As the eighth day of war waned in southern Israel, Rabbi Menachem Kutner sat in a flimsy caravan in Nitzan watching two young girls play a new game he had brought for them as a gift.
Tahal, nine years old, and her six year old sister Shir were in good spirits, but tired. At 2 a.m. their mother Gili had rushed them from their home to one of the many unused sewage pipes that serve as public bomb shelters in the village.
Their father David didn't have the strength to get up and seek shelter with them. Sirens blared almost hourly for nights on end and David still had to get up for work the next morning or be fired. He'd reached the point where he could barely move.
"These people have been living under a constant barrage of rocket fire for seven years, since they were expelled from their homes in Gush Katif,” the bloc of 17 Jewish villages in southern Gaza whose residents were evicted during the Gaza disengagement in 2005, Kutner explained. “It's very hard for them. It's heartbreaking.”
Kutner, director of the Chabad Terror Victims Project, a program of the Chabad-Lubavitch Youth Organization in Israel, went door to door in Nitzan with Rabbi Yigal Kirschenshaft of Kfar Chabad, distributing Emergency Children's Packages, while offering encouragement to parents.
Nitzan residents weren’t just experiencing fear, said Kutner, but resentment as well. Located in the isolated desert sands between Ashdod and Ashkelon, Nitzan had barely 100 residents prior to Israel’s disengagement from Gaza, when more than 750 families including thousands of children were relocated to Nitzan and housed in what were meant to be temporary caravans.
The caravans have not yet been replaced by permanent dwellings that would include, among other things, safety rooms. “These families are now under missile fire being launched from the very towns in Gaza where they once had lived, from the sites of their own former homes,” noted Kutner.
Kutner had very little sleep himself during Operation Pillar of Defense, traveling day and night with Chabad volunteers to bring inspiration and encouragement to residents where rockets have hit.
They came bearing gifts—packages containing toys, games, candies and children's books that were part of a project “Our Hearts are With You.”
Children living in the Israeli village of Kfar Chabad added personal letters of encouragement and handmade paintings to the gift packages for their besieged brethren in the south.
"Every day we sent out teams of Chabad Chassidim, and they went from one bomb shelter to the next distributing these packages, to areas where rockets were exploding and to shut-ins in their apartments,” explained Rabbi Yosef Aharonov, head of Tzeirei Chabad in Israel.
But gifts are not enough, Aharonov emphasized: “The most important thing is to personally show the love and concern that accompanies the package.”
Near the end of a very long day, a woman from Ramat Gan phoned Kutner just as he was leaving to head back to his office, asking him to pick up 100 packages of cakes and candy that she and her friends had prepared as gifts for the children of the south.
Although it was well into the evening, the rabbi changed course and headed for Ramat Gan. "How could I not?” he asked. “These women worked hard to bake for children who have been sitting in shelters hearing nothing but sirens every day for the past week. I had to do it, to give strength and encouragement to everyone."