Kibbutz Kfar Aza took massive damage in the Oct. 7 attacks. (Photo/Courtesy Laura Lauder)
Kibbutz Kfar Aza took massive damage in the Oct. 7 attacks. (Photo/Courtesy Laura Lauder)

Devastation and signs of hope seen on Federation mission to Israel

Laura Lauder was stopped at the gate when she arrived at Kfar Aza, a kibbutz nearly destroyed in the Oct. 7 Hamas terror attack. With Israeli artillery booming in the distance, she and her companions were told to don flak jackets and bulletproof helmets as they exited their armored vehicle.

“That’s when it got real,” said Lauder, a Bay Area Jewish community activist and philanthropist. “We were going to a place where so many people were massacred.”

Lauder represented the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund on a Nov. 20-22 mission to Israel. The UJA-Federation of New York and Jewish Federations of North America organized the trip, which also included representatives from Ohio and Florida. Their goal was to determine how Federations can help Israelis recover from the shock of Oct. 7. The JFNA has raised more $650 million for Israel since the war began, including $19 million from the S.F. Federation.

“I was going to see with my own eyes what the needs were on the ground, to stand with Israel, to bear witness and assess the needs so I can report back to our local Federation in San Francisco,” she said. 

Lauder’s itinerary included meetings with government officials and survivors of the terror attack and a tour of Kfar Aza, which had a population of 950 before Oct. 7. On that day, Hamas murdered more than 60 residents and kidnapped 18, including 3-year-old Avigail Idan (who was released on Nov. 26). 

Laura Lauder at the Healing Space in Rishpon, Israel, a Trauma Center for the young people who survived the Oct. 7 Hamas massacre at the Nova music festival. (Photo/Courtesy Lauder)
Laura Lauder at the Healing Space in Rishpon, Israel, a trauma center for the young people who survived the Oct. 7 Hamas massacre at the Nova music festival. (Photo/Courtesy Lauder)

At the kibbutz, Lauder saw burned-out shells of homes and debris-strewn walkways. Her guide was Doron Almog, a retired Israel Defense Forces major-general and current chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel. Two members of his extended family perished at the kibbutz in the terror attack, and another four relatives were taken hostage. 

“From the front door of his family’s house, he told us such sorrowful stories,” Lauder recalled. “He described the kibbutz as very peaceful and pro-two-state-solution. Its people would go to the border and bring [Palestinian] children over for dialysis inside Israel.”

During the temporary cease-fire from Nov. 24 to 30, Hamas released Almog’s four family members, along with seven others from Kfar Aza.

Lauder heard horror stories, but she also heard tales of survival. Her group visited the Healing Space in Rishpon near Tel Aviv, which was founded by survivors of the Nova music festival, where hundreds were massacred and kidnapped by Hamas.

One of those stories was of two young Israelis who fled the festival as it came under attack. The pair ran frantically until they reached the ranch home of an Israeli Arab.

“He told them to come inside, and he hid them under the floorboards of his house,” Lauder recounted. “Some terrorists saw kids run in that direction and were driving around hunting them down. Two terrorists came upon that rancher and in Arabic said, ‘We think we saw kids run in this direction.’ The rancher lied to them and said he hadn’t seen them.” 

Our hotel was empty except for multiple floors full of refugees.

In Tel Aviv, Lauder noticed changes on the street in Israel as the war raged on. 

“There were no stores open,” she said. “Our hotel was empty except for multiple floors full of refugees.” More than 200,000 Israelis have been internally displaced from along both the Gaza border and the Lebanese border since Oct. 7.

“It was devastating,” she said of the situation. “And yet there were silver linings that were so uplifting. All the people who had been fighting the [government’s] judicial reform effort pivoted. The country unified around this horrible event. More than 50 percent of Israeli adults were volunteering. You could feel the tremendous commitment to patriotism, and that includes Israeli Arabs. The majority of them were shoulder to shoulder with so many Jewish Israelis.”

A meeting with former Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett was especially inspirational for Lauder. 

“He said to our group that Israel will re-emerge, and we will build the country better than ever,” she said. “This is an opportunity to reset, to reunify, to grow the democratic values of the country and make it the wonderful light unto the nations it was meant to be.”

A damaged building at Kibbutz Kfar Aza (Photo/Courtesy Laura Lauder)
A damaged building at Kibbutz Kfar Aza. (Photo/Courtesy Laura Lauder)

Lauder is an experienced hand when it comes to philanthropy. She is the immediate past chair of the Federation’s endowment committee and current member of the endowment executive committee. Earlier this year she received the Robert Sinton Award for Distinguished Leadership. She and her husband oversee the Laura and Gary Lauder Family Venture Philanthropy Fund.

As for determining how the Federation can help Israel, Lauder has an answer.

“We must provide them with trauma support,” she said. “We met with the founder of the Israel Trauma Coalition. The Federation system is focusing on trauma support. These are dollars well spent.”

Lauder added that she and her Federation colleagues expect to “double down” on several issues, including addressing ways to improve Jewish-Arab relations inside Israel.

“The relationship between Jews and Arabs inside Israel can get stronger,” she said. “We must invest in a shared society more than ever, and we need to support democracy. We can help support civil society and inclusivity for all Israelis.”

Now that she is back home in the South Peninsula and has had time to reflect, Lauder said her 48 hours in Israel became a “transformational trip that made such an impact” on all the participants. They witnessed the aftermath of the “most evil and heinous inclinations of human beings,” she said.

“And yet we also witnessed the beauty of unification and the determination to rise again. So I’m actually feeling very hopeful.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.