On the night of October 6, Adele Raemer knocked on the guest bedroom door at her Kibbutz Nirim home and said goodnight to her son, who had come to visit over the holidays. “If you don’t see me in the morning, it’s because I want to go out to the fields before sunrise to take pictures of wildflowers and catch them through the rays of the sun,” the keen photographer told him.
Around an hour’s drive away, Shani Cohen (not her real name) was preparing for her usual Saturday morning bike ride from Kibbutz Zikim, which sits on the coastline close to the northern Gaza border. She was thinking about which friends from neighbouring communities she might see that week.
A little further inland, Tzion Leshem was celebrating Simchat Torah with his community. At around 11.30pm, he headed home for a late festive meal and finally got to bed, knowing he would need to be up in just a few hours to lead the morning services at the synagogue in Moshav Neve.
All three describe where they lived – just kilometres from the Gaza strip – as nothing short of blissful. “Yes, we do have rockets,” concedes Shani, “but we also had the most amazing personal sense of security.” Tzion gushes about his 1,200-strong community as a “very, very special place” with several schools, farms and orchards of every kind to sustain the population.
Adele is even more emphatic about her kibbutz. “We called our region 95% heaven, because 95% of the time it was beautiful and peaceful and a great place to raise kids,” she tells me.
Her smile dissipates as she’s brought back to the present. “We thought we were safe – but that bubble was very violently burst on October 7.”
None of the three could possibly have imagined the events of that day – the worst single-day killing of Jewish people since the Holocaust – or the upending of their lives in the weeks and now months following. All of them have been evacuated from their homes to hotels scattered across Israel.
They are just a handful of the estimated 200,000 Israelis displaced, having been instructed to evacuate from 105 communities close to Gaza and Lebanon.
A cloud of uncertainty hangs over their temporary situation while the war against Hamas continues, and they all miss being in the place they once called home – but they also acknowledge how grateful they are to simply be alive.
For Shani, survival came down to spending an extra 10 minutes at home to organise herself for her bike ride. Had she been on time, she would have met an IDF army vehicle full of Hamas terrorists on their way to her kibbutz.
“I am so lucky to be alive today,” she recalls during an interview organised by charity UJIA. “It could have been me and every time I think about it I try to block that thought out and put it somewhere else in my mind, because here I am – and it was by chance.
“Anybody else who went on the bike ride that morning did not come back. I have a friend who got a flat tyre and he returned to his kibbutz and was saved. There are a lot of small stories of miracles that happened that day. But then you hear about all the other ones that weren’t so lucky, that did not have miracles on their side. It’s heart-breaking.”
Shani acknowledges that the location of her kibbutz helped her community to survive. As Kibbutz Zikim sits on the coast, it was the Navy that came to their rescue and took down the invading terrorists before ground troops finally arrived. Like many other survivors of October 7, Shani speaks about how the nearby army base was near-deserted that weekend, with many soldiers on leave or reassigned elsewhere. “I think we are all in disbelief that we were actually left alone. The poor soldiers who were left had to fight for their lives – and most of them didn’t make it.”
Over at Moshav Neve, Tzion Leshem was in the synagogue celebrating Simchat Torah when the sirens started to go off. The community made their way to the shelter rooms, but it didn’t take long before they realised this was unlike previous alerts.
“This time the siren was just going on and on. We heard a ton of booms very close by and that’s something we’ve never experienced before,” says Tzion, speaking from his hotel room over Zoom.
The father-of-seven made the decision to return home to his wife, Rivka, and their children and wait out the alert from the safe room in their home. Shortly afterwards, the electricity and phone lines in went down. After two hours, the family heard from the security team that there had been an infiltration and people nearby had been killed and kidnapped.
“It sounded strange because that can’t happen, right? But we had no idea what was going on and we were just locked in our room. It was very scary and stressful. Around noon, we started to see ambulances coming into our moshav and helicopters landing to take away the injured. The roads had become too dangerous, so ambulances were diverting from neighbouring towns. People had injuries from gunshots and grenades. We could hear a short distance away the battles going on.”
Tzion revealed that a group of 30 terrorists were on their way to his moshav when they were met by Israeli soldiers. He shudders at the thought of what could have been.
“There are hundreds of stories, if not more, of things that could have been so much worse. We feel grateful and thankful for being alive, but sorrow and pain for so many people who aren’t, or who were severely injured or kidnapped. This is something that’s going to be a part of us forever.”
While Shani and Tzion narrowly escaped the worst events of October 7, Adele Raemer found herself at the epicentre of the atrocities at Kibbutz Nirim, which lies just over a mile away from the Gaza border. Adele never got to take her photos of the wildflowers in the fields that morning, because missiles started coming overhead just around the time she was waking up.
