Paradise lost

Kibbutz Be’eri helped birth the Israeli nation. Then came Oct. 7

The pioneers came to make the desert bloom. Hafrachat hamidbar, that’s how they said it in Hebrew, and while Uri Hoter never used the phrase himself, he heard it often as a child.

By the time he was born in 1976, the kibbutz, known as Be’eri, had been around for 30 years. Its founding was legendary, not just among the pioneers, and not just in the kibbutz, but in Israel itself, because it was part of the founding story of the country.

Uri didn’t remember all the details. What he did remember was something called the White Paper, which laid out the laws of the land, back when the British were in charge. The law restricted where Jews could settle but had one strange loophole — that any settlement with a completed roof could not be torn down.

And so on Oct. 5, 1946, a group of 1,000 pioneers pushed into the desolate Negev desert under the cover of darkness. They fanned out in 300 trucks — loaded with mattresses, bed frames, fence posts and buckets of nails — until they arrived at what would one day be known as the 11 Points. They worked all night, and by the time the sun rose over the rocky soil, they had built 11 settlements. Be’eri was one of them.

The British weren’t happy, but according to their own laws, the settlements could not be destroyed. The pioneers knew Partition was coming — that the land would be divided between the Arabs and the Jews — and they figured if they could essentially lay claim to open land in the desert, it would be given to them. They were right: The 11 settlements would eventually help form Israel’s border.

Uri heard this story so many times as a child, he lost count. Its repetition underscored its importance. Within the insular kibbutz, he knew of no other version. He didn’t know others told the story quite differently, not of triumphant return and making the desert bloom, but of colonialism and conquest, of land theft and expulsion. Only later would he learn that the violence that would mark his life — the rocket attacks and the suicide bombings, the air raid sirens, the countless skirmishes in Gaza and the West Bank — had its roots in this story.

No, as a child, the story was not complex. It did not need to be told with caveats and apologies. It was simple and pure, like a folk story, or something from the Bible, perhaps the Book of Genesis, because it explained the beginning. The beginning of Be’eri, the beginning of Israel, the beginning of him.

Next year in Jerusalem. For centuries, Jews cried out these words during Passover, dreaming of a return to Jerusalem, but it was just that — a dream. At the turn of the 19th century, Jews from all over the world, inspired by the idea of a Jewish homeland, dropped coins into the Jewish National Fund’s Blue Boxes to buy land in Palestine, making the dream of Zionism real. By 1948, the year Israel became a state, waves of Jewish immigrants over the previous decades grew to a flood. They came from Iraq and Yemen, from Germany and Poland and Lithuania. Some were Holocaust survivors — 140,000 between 1948 and 1952 — and some were refugees fleeing Arab countries (nearly 1 million during this period).

The kibbutz, though, was a symbol of the Jewish people’s rebirth. By 1950, there were 214 in Israel, small communal villages. Because Jews had been prohibited from owning land in many of the countries from which they immigrated, to be a farmer was noble, to work the land sacred.

By the 1980s, the desert of Negev had truly bloomed: The homes in Be’eri were arranged in orderly rows, painted white with tile roofs. Life had also changed. The early settlers gathered every Yom Kippur to tell the story of the 11 settlements, how as children they chased lizards and butterflies, walked barefoot among the thorns to make their feet tough like the Bedouins. But those were the old stories. By the 1980s, life had become much more structured, like life in America: Uri had orchestra practice and basketball games. There was high school to prepare for and after that, mandatory military service and then college.

Uri Hoter-Ishay, who was born in Kibbutz Be’eri, was at his mother's house there during the Hamas attack on October 7. | Daniel Rolider for the Deseret News

Still, when Uri visited his uncles in Tel Aviv, he realized how unusual life in the kibbutz was, that Israel was modernizing and drifting from the socialist ideals upon which it had been founded. The kibbutz, it seemed, was 15 years behind. In the kibbutz, the TVs were still black and white. If a relative from Haifa or Be’er-Sheva called the rotary phone, which hung in the dining hall, you’d have to go fetch whoever they were calling, which sometimes could take half an hour. In the kibbutz, there was only one kind of shampoo. In fact, Uri thought conditioner was called Rinse because that’s the only brand the committee bought. He was fascinated by America, but felt like he lived in the Soviet Union.

