As the Israeli army slogged through the Gaza Strip in the waning days of its three week offensive against Hamas targets, a delegation sponsored by the pro-Israel group Women in Green traveled to a location just beyond the fighting to strengthen the resolve of local residents. In the end, the multinational group of 50 returned strengthened, carrying a message of faith conquering all obstacles.

The Jan. 12 visit to the community of Nitzan – a village of temporary homes in the sand dunes south of Ashkelon built for Israeli families removed from established towns in Gaza after their government decided to unilaterally pull out from the territory in 2006 – was designed as a solidarity mission of sorts. The community’s residents, living in close proximity to the border, had become frequent targets of Palestinian rockets during Israel’s latest offensive, but because of the interim nature of their village, they lacked standard bomb shelters.

“We came to show support to our brothers and sisters,” activist Nadia Matar told the delegation. “We are here to spend our money in an effort to boost to the local economy.”

Turning to the security situation, she added: “They were expelled from their beautiful homes in [Gaza] and dumped into these cardboard boxes with rooftops. The only minimal protection they have from rocket fire is concrete sewage pipes.”

Nitzan resident Rachel Saperstein greeted the group outside of the “Orange Gallery,” a small store that features the work of local artists. During a tour of the community, Saperstein pointed out the pipes, which the Home Front Command had installed in the first days of Operation Cast Lead.

“I’m sure you’d rather be taking a tour of Fifth Avenue,” Saperstain said with a wry smile. “But these are the sites here in Nitzan.”

For his part, Rabbi Yigal Kirschenshaft, who ran the Chabad-Lubavitch center serving Gaza Strip communities up until his removal, saw in the makeshift shelters a message of being resilient. The children in Nitzan, he said, painted their own pictures on the pipes.

Walking through the makeshift shelter outside Rabbi Yigal Kirschenshaft’s home
Walking through the makeshift shelter outside Rabbi Yigal Kirschenshaft’s home

Faith Under Fire

“Our job is to turn things that don’t look so good into things that are good,” said Kirschenshaft, who continues to provide for the spiritual needs of former Gaza residents. “So we turned living with these pipes into a game for the kids. We let them decorate how they pleased.”

A host of locals popped out from their caravan-based homes to connect with the visitors.

“I wish you would come when things are quiet. It is a lovely community,” said Celia Goldstein.

When asked about keeping faith in these trying times, Goldstein lead a visitor to her dining room area.

“You see this?” she asked, pointing to an anti-tank missile mounted to a piece of wood. “This fell in our living room in [Gaza] in November of 2003. We were all home and no one was injured. It was like something out of a movie.

“It completely bypassed us,” she continued. “So, yes, times are hard and it is often scary, but it is difficult not to see G‑d in our lives.”

Kirschenshaft recalled that when Israel left Gaza in 2006, people predicted that it was only a matter of time before the Palestinians decided to ratchet up their attacks.

“We knew this would happen,” said the rabbi, “but if you know that everything comes from G‑d, then you understand that there is no bad in this world, only G‑d, only good.

“One can choose to live as though his glass is half empty,” he added, “or you can say ‘Thank G‑d! I’m alive!’ ”

“Faith is the basis of our existence,” echoed resident Liora Wechsler. “Everybody has it, but sometimes faith is harder to access. It’s like driving in the rain: Sometimes you need to turn on your windshield wipers to see more clearly, then when you do, everything seems more clear.

“It’s normal to have questions,” she continued. “I don’t always have the answers, but I always tell myself that we can only see part of the picture. G‑d sees the whole picture.”