‘Our connection is the light in the darkness’ – young Kfar Aza survivors visit London

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‘Our connection is the light in the darkness’ – young Kfar Aza survivors visit London

UK Jewish community raised £250k to bring 100 young survivors of 7 October terror attack to London for respite.

Pic: Emily Cohen, February 2024
Pic: Emily Cohen, February 2024

Emily Cohen is speaking to Jewish News while shepherding a group of young Israelis from Kibbutz Kfar Aza into the lobby of a central London hotel. 

It’s Friday afternoon and day three of an extraordinary five-day respite trip to the UK for 21 men and women, aged between 26 and 28, who survived the murderous terror attack on their home on 7 October.

On that day, Kibbutz Kfar Aza, close to the Gaza border, suffered unimaginable horror. Home to 800 people, 62 were murdered and 18 taken captive.

Residents Yotam Haim and Alon Shamriz escaped their kidnappers only to be mistakenly shot dead by the IDF.

The age group Emily Cohen has brought over to London are among the worst affected. For a kibbutz environment, where every member of the community is family, part of a close-knit collective since the day they are born, the losses are unbearable.

Kfar Aza, Pic: LSJS

Taking a seat by a hotel window while the group winds down before Shabbat following their London Eye trip, Cohen says: “I very simply, am nothing to do with anyone or anything. My husband is Israeli. I went to Israel at the end of October because I felt I needed to be there. I had been linked to Kfar Aza on 9 October by a cousin of mine who told me parts of it. The vast majority of the adult part of the kibbutz had been obliterated.”

Bar and Matan, February 2024

While in Israel, she went to Hotel Shefayim “where the whole kibbutz community relocated to. The hotel is tragic – you can’t imagine. It’s just cloaked in trauma and sadness”.

Cohen also met Alon Futterman, head of the Kibbutz Kfar Azar Foundation, which manages all the donor and government money pouring in to support the whole rebuild of the kibbutz as well as providing the psychological and educational help it needs.

Cohen says: “I met him and asked him what I can do to help. I’m not a wealthy individual but I wanted to help. He (Futterman) said to me: ‘it would be really great if you could take a group of these kids to London for a break’.”

She asked how many there were in the age group.

Futterman told her ‘100’.

Cohen was adamant: she wouldn’t choose who got to go and who didn’t.

“So,” she continues, “I said I would take all of them.”

Emily Cohen, far right, with two young members of the Kfar Aza delegation to London, February 2024.

Emily had never fundraised in her life, but was now faced with the challenge of sourcing £250k. That worked out at £2.5k per head, covering air tickets, hotels, restaurants, theatre tickets, mini buses and security.

She tells Jewish News: “I’m not active in the Jewish community and I was absolutely overwhelmed with the snowball effect. Within 6 weeks, I’d raised the money from the Jewish community in London. In total about 220 people donated, anything from £30 to £25k.”

The UK’s leading Israel charity, UJIA, offered to manage the funding and “within a day had set up a designated page and link for me. The money just came pouring in. UJIA also donated and introduced me to some of their own donors. They’ve been very, very supportive even though I’m not remotely affiliated with them. I basically raised the money and have split them up into 5 groups of 20.”

Matan Sobol, left, with Israeli footballer Manor Solomon. Feburary 2024. Pic: Emily Cohen

The trip is managed by Cohen and a few dedicated volunteers. Her protectiveness over and connection with them is undeniable; their affection and trust for her is obvious.

She knows every single one of their stories and introduces Jewish News to Matan Sobol, whose first cousins, the 26-year old twins Gali and Zif Berman, are still hostage in Gaza. And then to Bar Yatzan, who was locked in a safe room with his girlfriend, and fought desperately to keep terrorists locked out by using his body weight to jam a laundry bin against the door until the IDF arrived.

Members of the second group of the Kfar Aza London delegation, February 2024. Pic: Emily Cohen

Bar’s sister Gili, who is with him in London, was in another safe room with their father, whose hands were shot off, one at a time, when terrorists tried to force their way in, using a hand grenade. Gili stayed with her father for around 30 hours while he was bleeding out. While he survived, more than four months and eight surgeries later, he is still in hospital and she has barely left his side, sleeping at the hospital every night.

Cohen continues: “There’s another young girl who lost both her parents; Asaf who lost his older brother; Liron’s father was murdered. All of them are very affected by it.”

Members of the second group of the Kfar Aza London delegation, February 2024. Pic: Emily Cohen

The aim of the trip to London is to provide a temporary mental health break from what the young Israelis have experienced.

The group’s itinerary is packed. From their arrival at the hotel, to the “lovely big welcome dinners, each time in a different restaurant”, to today when half the group experienced a private tour of the Tottenham Football Club Stadium ground, (Matan’s favourite part, so far, despite being a Chelsea supporter), whilst the girls went to a balloon art exhibition next to the Embankment, which Cohen describes as “very immersive, therapeutic.”

The group have eaten lunch at Camden market, been to the Aldwych to see Mamma Mia, watched the Changing of the Guards, had a tour of Embankment, Westminster Abbey, ridden on the London Eye and had lunch at Southbank Food market.