He had one pair of shoes for summer and one for winter, and Uri looked forward to getting a new pair. It was a ceremony of sorts, a ritual, not quite like Passover or Hanukkah, but to Uri just as special. They’d go into the communal dining hall and pick their shoes from boxes, arranged by size. “Please let me get sneakers this year,” Uri would beg his mom, but she would always insist he pick sturdy work boots that would last all year. In the summer, he wore sandals. They were called Bible sandals because they looked like the sandals David once wore.

And yet, as impervious as Be’eri seemed, the world was seeping in, forcing the kibbutz to modernize. In 1985, the secretariat committee, which made all decisions for the kibbutz, voted to eliminate the children’s house. Since Degania, the first kibbutz in Israel, the children’s house had been a central feature of all kibbutzim. It had arisen partly out of necessity; to build a community in the swamps of Galilee or the craggy hills of Golan, all abled-bodied adults needed to be free to work, including the mothers. The children, then, lived in their own house, where they were taught and tended to by a nanny, or metapelet.

Uri didn’t mind living in the children’s house. He could only remember once or twice, when he was two or three, going out into the night and walking to his parents’ house, and through tears asking to sleep in their bed. His mother firmly said no and brought him back.

And yet, he grew to like the independence, and he grew to form strong bonds with the other children his age. They were like his brothers and sisters.

But other people hated it: Some moms refused to put their children there, and so, the kibbutz eliminated the house. This meant greatly expanding the size of the homes in Be’eri, to accommodate actual families. The decision came at a time of deep financial crisis for Israel, of crippling inflation. Many of the kibbutzim in the country, which had been propped up by government loans, could not pay their debts and collapsed.

Be’eri was different. It was much more than just a collective farm by 1985. It still had miles of fields, producing lemons, grapefruit, cotton and wheat, but its economic engine was a large printing facility, which printed all the driver’s licenses in the country and many of the credit cards. Most born into the kibbutz worked within its walls — Uri’s father worked for a time in the printing plant and his mother worked at the high school — but even those who worked outside the kibbutz still put their salary back into a communal pot. Because of this, and the success of the printing facility, Be’eri was rich. It didn’t just have a swimming pool like other kibbutzim; it had a tennis court, a fleet of over 100 cars and a fund that paid for the education of all children born on the kibbutz, all the way to a Ph.D. There was also money for vacations — a month in Australia, three weeks in Nepal and Tibet — and weddings, and parties, and jeep excursions into the Negev.

While other kibbutzim were declaring bankruptcy, or succumbing to privatization and the allure of capitalism, Be’eri flourished, and held to its founding principles. The entire kibbutz still shared its meals in a communal dining hall, gathered together for holidays, and cared for each other like a large family. Few left; in fact, there was a waiting list to get in.

Wandering the kibbutz on spring mornings, while his mother listened to Leonard Cohen records and the old men sat on porches smoking and reading the newspaper, Uri felt safe, like he was living within a walled garden.

But beyond the yellow gate of the village, there was another world, just five kilometers away. And in that world, something dangerous had begun to take root.

He saw the first wisps of smoke coming from the vents above him. Panic coursed through his body. The house was on fire.

In high school, Uri mostly hung out with kids from Be’eri, or other kibbutzniks in the area. Each year, volunteers from the U.K. and Holland would come to help in the garden or the fields, a sort of rite of passage for Jews outside of Israel. The volunteers lived in a row of small, cramped houses in a neglected part of the kibbutz, which was jokingly referred to as the ghetto. Uri was fascinated by them, but too shy to really become friends, too embarrassed of his English to have more than a fleeting association.

