Hamas militants destroyed the kibbutz; these SoCal residents mourn and help rebuild

A memorial and fundraiser for those killed and kidnapped from Kibbutz Kfar Aza in Israel during the Hamas attack.
A memorial and fundraiser for those killed and kidnapped from Kibbutz Kfar Aza in Israel during the Hamas attack was held in Southern California on Nov. 2. (Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times)

Armed security guards dressed in black scanned the invitation list before waving each guest inside.

They kept a sharp eye out for trouble as they milled about the crowd of more than 130 — gathered not at an embassy or government compound but in the backyard of a stately home in Southern California.

Some of the men who had been invited to the Thursday evening event wore yarmulkes. One young woman wore a scarf patterned with the Star of David.

Small framed pictures are displayed on a wooden table.
Pictures of those killed at Kibbutz Kfar Aza in Israel during the Hamas attack are displayed at a memorial and fundraiser in Southern California on Thursday. (Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

These were not public officials being guarded, but worried members of the Jewish community. They were gathered in this neighborhood to help raise funds to rebuild the Kfar Aza kibbutz, a communal village where around 60 people were killed in the Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel by Hamas militants.

An additional 18 people, including seven children, were kidnapped from the kibbutz, according to residents.

The attack unfolded some 7,500 miles away. More than 1,400 Israelis were killed and more than 200 kidnapped, according to Israeli officials. The Oct. 7 assault was followed by retaliatory air strikes on Gaza by the Israeli military, which continue with no end in sight. More than 9,000 Palestinians have been killed, according to the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry.

Read more: Palestinian Americans struggle with Hamas-Israel violence

The goal of Thursday's gathering was to help those in far-off peril. But on this night, the danger felt awfully close by. So close, that the event's hosts asked that the location not be divulged for safety reasons.

As he spoke to the crowd gathered in the backyard, Yuval Wollman, an L.A. resident who helped organize the event, cited reports of antisemitism targeted at students at a Manhattan Beach middle school. He referenced reports of people storming an airport in Russia, targeting a flight from Israel.

The attack in Israel, he said, "was directed at the very foundations of our existence as Jews. ... In a way, Jews all around the world including us, today, now, share the fate of Kfar Aza survivors. Rebuilding that kibbutz is one step forward for all of us to recover what we as people lost."

Kibbutzim are built on the principles of communal and cooperative living.

An estimated 125,000 people live in a little more than 250 kibbutzim scattered throughout Israel. Many who live there are strong believers in peaceful and respectful coexistence, according to Ran Abramitzky, a professor of economics at Stanford University.

But on Oct. 7, some of the worst violence from the Hamas attacks centered on the kibbutzim — including Kfar Aza.

Pictures of a woman and child and a man with their names are displayed under a tea candle on a table.
Pictures of some of those killed at Kibbutz Kfar Aza in Israel during the Hamas attack are displayed at a memorial and fundraiser in Southern California on Thursday. (Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

“It’s very tragic and ironic, because when you think about peace and safety and an idyllic place to live, you think about a kibbutz," said Abramitzky, author of the book "The Mystery of the Kibbutz: Egalitarian Principles in a Capitalist World."

That's the kibbutz Rotem Holin described, her voice wavering, as she stood at the microphone in front of the gathered L.A. residents that chilly evening. She'd arrived from Israel just that morning, weary from travel and the trauma of the past weeks, but determined to tell her story.

Holin, 44, spoke about Kfar Aza, where she was born and raised and where her son and daughter were growing up, in the past tense. It was the most beautiful place, with the most beautiful sunsets.

On Oct. 7, the kibbutz — which was founded in the 1950s — had been scheduled to hold an annual kite festival. Community members had planned to take their kites, with messages of peace, up on a hill and fly them above the nearby Gaza border fence. But then the missile attacks started.

Holin was at home with her 6-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter. The children, in pajamas printed with characters from the movie "Madagascar," were asleep in their bedroom, which doubles as the family's safe room. As Holin locked the house and pulled down the shades, she heard machine gun fire outside. She grabbed tablets for the children and a bag of rolls and ran into the safe room.

Guests listen to survivors' stories.
Guests listen to survivors' stories during a memorial service and fundraiser in Southern California on Thursday for the victims of Kibbutz Kfar Aza in Israel who were killed by Hamas militants. Around 60 people were killed and 18 were kidnapped. (Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

She could hear the shooting and bombing outside. Terrifying messages began to spread in the kibbutz's WhatsApp group.

“They are butchering us, they are burning us, help us, why nobody is coming?" Holin recounted, hands clasped behind her back, as people in the crowd shook their heads and wiped tears from their eyes.

Soon after, Holin said, she found herself gripping closed the handle of the door, which opens from the outside, as Hamas militants tried to pull it open from the other side.

