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A miraculous escape

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Image: Tekuma synagogue

A Miraculous Escape

Wednesday, October 18, 2023

By Sara Lehmann

Everyone will always remember where they were when they first heard of the horrors of the Simchas Torah massacre in Israel. As more and more details of the carnage emerge, the unbearable tragedy comes into focus and personal faces take the place of statistics.

For those who survived the carnage, the trauma will haunt them for the rest of their lives. Then there are those who just barely escaped. One of them is Ronit Farkash, the Head of the Municipal Committee of Moshav Tekuma and assistant to Brigadier General (Res.) Amir Avivi.

Moshav Tekuma is a religious moshav in the Negev just seven kilometers from the Gaza border. While many moshavim and settlements nearby were terrorized, Moshav Tekuma was spared in a miraculous manner — the act of keeping Shabbos safeguarded their community. Introduced to me by the Israel Heritage Foundation, I spoke with Mrs. Farkash. In a heartfelt conversation, she shared details of her harrowing experience and describes how life on the moshav will never be the same.

Baruch Hashem, you and your family were spared on that fateful day. Can you begin by telling me about where you live in the Negev and how you came to be there?

We live in Moshav Tekuma. My maternal grandparents were Holocaust survivors and were among the people who established this moshav. My father made aliyah in 1975 from New York after he saw the Egyptians burning the Israeli flag during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and he married my mother in Israel.

Moshav Tekuma is the first religious moshav established in the Negev as part of 11 communities that were established in one night in 1946 on Motzoei Yom Kippur, when the British least expected it. The “Eleven Points in the Negev” were built under the directive of Ben Gurion to establish facts on the ground in Southern Israel, which had until then extended to Ashkelon.

My husband and I and our two older children  moved to Moshav Tekuma in 2004, one year before the evacuation of Gush Katif. It was very quiet then. We wanted the kids to have a green lawn and a big house. A year after the Disengagement, with the Israeli soldiers leaving the Gaza area, Hamas started shooting rockets. At first the rockets were very short range. They only reached 750 meters. Then one kilometer, then two kilometers. Very quickly they shot rockets with warheads and explosives. Each time we said okay, we can handle this. It just became worse and worse until today when we saw what came out of Gaza.

After the Disengagement, the Jews in Tekuma essentially became what the Jews in Gush Katif had been — the buffer. The buffer just moved up?

Yes, exactly. We became the buffer.

Would you have moved there had you known what was going to happen?

I don’t know. But having lived there while it was happening makes you more Zionistic. The area of this moshav is not something controversial like the territories, where some people may say it’s not okay to live. This is considered 100% Israel proper by everyone. I feel we should stay there.

Did it ever get to a point that for the safety of your family, you felt that you needed to move?

No, not for a second.

The international political outlook has until now focused on the so-called two-state solution and providing Gazans with financial and other support, including pressuring Israel to increase work permits for Gazans to enter Israel. After this massacre, how do you think this will change?

I heard someone say this week that you can’t feed a tiger and expect him not to devour you. It’s exactly the same thing. Gaza is a tiger. We keep feeding the people there, giving them permits to come and work, giving them electricity and the money from Qatar. Everyone spoke about building them a big port and giving them more money. They told them just be good and quiet and you’ll have financial prosperity. They want to feed the tiger but the tiger has no empathy or sympathy for you. It will simply devour you. That’s exactly what I feel. Everything that’s been done until now was in vain.

A captured Hamas terrorist was interviewed and said that they attacked now because Israel was weakened from internal strife. Do you agree?

It could be. Whenever the Jews have controversies such as those that we have experienced in the past year, it’s not a good sign. The turmoil of this past year has been out of the normal. But the dimensions of this tragedy are unfathomable. There are no words for it.

Tell me what happened to you on that day.

Usually on Shabbat morning I take our two watchdogs for a walk. I take them out very early, around 6:00 a.m. when other people aren’t awake yet. I walk with them on the outskirts of the moshav. The moshav is in a circle, and I go to where the fence is around a kilometer away from the moshav. After a half hour I start seeing rockets coming from Gaza one after the other, nonstop. I’m hysterical because I’m in an open area and the Iron Dome doesn’t usually work in open areas. It only works in dense areas because it costs around $30,000 to shoot down one rocket.

This is my worst nightmare. Had my moshav been a little closer to the border I wouldn’t be here today. The terrorists would have seen me immediately and come to kill me in a second because I was an open target. But at that time, I didn’t know that there was penetration of the border. I was scared of the rockets. I was running and screaming to people in the houses to open their doors for me.

But didn’t you mention before that you had gotten used to rockets being fired?

Yes, but we usually get notice the day before when we know the security situation is not good. We have security WhatsApp groups that direct us not to do certain things if the situation is getting more serious.

Is there usually a siren to alert you?

There was a siren, but you have less than 15 seconds to run, and I was a kilometer away.