American-born Adele, who made aliyah 1973 aged 19 before moving to Nirim two years later, recalls how she instinctively ran towards the guest room where her son was sleeping, as this was also the safe room. The pair shut themselves in, but it was only when they started to hear machine gunfire and grenades not far from the house that they realised they were in extreme danger.
“We began receiving frantic messages from neighbours saying there were terrorists outside their house,” says Adele from her hotel room in Eilat. “They wrote, ’We can see them coming and they’re armed. We can hear Arabic. They’re trying to open our safe room. They’re setting light to our house.’ There were people inside these burning houses crying for help and we were witness to that. We were watching the progression of the terrorists in real time as they were coming and we thought, when is one of them going to arrive at my house? When am I going to be next?
“Then suddenly we heard Arabic outside. My son heard one of them say, ‘Come here.’ We didn’t understand. We just sat there quietly, turned off the air conditioning so there would be no sign of anybody inside and waited. We looked at each other, told each other ‘I love you’ and just waited for it to end.”
At around 10am, Adele briefly left the safe room to go to the bathroom and discovered broken slats on her window. She realised the terrorists had begun breaking into her home before being called off elsewhere.
“I don’t know if it was divine intervention, luck or my husband watching over us, but we were spared.”
It was only later that Adele discovered her son-in-law, who was with her grandchildren, aged two, six and eight, found himself having to confront several terrorists who broke into his home at the kibbutz. He shot one of them right outside the safe room, before retreating and returning to his children.
“He went back, closed the door, kneeled down and held his gun pointed at the door. He told his daughters that anyone who comes through that door is getting a bullet and stayed like that for hours.”
After what must have seemed like an eternity, IDF soldiers finally arrived at the kibbutz at 1.30pm. Four first responders had miraculously held off the nearly 20 terrorists for six hours until the army arrived, with soldiers then going from house to house to extract the survivors. Adele would need to wait another four hours before she and her son were finally rescued.
After a restless night spent in the kibbutz community centre, with just a tablecloth to keep her warm, Adele was told to quickly pack a small bag and get ready to evacuate with the other 400 people in her community. She then endured a “petrifying” five-hour bus journey to Eilat, where she witnessed burning cars, charred bodies and tanks lining the roads.
“When we arrived I was able to breathe again,” says Adele. “I’m not an observant Jew, but for the first time in my life I said Birkat Hagomel [a blessing said when you have survived danger].”
Over the last two months, Adele has tried to process all she has been through, while also praying for the return of her close friend Judith Weinstein, 70, and her husband Gad Haggai, 72, who were kidnapped from nearby Kibbutz Nir Oz.
Adele feels a deep sense of betrayal, she reveals, having always advocated for peace and greater integration with Palestinians. “Until October 7, I truly believed the vast majority of Gazans wanted the same things we did – security for their children, food on their plate and good lives. On October 7, something in my DNA changed and I realised I had been very naïve. It’s not that I don’t believe there are no Gazans who could be good neighbours – but I feel it’s far fewer than I had believed.”
Hardest of all, Adele says she has been living with “an imagined sense of security” and that it will take time to believe they are safe once more. “We bet our lives on it and we’re not going to do that again.”
I ask Adele if she wants to return to her kibbutz. “It’s been my home since 1975,” she sighs. “My parents and husband are buried there, my children were born there. I don’t have a life any place else. We are a strong community, but I believe not all people will come back, not those with young children. I’m not even sure my daughter will come back.”
Shani, who has been evacuated out to a hotel in the Judean mountains, speaks of living “a life in limbo”. Her community has been overwhelmed with all the donations provided to the evacuees to make their lives more comfortable – “clothes, shoes, toiletries, everything you could imagine you would need” – as well as volunteers coming in to provide childcare or trauma counselling. She wants to return to Kibbutz Zikim, but only when they know they will be safe. Even then, she knows the task ahead to “rebuild our lives” is huge, given that many face being out of work for several months.
Tzion is the most confident of the three that he will return to his moshav in coming months. He is thankful to the charities that have supported him and his family at their hotel in Jerusalem, including Migdal Ohr, Israel’s largest welfare charity. When they arrived, they “didn’t even own winter clothing” but people came daily with boxes of “food and toys and books and chairs and notebooks – whatever we needed.”
The community has also started re-establishing itself from the hotel. They have childcare groups, school lessons, lectures for the adults and counselling services.
“Life goes on,” says Tzion. “In the first month we were here we had eight births, three bar mitzvahs, two weddings, engagement parties and brises.”
He is thankful to have marked happier times in the hotel, but his ultimate goal is to return.
“We moved out as a community and we will be moving back as a community. We need our security needs met, but our mission is much stronger now. It’s our civilian part of the victory to tell our enemies you cannot beat us, you cannot win and we will return as soon as we can. We will flourish and our lives will continue.”
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