Daniel Rolider for the Deseret News

It wasn’t until he was 18, when he moved out of the kibbutz for the first time for military service, that his perspective really began to broaden. After the equivalent of basic training, he was selected for an elite intelligence unit stationed in Tel Aviv. Because everyone in Israel is required to serve in the military, most units include all social classes and backgrounds: poor kids from Jerusalem, devoutly religious men who wrap tefillin around the arm during morning prayers, the Tel Aviv upper crust. But Uri’s unit was different. It seemed to only include the well-educated of Israeli society.

Uri’s understanding of Israel, and its place in the world, expanded during this time. While he had always felt safe in Be’eri, he had known Israel had enemies. In 1980, when he was four, Palestinian terrorists had cut the fence on the border of Israel and Lebanon and snuck into a kibbutz called Misgav Am. They made their way to the children’s house, where they killed the kibbutz secretary and a two-year-old toddler and then snatched two babies from their cribs. They then headed to the second floor, where more children were sleeping. With these hostages, they barricaded themselves and a standoff with Israeli special forces ensued, climaxing the next day with the death of the terrorists and an Israeli soldier.

Everyone knew this story, but in Be’eri it felt remote. Now that he was in the military, he realized that while Israel was strong, and could defend itself, it was also surrounded by countries that wished it didn’t exist.

In the wake of the October 7 attack, weekly protests were staged at what became known as the hostages square, in front of Israel defense forces headquarters, including hundreds of empty chairs, representing hostages taken by Hamas. | Daniel Rolider for the Deseret News

Then came the Jaffa Road bombings. Early on the morning of Feb. 25, 1996, a bus exploded in Jerusalem, killing 17 civilians and nine Israeli soldiers. A week later, another suicide bomber boarded another bus on the same route, killing 16 civilians and three Israeli soldiers. The day after that, at the biggest shopping mall in Tel Aviv, another suicide bomber blew himself up, killing 13 and wounding 130 more. Three suicide bombings in nine days. The mastermind of the attacks was a man named Mohammed Deif, the eventual head of the Qassam Brigades, the military wing of the Islamist organization known as Hamas.

By the early 2000s, there were so many bus bombings in Tel Aviv that Uri began scanning the faces of those on the buses and looking for anything suspicious, like a bulky coat, or a large bag. Sometimes, he just had a feeling he shouldn’t get on, and that was enough.

By this point, Uri had finished his military service and was living in Haifa to attend college, where he was studying computer engineering. On weekends and holidays he returned to the kibbutz, which felt a world removed from the bus bombings and terror in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

Even though the kibbutz sat on the border from Gaza, he didn’t think it was a target, or even in danger. Many of the older kibbutzniks still communicated with Gazans who had once worked on the kibbutz, and still considered them friends. Be’eri included world-famous peace activists, like Vivian Silver, and they viewed the plight of the Palestinians with sympathy. Israel had become an occupying force in Gaza: With Egypt, it effectively controlled Gaza’s borders and did not allow it to operate an airport or seaport, crippling its economy. Israel cited security concerns as justification, but the blockade was devastating: Unemployment levels in Gaza were among the highest in the world, with 1.3 million people requiring food assistance. The kibbutz began collecting money and sending it to Gazans. They arranged rides for Palestinians to hospitals in Israel.

The people of Be’eri wanted a government that pushed for peace, not war, and even when Qassam rockets started landing near the kibbutz, they remained committed to peace. Sitting in bomb shelters, they reminded their children that the kids in Gaza were scared too, that it wasn’t the Palestinians who hated them; it was Hamas, a terrorist organization.

By 2006, Uri started to bristle at the demands of the kibbutz. He was 30 now, a full member, with all the privileges that entailed. Be’eri had become one of the wealthiest kibbutzim in all of Israel, and the days of having one pair of shoes and a pair of sandals were long gone. To live in Be’eri now was sort of like living in a country club, or a gated community, and a very nice one at that, with a long waiting list that essentially meant unless you were blood, or married the blood of the founders, you were not getting in.

And yet, he no longer wanted to have to run his decisions by someone else. In 2008, he asked to live in Tel Aviv for two years. The secretariat granted him permission, but this was a one-time thing, for the rest of his life. Once he came back, he could not leave again.

