newsIsrael at War

‘No words’ for destruction from Hamas attacks, San Diego Federation head says

Heidi Gantwerk, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of San Diego, spoke with JNS about a trip the Federation planned to Israel for local leaders.

One of the ravaged communities in southern Israel visited by a group of Jewish leaders and clergy from San Diego, who traveled there in the wake of Hamas’s Oct. 7 terror attacks as part of a trip organized by the Jewish Federation of San Diego, Nov. 27-30, 2023. Photo by Guy Yechiely.
One of the ravaged communities in southern Israel visited by a group of Jewish leaders and clergy from San Diego, who traveled there in the wake of Hamas’s Oct. 7 terror attacks as part of a trip organized by the Jewish Federation of San Diego, Nov. 27-30, 2023. Photo by Guy Yechiely.

More than a dozen Jewish communal leaders and clergy from the Southern Californian city of San Diego traveled to Israel from Nov. 27 to Nov. 30 on a trip organized by the Jewish Federation of San Diego in solidarity with Israeli counterparts in the aftermath of Hamas’s Oct. 7 terror attacks.

“Why was it necessary now? To really see on the ground in Israel and to bear witness to what happened in Israel, so that we can continue to tell the story effectively and provide support for Israelis,” Heidi Gantwerk, president and CEO of the San Diego Federation, told JNS about the trip she led.

“There are no words to describe what we saw there,” she said. “These small homes are burned and riddled with bullets. Everywhere you look, you see a hairbrush or beer bottle or record album or earrings, or a sign on a door where a body has been retrieved. Just absolute devastation.”

Ingram Losner, CEO of Proven Recruiting, a San Diego-based executive headhunting firm with about 200 employees, found the trip harrowing. “So much has been challenging to process, just the enormity of it all,” he told JNS.

Meeting with three volunteers for ZAKA—the emergency-response organization that helps identify the remains of victims of terrorism, road accidents and other disasters—stood out in Losner’s mind.

“These are people who see the worst of the worst—the most tragic brutal situations going and putting the body parts together for proper burial. They perform one of the most important functions in Judaism,” he said. “To see these guys break down. These are experienced ZAKA guys that are broken down and can barely speak about what they witnessed.”

A group of Jewish leaders and clergy from San Diego traveled to Israel in the aftermath of Hamas’s Oct. 7 terror attacks as part of a trip organized by the Jewish Federation of San Diego, Nov. 27-30, 2023. Photo by Guy Yechiely.

‘It was very personal for me’

The delegation devoted time to San Diego’s “sister city” of 25 years, Sha’ar HaNegev, in southern Israel. The group visited temporary homes for evacuated communities, where they saw the resilience and determination of survivors of the Hamas terror attacks. 

Not only are physical structures being reconstructed, but Israelis need to rebuild their lives, heal emotional wounds and restore a sense of security, the San Diego visitors learned.

“The only thing they’re focused on is bringing the hostages back and defeating Hamas,” Losner said. “There’s no point in rebuilding if the people who are displaced from the communities and terrorized by Hamas—if they don’t want to move back because of the fear that this might happen again. Then rebuilding is irrelevant.”

A group of Jewish communal leaders and clergy from San Diego traveled to Israel in the aftermath of Hamas’s Oct. 7 terror attacks as part of a trip organized by the Jewish Federation of San Diego, where they met with Israeli President Isaac Herzog, Nov. 27-30, 2023. Photo by Guy Yechiely.

The group also met with Israeli President Isaac Herzog, and with Israeli military and other government leaders, during which time they learned about the Jewish state’s security and other challenges.

The delegation also bore witness to the Oct. 7 atrocities, meeting with survivors and relatives of Israelis who have either been released from Hamas captivity in Gaza or are still being held hostage there.

Gantwerk told JNS that the group saw burned homes and a mother looking for belongings of her daughter, who was released after being a hostage in Gaza.

A community in southern Israel visited by a group of Jewish leaders and clergy from San Diego, Nov. 27-30, 2023. Photo by Guy Yechiely.

“She came looking for anything,” Gantwerk said. “Anything she could retrieve that belonged to her daughter.”

Trip participant Debbie Kornberg, who owns the spice company Spice + Leaf and who teaches online cooking classes, told JNS that the entities throughout Israel are working together to support rebuilding efforts, including homes and businesses.

“Grassroots organizations are popping up all over the country. People are helping people rebuild and help with whatever is needed,” the San Diegan told JNS.

“Everybody is unified because of the hostages held in Gaza. Everyone is affected,” said Kornberg, noting that she knows some of the survivors of the Oct. 7 attacks. That said, “it was very personal for me.”

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