COVER STORYDecember 2023 / January 2024

Stronger Together


It was just over six months ago that more than 200 San Diegans traveled to Israel on Jewish Federation of San Diego’s CommUNITY Trip and spent a memorable day in our sister region of Sha’ar HaNegev celebrating 25 years of partnership. It feels like yesterday, and it feels like a lifetime ago.

Since then, the ground has shifted under our feet, and no place and no one in Sha’ar HaNegev or anywhere in Israel is untouched by the tragedy of October 7 – a day many are now calling the Black Sabbath. I am speaking from firsthand experience, having just returned from Federation’s Solidarity Mission alongside a small group of local Jewish community leaders, donors, and clergy. It was an intense, emotional journey for all.

Our purpose was three-fold: To bear witness to all that occurred on October 7 and be prepared to share the truth of it all to counter the disinformation that continues to rapidly spread. To begin to build the foundation for “the day after,” and plan for the resources that will be needed to rehabilitate Sha’ar HaNegev. And, most importantly, to be there for our friends – to hug them tight, listen to their experiences, and let them know we are steadfast in our support of Israel and her people.

Coming down the famous long hallway at Ben Gurion, we came face-to-face with the images of the hostages. The airport and the roads were quiet. Coming into Sederot and Sha’ar HaNegev, which sits right on the border with Gaza, signs of a country in wartime were everywhere. Trucks carrying well-used tanks on the highways. The military guarding all entrances to Sederot and all the kibbutzim in Sha’ar HaNegev.

We stopped at what used to be the police station in Sederot and is now a pile of rubble with a few colorful flowers someone planted to mark the site. We met soldiers taking a break from serving in Gaza at the Community Center in Sha’ar HaNegev, which is now used exclusively by the IDF. We took in what seemed an endless sea of burnt, mangled, twisted cars that once belonged to the young people who had attended the Nova Music Festival. It left us speechless.

“The magnitude of the murders and hostage-taking of young people celebrating music and peace—the themes of the festival—were evident in looking at those abandoned cars,” said Alan Viterbi.

We sat and listened to stories of survivors of the massacres at Kfar Aza and Nachal Oz. Their stories of terror were all the same, while their stories of survival were all totally unique. They shared the most intimate details of their experiences along with profound wisdom and resilience.

“Their testimonies were heartbreaking, and yet, showed tremendous strength and courage. It is unimaginable what these families went through. [These were] families with young children who endured this terrorist attack for 20 [to] 30 hours alone and cut off from the outside world. No electricity, no water, no food, no bathrooms,” said Debbie Kornberg.

We met with Zaka volunteers, Haredi Jews who care for the bodies of victims of terror. These men have seen the worst of humanity for years, and yet they were clearly, distressingly traumatized beyond measure by what they saw Hamas had done to women whose bodies they had come to care for. They could barely speak. It had changed them. And as we read some of the evidence the IDF is beginning to share describing in detail the sexual violence on October 7, I broke. The acts against women, girls, vatikim (elderly women)—such evil, it is beyond comprehension.

And yet, amidst these dark and disturbing accounts, there were moments of hope, inspiration and powerful pride that helped balance the pain.

We had the honor of meeting with President Herzog at his private residence and hear his candid thoughts about what must happen now and the critical role the diaspora must play in the future of the Jewish state.

We learned from one of the most brilliant Israeli minds of our generation—Donniel Hartman of the Shalom Hartman Institute, who reminded us of the importance of sharing what we we’ve seen, what we’ve heard, and how we feel – as far and as wide as we can.

We visited the Ramat David Air Force Base, where we served dinner to the entire squadron of pilots and navigators—all dedicated to protecting and defending the Jewish state.

We gathered in song at the Healing Space, a farm that has been transformed into a beautiful, one-of-a-kind venue for survivors and loved ones of the young people murdered at the Nova Music Festival to come together and heal.

We met venture capitalists and other high-tech leaders who are now leading the Brothers and Sisters for Israel Command Center in Tel Aviv. This massive grassroots organization was originally mobilized as a pro-democracy political organization, but overnight, was transformed into a center for humanitarian aid.

“It was incredibly inspiring to see the commitment of the managers and organizers who see what happened as an opportunity for solidarity; [to renew] the wellbeing of the state and the communal connections between Israel and world Jewry, as the bond of Jewish people is critical to the future,” said Rabbi Yael Ridberg.

There were countless other moments on this trip that will stay with us for the rest of our lives. Our love for Israel and Sha’ar HaNegev has only intensified, and we have returned more determined than ever to help them rebuild in the months and years ahead. It will be a long, difficult road, but one our San Diego community has already shown it is willing to travel—as evidenced by the more than $8 million we have raised since October 7 in support of Israel and Sha’ar HaNegev.

The survivors, the victims, the hostages, the soldiers, the volunteers, and all who love them—their stories are now our stories, and we will do everything we can to ensure they are not forgotten. Never again starts now.

As president and CEO of Jewish Federation of San Diego, Heidi Gantwerk oversees the 90-plus-year-old nonprofit in its mission to broaden and deepen engagement in Jewish life, strengthen Jewish identity, foster dynamic connections with Israel, and care for all Jews in need. Federation also serves as a primary convener of the San Diego Jewish community – mobilizing the community’s resources, leaders, and organizations to address the community’s most critical needs, creating profound impact locally, in Israel, and around the world.


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