Daniel Rolider for the Deseret News

The bombings, the rockets, the mortar fire became routine. At work in Tel Aviv, Uri would continue his meetings while running to a bomb shelter. He’d be on the highway, driving to the kibbutz for the weekend, and suddenly he’d hear the air raid sirens. Everyone would pull over, get out, and lay down on the asphalt, until the sirens went off and then get back in their cars and carry on as if nothing had happened. In Tel Aviv, you had 90 seconds to get to a bomb shelter when the sirens sounded. In a kibbutz like Be’eri, which sat on the border of Gaza, you had 15 seconds. The rocket fire became so persistent, a site started in 2014 called From its launch until its last update in 2019, not a single month had passed without a rocket landing in Israel.

Uri spent 11 hours sheltered in a safe room with his mother and sister in their home at Be’eri, which sustained some of the worst destruction of the attack. | Daniel Rolider for the Deseret News

Uri decided not to return to Be’eri. He loved life in Tel Aviv — the art galleries, the restaurants, the nightlife. He needed culture. He’d grown up playing the drums and now he played in a band. He worked in the Tel Aviv tech sector and felt content with how his life had turned out. It was a far cry from the life of the pioneers, but in a way, he embodied the journey of Israel itself. Once a kibbutznik, he was now fully enmeshed in Israel’s future. Start-Up Nation, they called Israel. The Silicon Wadi.

He still returned regularly to the kibbutz to visit his parents, who had divorced when he was a child but remained in Be’eri, just in separate houses. He kept in close contact with the kids born in his year. Most had moved to the big cities of Israel — Tel Aviv and Haifa — but a few from his birth year still lived in the kibbutz, and were raising their kids there. They weren’t chasing lizards like the pioneers had, but the quiet, pastoral life persisted. There were still orchards and gardens of flowers. Nights of stargazing and bonfires. Hikes in the Negev and picnics on summer afternoons. Uri may have chosen a different life, but he still understood the allure of the kibbutz, why most of them had never left.

On Oct. 6, 2023, he left his apartment in downtown Tel Aviv before dusk. It would take him about an hour to drive to Be’eri. That night the kibbutz was holding a birthday party. It had been 77 years since the pioneers loaded up their trucks, set out into the desert, and built the 11 settlements. Tonight, the kibbutz would gather in the auditorium where they held concerts and screened movies. The children of the pioneers, now in their 70s and 80s, would take the stage to tell their origin story. They would tell stories of the war of independence, how people like Uri’s uncle, for whom he was named, had died to defend their new nation. And then they would sing the song of the night of the 11 settlements. They would remember how things had been, and how, in spite of how much Israel had changed, Be’eri had not changed so much.

After the event, they would spill out of the auditorium and linger by the water tower, or in front of the library and the swimming pool and chat late into the night, smiling, aglow, swapping old stories and memories of happy times, making each other laugh so hard they were crying, the way you do with friends who feel like family. And then they would stumble to their beds, with that warm feeling in your belly of being among those who love you most, behind the security of their yellow gate.

They would have no idea of the horror about to unfold.

His mother’s phone buzzed. It was the kibbutz app for all residents. “Suspected infiltration,” it read.

Uri was standing in the kitchen of his mother’s home drinking coffee when he heard the first bombs. It was Oct. 7, the morning after the party, just after 6:30 a.m. More bombs, more rockets. He sipped his coffee. This was unusual. His sister Noa, who was also staying at their mom’s house for the weekend, came into the kitchen. She was still in her pajamas.

“What’s going on?”

Uri shrugged. He had not heard the air raid siren. Some kind of military training exercise perhaps? Nothing to be worried about.

“I don’t know,” he said, reconsidering. “I think we are bombing Gaza, and if we are bombing Gaza, they are probably going to bomb us. Maybe let’s go down to the safe room just in case.”

Across the kibbutz, from phone to phone, WhatsApp was lighting up with messages. Two men on a motorbike wearing the green bandanas of Hamas had been spotted. They were carrying rifles. In Uri’s neighborhood, known as the Olives, pickup trucks loaded with gunmen from Gaza were arriving. What looked like Hamas commanders were giving instructions, not just to men dressed like soldiers, but to young men in polos and jeans, who carried machetes and knives.

