Atlanta forging ties with Kibbutz Nahal Oz evacuees

Nearly six months after Hamas and allied terrorists attacked Israel, the Atlanta Jewish community will be introduced to a new effort to support evacuated Israeli families.

Beginning the first week of April, two representatives from the Gaza border community of Kibbutz Nahal Oz will be in Atlanta to meet with rabbis, schools, and other Jewish organizations. Hundreds of people evacuated Nahal Oz and temporarily relocated to Kibbutz Mishmar Haemek in Yokne’am-Megiddo, Atlanta’s sister community. 

The Communities Together Initiative was launched by the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) a few weeks after the Oct. 7 massacre of some 1,200 people, the kidnapping of about 250, and the resulting ongoing war between Israel and Hamas.

“That night of Oct. 7, the first bus loads of members of Kibbutz Nahal Oz arrived in Kibbutz Mishmar Haemek,” said Rich Walter, chief of programs and grant-making at the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta.

The Federation has committed $375,000 from its Israel Emergency Fund to support the years-long project.

The 400 kibbutz members accounted for 80 to 90% of the 70-year-old kibbutz which suffered the deaths of 15 people. Two of the seven residents who were kidnapped from the kibbutz remain captive in Gaza. Blackened cars and houses still dot the kibbutz’s landscape.

The relocated Kibbutz Nahal Oz members are being financially supported by the Bazan energy company in Israel, said Walter. Communities Together is “not a welfare partnership,” but offers a way to strengthen ties between evacuated Israelis and the Atlanta Jewish community.

According to Susie Mackler, peoplehood manager at the Federation, students at the Atlanta Jewish Academy and the Weber School will meet with the two Kibbutz Nahal Oz leaders, Mirjam Heutnik and Naomi Petel Adler, as well as Eliad Eliyahu Ben Shushan, director of Yokneam Megiddo/Atlanta/St. Louis partnerships. The Israeli envoys will also meet with Melton students at the Marcus Jewish Community Center Atlanta, Emory Hillel students, and the Atlanta Rabbinic Association.

U.S. born Naomi Petel Adler and her husband moved from Jerusalem to Nahal Oz in 2017 where her two of her three sons were born. Photo provided.

Adler was born in Minneapolis to an American mother and an Israeli father. She was a baby when her family moved to Israel. The family moved from Jerusalem to Nahal Oz in 2017 where her two of three sons were born.

Heutnik and her family, including three children, moved to Israel nearly six years ago from the Netherlands.

Israeli towns and kibbutzim impacted by the October attack expect a long rehabilitation period.

“First thing after the attack, Israelis provided immediate needs such as food and clothing to the evacuated communities,” said Pnina Agenyahu, director of JAFI’s partnership global network in Israel.

Agenyahu said the project is for long term support, similar to a shiva when following a Jewish person’s death, friends and family gather for 30 days of mourning. Through this program the evacuees don’t feel abandoned, Agenyahu said.

“We are committed to this partnership for at least the next two years,” said Mackler. “We will continue to work with the leadership of Kibbutz Nahal Oz to create meaningful connections between our communities. This could include school partnerships, bringing kids to our summer camps, and connecting congregations. These collective elements will assist Nahal Oz as they embark on their long-term efforts of healing and recovery, and foster an ongoing sense of shared purpose through people-to-people relationships.”

Volunteers from the U.S. now pick oranges in the groves not far from Gaza, rather than Palestinian or foreign workers. Photo by Jan Jaben-Eilon.

A relationship between Nahal Oz and the Yokneam Megiddo region had already been established in a previous round of battle between Israel and Gaza in 2014, said Walter. The relationship between Atlanta, St. Louis, and the Israeli region has been around for some 30 years.

This project marks a change in the Atlanta-Yokneam Megiddo relationship, however. “We don’t see them as a junior partner but instead as an equal joint partner,” said Walter.

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