While many Atlanta Jews and Israelis have deep connections to Israel and are reeling from the repercussions of the disastrous attack on the country on Saturday morning, Oct. 7, probably none are as directly impacted as Avishay Ben Zvi.
In Atlanta for more than a decade, Ben Zvi learned that day that his 80-year-old father, Amitai, was killed on Kibbutz Nir Oz during the massacre conducted by Hamas terrorists on more than 20 Israeli communities along the border with the Gaza strip that resulted in the deaths of at least 1,200 civilians.
As of Oct. 17, Ben Zvi said his father’s name was not yet officially listed as dead. “It takes time as they have a lot of bodies to identify,” he said. “We had evidence on Saturday that my father was killed.” His father’s Filipino caregiver managed to call a friend and tell her that “my father was shot and that he [himself] had been kidnapped” and apparently taken hostage to Gaza along with about 200 others – mostly civilians – that included citizens from the U.S. as well as many other countries. Ben Zvi’s father had Parkinson’s disease. “The kibbutz took the body from the house into a central frozen storage location,” said Ben Zvi.
“If he had died naturally on Oct. 6, it would have been easier,” said Ben Zvi, who grew up on the kibbutz which is less than two miles from the Gaza border. When he was growing up, he remembers going to the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Gaza. Of the 400 residents who lived on the kibbutz on Oct. 6, 78 are missing or kidnapped and 160 have been evacuated to Eilat. “It’s unclear about the rest but some of them may have been killed,” said Ben Zvi, who had his 50th birthday on Oct.15.
“We’re trying to help the residents because the government of Israel isn’t helping the evacuated people very much,” according to Ben Zvi. “I grew up with 11 people my age and all have either parents, kids or spouses who have either been killed or kidnapped. These are my extended family,” said Ben Zvi. When he got married nearly 25 years ago, 250 from the kibbutz attended the wedding. “I’m mostly worried and not sleeping because I’m worried about my extended family. We’re trying to raise donations to help them.” He added that they are also trying to help open a corridor into Gaza to get much-needed medication to the hostages.
Ben Zvi’s uncle, his father’s youngest brother, lives in Pittsburgh. Ben Zvi’s sister lives in California and his two brothers live in Israel. After spending a day in a shelter, one brother and his family drove north out of the area. The other brother lives in the northern part of Israel. In addition to his four children, Ben Zvi’s father had 10 grandchildren.
A former officer in the Israeli army, Ben Zvi has lived in Atlanta since 2012. He works in high tech. Both he, and his wife, Shirley, are now U.S. citizens. Along with their twin 12-year-old daughters, the couple have been among the Israelis who have protested in front of the Israeli consulate and at other metro locations, against the government’s moves to weaken Israel’s judicial system and place more power in the executive branch of government.
Since the war started on Oct. 7, those who have for months protested in support of Israel’s democracy have now redirected their attention and energies to helping Israelis in any way they can.
His wife, Shirley, is a couples and family therapist with a specialty in grief and has experience with trauma and anxiety. She said that she has opened her therapy door, virtually and in person, to the Atlanta Israeli-Jewish community to help them, in either English or Hebrew, pro bono. “I can see individuals, couples and families,” she wrote on a WhatsApp group.
Other Israelis in Atlanta have distributed fliers about the many hostages held captive in Gaza, among them many children and elderly and sick and injured. They are raising money to support whatever is needed by the hundreds of thousands of soldiers who have been called up into the army. Many of the Israelis have gathered in impromptu get-togethers to help support each other.
“Over the past year, a network of Israelis and Jews organized in Atlanta, and elsewhere in the U.S. and around the world to show their concern” over the direction of the current Israeli government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said Israeli-born Atlantan Dotan Harpak. “Following Oct. 7, this group quickly mobilized to support those impacted by the war, especially in light of the government not fully functioning as needed. Thousands have mobilized and are doing everything to support them.”