One of the six men who broke into the house —she repeatedly called them “terrorists" — shot into the room. The bullet embedded in the safe room's closet. As they forced their way inside, Holin said, she told the attackers only she and her two children were home.

“I’m a Muslim; we are not going to hurt you," one of the men, dressed in black, told her in English. They took Holin's phone and her car keys and shut her inside of the safe room. When her children finally slept, Holin said, she prayed between their beds "that someone will come and rescue us."

The family was rescued the following day, which is when she began learning the true toll. Aside from two families, she said, all of her neighbors were either kidnapped or murdered. Her parents and brother, who also live in the kibbutz, were unharmed.

Read more: 'I need to ask God why.' In Israel and Gaza, the scale of death overwhelms the living

Holin read the names of each resident who was either kidnapped or killed. Grief hung heavy in the air. Attendees dropped their heads into their hands and clutched tissues to tear-stained faces.

Everyone of those named, Holin said, "is like our brother, our mother, our baby, and it’s very hard. We will come back some day, I don’t know how, I don’t know where. The community has the strength to rebuild."

When Holin finished speaking, to applause from the crowd, Wollman thanked her for her words.

Batya Holin photographs framed pictures of people on display at a home.
Batya Holin photographs those killed at Kibbutz Kfar Aza, whose pictures were on display at a memorial and fundraiser in Southern California on Thursday. She and her daughter Rotem, who both survived the attack, attended this event after flying from Israel the same day. (Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

“You said earlier that you feel that every person killed or kidnapped is like your own sibling or son. I think speaking on behalf of this community, we feel the same," he said. "All the people that you named now, in Kfar Aza, are like our family as well. This is why we’re here.”

Wollman's company, CyberProof, has committed to helping the kibbutz recover. He said he hopes to form a task force to work with survivors. He said he hopes to form a task force to work with survivors.

More than $100,000 has been raised — from a variety of donors — for the Kfar Aza community.

Israel was ever present throughout the little more than hour-long event. Attendees sang the country's national anthem as they stood or sat on white folding chairs scattered around the backyard. Californians called out the names of Israeli soldiers ahead of a prayer by local rabbis.

Musicians played "Forever October," a song about the 1973 Yom Kippur war. They translated it from Hebrew to English and changed a lyric from Oct. 6 — the start of the Yom Kippur war — to Oct. 7, to mark the recent attacks.

"The terror of the seventh night, when the clock is stopped and they darken the light and your heart is stopped," they sang. "Forever October."

Candles flickered on a table, in between photos of smiling Kfar Aza residents who were killed last month. Among them were teenagers, young couples and elderly people. Nearby were framed pictures of those kidnapped, including a 3-year-old whose parents were killed.

Hailey Gersh, 22, whose parents hosted the event at their home, recounted how her saba — Hebrew for grandfather — had helped build Kfar Aza. Later, during his army service, she said, he worked in the orchards of the kibbutz.

Several of his friends who had also been drafted stayed on the kibbutz and made it their home. It became a yearly tradition for the group, now in their 70s and 80s, to gather in Kfar Aza.

Earlier this year, Gersh said, she and her family were in Israel for her cousin's bar mitzvah and visited the kibbutz. Her grandfather's friends "all came together and hosted a beautiful day for us." She returned to the park where she'd grown up playing. Now, she said, "it's a war zone."

There was video testimony of a couple from Kfar Aza, whose 21-year-old son was killed during the attack. Another Israeli citizen did a Zoom call to the event and talked about her brother, who was killed alongside his 20-year-old daughter. She shared her brother's life motto: "Hope dies last."

As Josh Donfeld, 47, leaned against a counter outside, he wrapped his arms around his crying wife. Like others present that night, he thought about how different his life might have been had his grandparents emigrated from Austria to the U.S.

"Just a stroke of chance that I’m in Malibu and not over there myself," he said. "I think that’s something that a lot of people in the Jewish community feel."

A large screen shows a woman while a crowd watches outdoors.
Inbar Goldstein, who was born and raised at Kibbutz Kfar Aza, shares her story during a memorial service and fundraiser in Southern California on Thursday for the victims of the Hamas attack on her community. (Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

“As a community, I think it’s important to figure out how do we get together, how do we support each other, how do we figure out the best ways to ensure our safety and comfort and our place in this city and in this country and in the world,” he added.

As the event came to a close, attendees hugged one another for comfort and spoke in a mix of Hebrew and English. Among them was Stephanie, 39, and Estee, 42, who asked that their full names not be used out of concern for their safety.

Stephanie recalled how, when she was growing up, her parents taught her the importance of listening to Holocaust survivors.

"They lived through something, and this generation is going to be gone one day," she recalled them saying. "I'm sitting here thinking, 'I can't believe we have our own generation that's lived through it that's sharing these stories firsthand.' "

As a community and a people, she said, "we're experiencing this all over again."

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.