At the yellow gate, two bearded men approached. They wore fatigues and body armor, like U.S. Special Forces. They moved cautiously, their rifles extended, the safety off, the trigger finger at the ready.

A car approached. The men slipped into the shadows. The sensor on the gate read the pass on the car’s dash, and the gate opened. The men in the fatigues reemerged and opened fire, the bullets ripping through the car and killing the two young men inside.

Unaware of what was happening outside his mother’s home, Uri had left the safe room, because the routine was to stay for a few minutes and then leave.

“I think I hear gunshots,” his mother said. Uri could hear them too. His mother’s phone buzzed. It was the kibbutz app for all residents. “Suspected infiltration,” it read.

Every home in Be’eri had a safe room of reinforced concrete and blast-proof windows. Because rocket attacks were so common, safe rooms doubled as bedrooms, typically for children. Most did not lock from the inside as a safety precaution: A safe room was designed to protect residents from a rocket attack, and if a rocket caused, say, your roof to cave in, rescuers needed to be able to open the door. This meant the only way to keep your safe room shut, if someone wanted to get in, was to hold the handle.

The attack rendered the houses in Kibbutz Be’eri uninhabitable, many permanently. | Daniel Rolider for the Deseret News

But the safe room in Uri’s mother’s house was unique. It had two doors, an exterior iron door and an internal wooden door. And the iron door locked from the inside

“We need to go to the safe room,” Uri told his sister. “Get mom.”

Once inside, they pushed a dresser against the door, another layer of security. Uri still wasn’t sure what was happening, but he figured they should not sit near the door or the window, where bullets could possibly hit them. As luck would have it, they also had a piano inside the safe room. He whispered to his sister that if they heard someone enter the house, they’d push the piano in front of the door too, making it nearly impossible to enter. Uri turned off the lights and shut the protective metal plating over the safe room’s one window. They were now in darkness.

Uri’s mom’s phone lit up. Another message from the kibbutz security team. They were handling the incident, they assured the kibbutz.

What no one knew, however, is that the head of the security force, a man named Arik Kraunik, had already been ambushed, about 100 meters from the kibbutz gate. He had the only key that opened the armory that held M16 rifles and ammunition. With no way to get inside the armory, the remaining six members of the security force had nothing more than handguns and single shot rifles. And not nearly enough ammunition. The army, meanwhile, was pinned down, and wouldn’t arrive for hours.

Across the kibbutz, gunmen were going door to door. They dragged old women from their homes and paraded them down the streets of the kibbutz and then stuffed them in the backs of trucks. Later in Gaza, social media would show Hamas soldiers returning with hostages. The body of a dead Israeli soldier was dragged from the bed of a truck and surrounded by a mob that stomped the corpse. A young woman taken hostage was pulled from the back of a dusty jeep, barefoot and cuffed. Her sweatpants were soaked in blood and blood trickled from her face and hands. “Allahu Akbar,” the crowd chanted.

In the safe room, the sound of gunfire was growing louder. The assailants were drawing closer.

Uri had decided that he would monitor incoming information and choose what to share with his mother and sister to keep them calm. His mother, who was 71, had gone into what seemed to Uri a dissociative state, but Noa was on the verge of a panic attack.

“Where’s the dog?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” Uri said. He realized they’d left their dog, a a spaniel named Luna, outside the safe room.

“We need to open the door to let her in.”

“No way,” Uri whispered. “The next time I’m going to open the door is when I know there’s an Israeli soldier on the other side.”

Uri could not figure out why the military had not yet arrived. It was 10 a.m. and they’d been in the safe room for three hours. He started to worry about his mother’s asthma. He knew she’d stay calm, even if the terrorists entered the house, but worried she might cough. He wanted to ask her if she had her medication but decided against it. If she didn’t have it, she might panic and start coughing and then they’d be discovered.

