The Shabbat this rabbi will never forget

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The Shabbat this rabbi will never forget

A friend to the many kibbutzim in Sha’ar HaNegev, Rabbi Yael Vurgan now hears their horrific experiences

Brigit Grant is the Jewish News Supplements Editor

Rabbi Yael (left) enjoying Kabbalat Shabbat with the children at kibbutz Bror Hayil
Rabbi Yael (left) enjoying Kabbalat Shabbat with the children at kibbutz Bror Hayil

Rabbi Yael Vurgan is more than familiar with kibbutz life. The moment she was ordained, the Israel Reform Movement sent her to Sha’ar HaNegev and, for the past five years, she has moved between 10 kibbutzim and a moshav in the region to officiate at bar- and batmitzvahs, funerals, shivas, Kabbalat Shabbats and High Holy Day services.

Bringing spiritual life and a connection to the Jewish tradition is her job and inevitably she has grown close to the kibbutzniks in the way all rabbis do with their flock.

“I know these people,” emphasises the rabbi. “A lot only attended my activities, but I got to know them personally. There are dozens in the area who know me and I know them – I’m part of their lives… and then when something like this happens all those connections come to life.”

On the morning of October 7, Rabbi Yael was asleep at her home in Modi’in. Her daily journey to Sha’ar HaNegev takes 55 minutes, so she knew she had time to get to a moshav there for a bar mitzvah at midday.

Rabbi Yael with kibbutz seniors having late Bar and Bat mitzvahs

The first call at 7am was from the bar mitzvah boy’s mother. “I thought she was calling because something had happened to her son. She told me she was ringing from her safe room and asked if I knew what was going on. She said there were bombs and alarms going off and my first instinct was to tell her not to worry, that things would calm down.”                                                   A minute later the anxious mother called again. This was not just a regular rocket attack. “She said ground forces had come into Israel and that war had started,” Rabbi Yael recalls.

Texts went back and forth that day from others in their safe rooms and in the days following, the rabbi called non- stop to try to find the people she knew. “You have heard the stories, I’m sure,” she says, eyes straight ahead. “At Kibbutz Nir and Gevim, they heard the shooting, but there, their own volunteer security understood quickly what was going on and were ready to prevent the terrorists from coming in. And even if they did get in, they dealt with them. But at Kfar Aza… it’s the worst.”

Kfar Aza before and after the attacks on October 7

Located one mile east of Gaza, Rabbi Yael is a frequent visitor to Kfar Aza, which had 950 residents. Since we first spoke, it has been confirmed that 62 were killed, 18 taken hostage and the kibbutz was completely burned and destroyed. The spiritual resilience services she once provided have taken on a new dimension.

“I know people who were saved and are refugees evacuated to hotels. Visiting them is now my priority to allow them to share their terrible experiences, their worries and their pain.”

Rabbi Yael has no idea what determined who lived and died that day. “The daughter of a friend was hiding in the safe room with her two girls and terrorists got in. She started talking to them in English. One of the terrorists told her not to worry. He said they were not going to shoot her girls because it was against Islamic rules or something like that. So, instead, they asked if they could take food, walked around the house and left. But there were others who were killed the minute the terrorists broke in. We don’t understand why some were shown mercy.”

Ofir Libstein mayor of Sha’ar HaNegev who was murdered by Hamas

No mercy was shown to Ofir Libstein, the 50-year-old mayor of Sha’ar HaNegev, who was killed while attempting to defend the home and town he loved. His funeral was attended by hundreds, among them Rabbi Yael, who admired this man of “vision and peace” – who wanted to build an industrial park, Park Azim – to employ thousands of Gaza residents, who could cross the border daily.

Rabbi Yael Vurgan

“He believed that improving their lives would be good for them and in turn good for us,” says Rabbi Yael, who hopes Ofir’s tolerance and unprejudiced views won’t be shelved forever. “I work closely with the Bereaved Families Forum, a joint Palestinian-Israeli organisation with members from both sides. All of them have lost loved ones. If they can have dialogue and forgive then maybe someday we all can.”

Rabbi Yael knows her liberal stance and aspirations for a collaborative future are not what many Israelis want to hear about now. But as a religious woman who values the sanctity of life, she still prays for peace during a time of bloodshed. She believes that what some consider ‘careless’ talk will save lives.

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