Now the group are huddled together on a couches in the hotel lobby. Later, in groups of two or four, they’ll be hosted by different Jewish families across London for Friday night dinner.

“The magic,” adds Cohen, “is when they connect with the Jewish community and the big surprise is that Israeli footballer Manor Solomon is coming to the hotel to meet them. My entire life has brought me to this point. I’m doing exactly what I’m supposed to be doing. The love and gratitude is overwhelming. They are such a special and inspiring group of young adults and their spirit, their unbroken spirit is just amazing.”

The group with Manor Solomon. Pic: Emily Cohen, February 2024

For 26-year old Matan Sobol, it’s his second trip to London. He says he’s excited to be here “but it’s hard to leave the situation in my country. It’s a daily struggle to bring our family back. It’s not easy to take a week’s stop from it and fly all the way here, while our families are being held hostage. But it’s good to take clean air and come back with new powers”.

From his viewpoint, “the Jewish community in London is very supportive. They want to help Israel in any way that we need. They arranged this trip and it’s amazing”.

Sobol describes how every Saturday in Tel Aviv, “there is a huge protest of thousands of people holding signs and pictures of the hostages, pictures for my family that will come home soon. They have a lot of presents, they’ve been invited to London, Paris, Munich. Everyone wants to give them the feeling that every Jewish community supports them.”

His message to Jewish Londoners is, “We see the support. It’s important to us to have as much as possible to give us the power to continue. This is the best thing in our culture. In the moment of breakdown, we stay together, strong and that’s what makes us special.”

Pic: Emily Cohen, February 2024

At every stop off during their trip, at every tourist location, they display hostage posters and take photographs to share on social media pages they’ve set up to continue spreading awareness.

Matan says: “All our friends in Gaza are with us on this trip. They are with us.”

Kibbutz Kfar Aza

It’s the first time to the UK for fellow 26-year old Bar Yatzan. He says “it’s very hard days that we are having and struggling since the 7th October, but like Matan says, we are getting strength. And that strength we really give it back to our friends and family in Israel. It’s quite nice to take a fresh breath of air.”

They stress that they still have two of their best friends, two members of their family in Gaza.

Sobel adds: “We still need the support and to be strong as a Jewish community worldwide, not just London and Israel. The most important thing is to bring our loved ones home from Gaza. Any support that can help is the most amazing thing for us. We can’t come back to living our normal live when they are still in Gaza.”

Lior Krengel has travelled over with the group from her home in Givatayim to help Emily. She was working for a tech company, “and then 7th October happened. I started volunteering but it wasn’t enough.”

She’s been with the Kfar Aza community for three months, specifically with the young adults and says: “It wasn’t easy for them to decide to come. In all the moments of joy here, there is a falling moment of guilt. A lot of them hoped that by now that their friends and family would be home by Gaza. We hoped they be joining us, so it wasn’t easy to decide to come. It’s a struggle to be a young adult wanting to have your life move on yet feeling so responsible for your community and for your friends, knowing that hat so easily it could have been them.”

Members of the second group of the Kfar Aza London delegation, February 2024. Pic: Emily Cohen

Matan Sobol knows that Gali and Zif Berman were kidnapped alive, but are not together in captivity. The 24 December, when some of the hostages were released, was the last time they were given verbal proof of life.

Bar Yatzan says: “We are in a state of limbo. We have started to get back to life. I moved to Beersheva and started my second year of mechanical engineering. But it all goes back to one moment. You can’t fully come back to life. When our friends and family are still in Gaza. We want our friends back. We need them back.

The group on the Tottenham Hotspur Football pitch. Pic: Emily Cohen

Sobol adds: “We’ve lost so much. Some of us lost someone very close to us. We feel that they have taken our hearts to Gaza.”

Yatzan nods, saying: “It’s an emotional roller-coaster. We can’t continue our process to heal until they are home. We need to keep fighting. Everybody that stayed alive was chosen for a purpose: to fight for them to come back. The people can’t forget what happened. Our country is not complete yet. The hostages are the heart of our country right now. We ask ourselves, ‘What have you done today to bring them home?”

They admit to not sleeping well. “Sleeping,” adds Matan Sobol, “is over-rated.” They describe depression and anxiety. “We passionately want anyone with a position in the government to take action so that no-one else is lost. We are finished with burying our friends and loved ones. We are done. We don’t want any more. We have buried enough. I can say ‘thank you God’ for saving me but I can also say why put me in this situation at all?”

26 year old twin Brothers Ziv & Gali Berman

As Manor Solomon arrives to a welcome of heartfelt hugs and handshakes, Lior and Emily come back over to talk.

“Everyone needs comfort,” says Lior. “This trip is bringing people together. It’s more than just getting away.”

Emily Cohen says how connected everyone has felt being a part of this project. “People hosting Friday night dinners, others helping with chaperoning, others joining us at dinners and lunches. It’s really bought people together and the feeling of connecting has been incredibly strong and special. I genuinely have a love towards these kids, and feel like we have all known each other for years. It was really reciprocated by them. The connection is the light in the darkness.”

To support the Kfar Aza Foundation, click here.

To follow the Instagram account supporting the release of Gili and Zav Berman, click here.

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