Community members in Nitzana

A message from Ramat HaNegev during war: ‘We are counting on you.’

Oct 27, 2023 | Article, Newsletter

Itai Divinsky served as JEWISHcolorado’s shaliach (Israeli emissary) for four years and returned to Israel with his family last summer. Currently, he is Director of Partnerships and Resource Development at Nitzana, the educational community located in JEWISHcolorado’s partnership region of Ramat HaNegev (pictured above).

JEWISHcolorado’s first allocation of funds from the Israel Emergency Fund went to Nitzana. Recently, we talked with Itai about the events of October 7, the ways that JEWISHcolorado donors are helping, and the ongoing support Israel needs from the American community.

Itai, I have to start by asking, how are you and your family doing?

We are healthy and safe. We are as okay as one can be under the circumstances, and I am thankful for that, but in Hebrew, we have a saying—shlomi kishlom ami. It means “I am as my people are.” And right now, my people are not okay.

You live in a community in Ramat HaNegev with 27 other families. How were you alerted to the attack on October 7?

My eight-year-old daughter woke us up about 6:30 a.m. She said there were scary explosions outside. You have to understand, we are accustomed to rockets and explosions in the area, so we told her it was the IDF training—she should go back to bed. Then I looked at my wife and said, “The IDF does not train on Saturday morning.” I opened my phone and realized something was going on.

I went outside to alert my observant neighbors because I knew they would not have their phones. Before long, I saw men in their tallit getting ready to start holiday prayer services with their phones in their hands and that looked very strange. Within hours, these men were in their cars, leaving because they had been called to serve. Two-thirds of the men left. There were eight men, including me, left behind.

Did you have to leave your home to stay safe?

I never thought that in 2023 we would have to decide to either stay at home or leave because we cannot protect ourselves. But we are a small community with no fence, most of the men had been called to duty, no one here even carries a firearm. We could see from the news that the terrorists were in Israeli towns, and we had no idea how far they would go.

By the end of the day, we decided to evacuate to keep our families safe. Our family drove to my wife’s parents’ home. On the way, we saw a barrage of rockets being fired from Gaza into central Israel. In the night, you can clearly see the rockets, and it’s difficult to assess where they will hit. My 10-year-old and eight-year-old had a panic attack in the car because, in their minds, the rockets were going to hit the car.

I left my family behind and returned home. With two other men, we stood guard during the night without weapons. Later, 10 IDF soldiers and some volunteers arrived to help us. We realized then that we would have to defend ourselves.

Talking to you on Zoom, I can see you have something hanging on your shoulder.

Yes, this is what it is (holds up automatic weapon). Half the night, I am on guard duty. We were given firearms by the military and police. God forbid that I have to use this.

Itai Divinsky, former JEWISHcolorado shaliach

I have heard people say that everyone in Israel knows someone who has been kidnapped or killed.

I got a call a couple of hours ago from a friend. He is okay, but he said his two brothers were in Gaza. I said, “You mean on reserve duty?” He said, no, they were kidnapped. People in Colorado may remember Ron Segal, the educational leader who brought Ramat HaNegev high schoolers to visit Denver. We don’t know all the details, but his 78-year-old mother went outside to find shelter during the attack, and she was murdered. In the U.S., you have the term “seven degrees of separation.” In Israel since Black Saturday, it is two degrees of separation from tragedy.

The first allocation of JEWISHcolorado funds went to Nitzana where you work. Can you tell us more about Nitzana?

Nitzana is a special place. It is an educational community where teens and children go to school and where people also live. There are a variety of educational programs housed in Nitzana, including an elementary school and a boarding school with about 150 Bedouin boys. Since the war started, the boys were sent home, but these are difficult times for them. Some of their villages have no shelters, no alarms, so this situation presents a lot of challenges for the Bedouin population. We are working hard to bring them back to school where we can provide the care they need and keep them safe.

How are the JEWISHcolorado funds being put to good use at Nitzana?

The number of people being evacuated from their homes in the Gaza area and Northern Israel is unprecedented. In Nitzana, we have taken in 200 people. About 100 of those are olim—newly-arrived immigrants—who were living in Absorption Centers that were evacuated. Many are families with young children, and they don’t speak Hebrew, so this is a difficult time for them. The majority of these olim are from Ethiopia.

Included in the 200 are about 70 Christian asylum seekers from Eritrea. They are very poor, they don’t have official status, and so their situation is complicated. But at Nitzana, in accordance with our values, we didn’t think twice. Even before we knew there was support coming from JEWISHcolorado, we agreed to bring them here because they had nowhere else to go.

Children in Nitzana

We have another group of individuals who just don’t feel safe in their homes who have also come to Nitzana. Everyone is arriving with basically the clothes on their backs. Finally, on October 6, we were expecting a group of 110 young Russians and Ukrainians who were making Aliyah, to arrive. We made the decision that Aliyah does not stop, so they are slowly starting to arrive now.

With all these arrivals, we need mattresses, pillows, towels, blankets, and enough food to feed everyone three meals a day. We are also providing the children with educational programming. At first, it was just to entertain them, but now we are doing more formal education, so the children have something productive to do. We are also providing childcare so parents can get just a few hours of respite.

We know that these people who have come to Nitzana have nowhere else to turn. They really, really needed our help. The fact that we can say, “Yes, we will help regardless of your religion or ethnicity,” is largely due to JEWISHcolorado watching out for us.

What does the future look like to you?

Israel is dealing with what is perhaps the most difficult time in its history. I feel like we are back in the old days when we had to protect our families, our land, our lives. If we are not supported in our battle, it will be like the 1930s when countries did not go to war with the monster until it was too late. There are communities in Israel that were burned to the ground. There are communities that lost 30 percent of their population. Israel will need all the support she can get to rebuild.

On normal days, Nitzana prides itself on being a place where Jews and Muslims live together and love together. After a trauma like this, we must be proactive in a constructive way to continue to build bridges between Muslims and Jews. The children are deeply traumatized by what has happened, and in the future, there will be need for mental health care to support our students, our staff, and everyone in the Negev.

My plea to JEWISHcolorado would be, “We need you at this time. We are counting on you. With you by our side, we feel strong. We are confident we can get through this trauma, win the war, rebuild our communities and institutions that were destroyed, rebuild trust, and rebuild the lives of so many people who have been shattered.”

Contribute to JEWISHcolorado’s Israel Emergency Fund here.