I ran, and rockets were being fired all around. Afterwards we learned that some of those rockets reached Tel Aviv and Rechovot. I got into someone’s house and went into the shelter with the family. I didn’t carry a phone because it was Shabbat but they turned on the phone to the emergency WhatsApp group. It told us to stay in shelters. But the rockets didn’t stop. They continued.

Eventually I went to a friend right across the street who is the chairman of the moshav’s emergency group. She said, “You won’t believe it. There are penetrations at the border by terrorists all over. People should lock their doors.”

I tried repeatedly to call my husband and my daughters but they didn’t answer because it was Shabbat. Finally, I got hold of my daughter and told her to wake up her father. In the beginning he was angry. He said, “Why are you calling on Shabbat if it’s rockets?” I told him there were terrorists who came in.

Soon we began hearing that people are getting killed in Kfar Aza. The civilian security patrol there that have guns in Kfar Aza were slaughtered. All of them. They didn’t make it. They’re right on the fence by the border. It’s the most horrific thing. I have friends there and I found out that entire families were wiped out. My former boss’s two children were murdered and no one knows where she or her husband are. They were kidnapped to Gaza.

What happened to Moshav Tekuma?

All of our gates that allow cars in are always closed and locked on Shabbat. We also suffer a lot from thefts from nearby Bedouins. And when do they come? They come Friday nights because they know that we are a religious moshav. If a house is dark, nobody will be home until Motzoei Shabbat, so they know they have time to steal. This past Sukkot it was terrible — 10 houses were broken into. So we decided that, in addition to locking the gates to cars on Shabbat Simchat Torah, we were going to take extra security precautions and lock the gates that allow people to come in and out as well. Everything was locked.

The terrorists didn’t approach your moshav?

We looked at the camera system and we saw a white pickup truck with all the terrorists on the back passing by the gate. They went past our moshav. They were going to Netivot, the closest city. They also went to the left to Moshav Yachini. There the gate was open. We heard a lot of gunshots from there.

They passed by your moshav because your gate was closed for Shabbat?

Definitely. If the gate had been open, they would have come in for sure.

But didn’t they break through the Gaza border fence?

For that they had tractors. Over here they couldn’t get through the gate with a Jeep.

So Shabbat saved you?

Yes, I guess. There are no coincidences. The gate for the cars was locked because of Shabbat. And the gate for pedestrians was locked because of the theft that has been occurring specifically on Shabbat and holidays by Bedouin thieves who go in and out on foot.

How did you feel when all this was happening? What was going through your mind?

Hysteria. This is your worst nightmare. What can you do? The shelters that we have don’t have locks. They just have handles. If someone wants to come in, he can. That’s how they killed everyone in the shelters. The shelters protect you from rockets, but if there are terrorists, there is nothing you can do. And we didn’t have weapons. Now my husband wants to get a license for a gun.

The government seems to have taken control of Southern Israel for the most part. Are you still nervous about terrorists coming in?

Yes, definitely. Last week there were some in Ashdod and Ashkelon. In the moshav there are still announcements to stay indoors with locked doors. We don’t know how many came in and we don’t know how many are still in Israel. Some of them can manage to hide. I won’t go walking my dogs at 11:00 in the morning, let alone at 6:00 in the morning when it’s still dark. I won’t even hang laundry. There’s still a sense of fear.

My husband was drafted on Motzoei Shabbat and I felt I couldn’t stay in the house alone with my two youngest children. No way. Not when I can’t even lock the door of my shelter. I’m in Rechovot now with them. It was a gamble to leave. Everyone told us not to leave because there could be terrorists on the road and they’ll shoot at your car. But I took my two girls in the car and we fled. A drive of 50 minutes took us two and a half hours. Everyone was fleeing and there were roadblocks.

Do you think everyone is in agreement about what should be done now in Gaza?

Everyone feels that [Hamas in] Gaza should be wiped out. I have no pity on anyone in Gaza. I did before. Now I don’t … I don’t want any Israeli soldier to go inside Gaza. It’s very scary and dangerous because it’s built so densely. Haven’t we suffered enough losses? Over 1,200 Jews have [already] been killed. Why should we do that? And why should we blow up only [empty] buildings? We should just wipe [Hamas] out.

Do you think that in the aftermath of this tragedy Israel will be less concerned with public opinion?

I don’t know. I would think so, especially after Biden said, “We’re behind you.” And everyone is behind us. I hope the Israeli government will feel pressured by the people. Otherwise, no one will go and live there again. Families were wiped out. There are no houses. People were burned alive in their houses.

Do you think this will continue to unify the Israeli people?

I hope so. I keep getting messages on my moshavs WhatsApp group that there are so many offers for anyone who wants anything. There are free hotels, free accommodations, and everything else that’s free all over in Israel — Elad, Kiryat Ata, Haifa, wherever you want to go.

Mi k’amcha Yisrael. Hashem should watch over you, your family and all of Am Yisrael. Here in chutz laAretz we are all davening for you, going to rallies, sending donations and supplies. “Imo anochi be’tzarah.” You are not alone. We are with you.

Thank you.

Source for image of Tekuma synagogue: Wikimedia Commons, republished under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License.

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