championed peace by building a better life for everyone in the region—including those living in Gaza—was murdered at the foot of an olive tree. My heart sank.

As we stood at the border fence and looked across the fields into the distance, I heard the sound of artillery fire and saw smoke rising in the distance. Small drops of rain began to fall on my face, and I felt the war in my heart and in my bones. As we walked through the rest of the horrific scene, my colleagues shared the disputes among kibbutz members about how to preserve the burnt and bullet-ridden homes. Some want to tear it all down, others want to maintain it as is so no one will forget or deny what happened there on October 7. They told me about the residents who had been taken hostage, sharing how a few people had managed to escape their attackers and others are still being held in Gaza. When we reached the home of Ofir’s son, I could not hold back my tears. His home was completely destroyed, like so many others of the young people who lived in that section of Kfar Azza. My tears were not only for Ofir’s wife and family who lost their mother and grandmother, nephew and cousin, husband and father, and son and brother on October 7 but also for those families who were killed all together, leaving no one to say kaddish for them.

As we drove away from Kfar Azza, I tried to imagine what it would take to restore enough strength and confidence to the residents of Sha’ar HaNegev so they can return home. Sadly, I cannot imagine it will be possible.

A few days later, I again went to southern Israel, this time with leaders from our JCC Movement. During the bus ride from Tel Aviv to the site of the Nova music festival massacre, I could not stop thinking about my friends in Sha’ar HaNegev. How were they still standing after more than 100 days of death, terror, and uncertainty? How were they going to find ways to hold their grief and build a path to recovery for the community?

At the site we could see a makeshift memorial in the distance, but mostly the space was a beautiful campsite and park. We gathered in a circle and said memorial prayers. I shut my eyes and prayed. Prayed for peace for the souls that had been taken and prayed for the resilience of my friends and all of Israel. As the group walked toward the memorial, I walked the other way—into nature. Trees, fresh with new leaves that moved gently in the wind, were scattered throughout wide stretches of open space. I could see the buds of red flowers for which the region is so famous. My emotions were getting the best of me. As my tears dropped to the earth, which only 100 days earlier had been covered in the blood of young music-loving Israelis, I was angry. Angry that nature was acting as though no tragedy had happened in this sacred space. I opened my eyes and my heart to the heavens and wept for the first time since arriving in Israel. Wiping my tears, the lesson started to sink in. Nature is never without destruction, and yet the heartiest of plants always seem to bloom again. My friends in Sha’ar HaNegev and their leaders are the red flowers of the south. They are the heartiest of plants veiled by a gentle, red flower.

My JCC colleagues and I spent a few more days in Israel affirming this lesson. It is possible to plant for the future and hold on to ambiguity, tragedy, and hope all at the same time. Boarding the plane to return to San Diego, I continued to reflect on the “garden” of Jewish peoplehood. I now understood better than I ever have that the role of our JCC in San Diego is to plant the seeds of our shared history, preserve and share rituals and traditions, nurture spirituality and human connection, create a love of Israel that will grow roots for a lifetime of meaning and holistic well-being for my San Diego community and my friends in Sha’ar HaNegev.

Betzy Lynch is the CEO of the Lawrence Family JCC in La Jolla, California. She participated in the JCC Association Leadership Solidarity Mission to Israel in January 2024.

This blog post is one in a series authored by JCC CEOs and executive directors who recently visited Israel on one of two different JCC Movement Solidarity Missions. Read other posts in the series.


Subscribe to JCC Association's Blog
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Reader Interactions