By Mindy Stern, Guest column
Avi Freiman woke up on Saturday, at the usual time, leaving his small house at 5:45 a.m. to walk around the perimeter of his Kibbutz. It was Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath.
Sunday to Friday, Avi manages Kibbutz Alumim’s state-of-the-art dairy operation, near the border with Gaza. The dairy and its high-producing cows are Avi’s pride and joy. The kibbutz employed twenty-four agricultural workers from Thailand. On Saturdays, the Thai workers milk the cows so Alumim’s members can observe the Sabbath prohibition against work.
Early morning is Avi’s favorite time to walk, before the sun rises and begins baking the ground. But on October 7, he just wasn’t feeling motivated to walk. After ten minutes, he called it quits. That saved his life.
Turning around, he retraced his steps and entered his small, modest home at 6:10 a.m. Shula, his wife, was still sleeping. Pouring hot water over instant coffee, he sat down with the weekend newspaper and began reading.
At 6:15 a.m., Avi heard the rat-a-tat of machine gun fire. Residents of Southern Israel are accustomed to sirens warning them of incoming missiles, not gunshots. Something was terribly wrong. Shaking Shula awake, he grabbed their cellphones and ran to their secure room, bolting the door behind them. Their cellphones lit up with messages from other kibbutz members, on a group chat, confirming their fears. They were under attack by Hamas terrorists.
Thirty-two years ago, during the Gulf War, Iraq fired SCUD missiles with chemical warheads into Israel. After that attack, all new construction included the requirement of a “secure room,” built to prevent exposure to chemical weapons. Spending hours, or nights in their secure room became routine for Israelis after Hamas was elected and took control of the Gaza Strip in 2007. Most incoming missiles get shot down by the Iron Dome defense system, but rockets occasionally slip through, inflicting damage on southern communities, and invoking a constant state of anxiety.
Here on Mercer Island, my husband, Shlomo Freiman, woke me up at 6:30 a.m. “There’s a war going on in Israel,” he said. “It’s really bad.” It was 4:30 p.m. in Israel. We began calling our relatives, not sure who would pick up the phone on Shabbat.
Avi responded by text. “Shula and I are in the secure room. We can’t talk. Waiting for the army to come.” Later that day, I texted, “I know it sounds idiotic, but I’m worried about the cows. Must be too dangerous to milk them.”
“Situation at the dairy is bad,” he texted. “We can’t get there. Terrible damage. Worried about our own lives. It’s very hard. The dairy is my life’s work…”
It took the Israeli army over 24 hours to secure the kibbutz. House to house searches had to be conducted before our cousins were assured it was safe to emerge. Hamas shot Sixteen Thai workers to death. Eight were abducted, their whereabouts still unknown.
With the dairy barn boobytrapped by Hamas, four days passed before the surviving cows could be reached. They can never again give milk.
Our cousins and their kibbutz neighbors are now homeless. It will take years to rebuild what was destroyed. A Hamas document, found on the body of a terrorist, contains detailed maps of Kibbutz Alumim and explicit instructions to capture and murder its residents.
No mention was made of the cows.
Mindy Stern is a Mercer Island resident. She is writing a book about how she and her husband, Shlomo Freiman, met in Israel when they were kids, and fell in love years later.