From phone to phone, on the kibbutz private messaging app and WhatsApp groups for mothers and teenagers, the messages were coming in a torrent of panic and disbelief.

Why is the army not coming?

We are going to die. I never thought we would die this way.

Several wounded: come quickly! Now! Please!

Dad, Carmel is taking his last breaths.

Please, please, please, please make it stop. They’re here.

And then came the sickening realization that the safe room wasn’t that safe, after all. When the terrorists could not break open a safe room door, they would set the house on fire, forcing the most hellish of Faustian bargains: Open the door and be kidnapped or killed, or burn alive.

Someone was knocking on their door loudly, yelling something in Arabic. Uri motioned for his sister to help him push the piano in front of the safe room door. When they finished, they retreated to a corner of the room where bullets couldn’t hit. Noa started trembling uncontrollably and tears were streaming down her face. Uri pulled her close. “Listen, listen, I think they are going to shoot at the safe door, and they might explode something. We need to stay quiet. Even if we are afraid.”

The sound of gunfire echoed through the safe room in a thunder. They were shooting at the door, as Uri had feared. Then he heard what sounded like a grenade explode. And then silence. Arguing. And then the men left and the house fell silent again.

Uri figured they had started a fire, but he wasn’t sure, so he put his hands against the safe room’s metal door to see if it was getting hot. He felt nothing. He turned on the light on his phone to see if any smoke was coming in under the door. Nothing. But moments later he saw the first wisps of smoke coming from the vents above him. Panic coursed through his body. The house was on fire.

Uri stripped off his shirt and held it against the crack between the safe room door and the floor, while Noa soaked her shirt in water and then held it against her nose. He instructed his mother to do the same and motioned for Noa to turn off the air conditioner, because it was circulating smoke into the safe room. They sat there for what felt like an hour. Miraculously, the fire went out.

As the hours passed, they heard more footsteps, but it sounded like people were simply ransacking the place. He heard voices talking in Arabic, arguing, and then the sounds of drawers opening and closing, furniture being upended, glass smashing. Laughter. For hours, people came and went.

Oct. 7 was the largest single-day massacre of Jews since the Holocaust. And no community in Israel lost more people than Be’eri.

Finally, after about 11 hours in the safe room, Uri heard the sound he’d been waiting for: Hebrew. He had already rehearsed what he would ask, knowing that terrorists had lured out other kibbutzniks by speaking in Hebrew and claiming to be soldiers. Uri would ask questions only fellow soldiers would know: What is your unit? What are the insignia on your uniform and what is your rank? But there was no need. The soldiers had spotted the family dog, which was hiding, and he could hear them talking about it. No terrorists would speak in Hebrew about a dog.

To be safe, he asked his rehearsed questions anyway and then explained to the soldiers that they had barricaded themselves in the safe room and they couldn’t open the door. Instead, they would jump out the window. Five soldiers waited for them below the window, one holding Luna in the crook of his arm, and told them it was safe to jump.

The Hamas terrorists had cut the electricity in the midafternoon, and now evening had fallen. It was hard to see anything, and homes were still burning. Off in the distance, on the other side of the kibbutz, gunfire cut through the air. The soldiers led them a few hundred yards from their neighborhood to the kibbutz cemetery and told them they’d have to wait there.

More than 100 residents of the kibbutz had been killed — roughly 1 in 10 members. Another 30 had gone missing. Through the black smoke, Uri could see little more than smoldering ruins. Cars belonging to the kibbutz were riddled with bullets. An Israeli tank was parked in front of the yellow gate. Corpses from terrorists and kibbutz members were strewn throughout the neighborhoods where Uri had played as a child. Soldiers instructed parents to shield their children’s eyes as they led them to safety. They would later report finding people who had been handcuffed and shot in the head.

At 7 p.m. — roughly 12 hours since the massacre began — the first buses arrived to take survivors to a resort at the Dead Sea.

The road from Be’eri to the Dead Sea cuts across most of Israel before arriving at the Judean Desert. It’s a journey through an empty and barren land of plateaus and deep wadis, with the occasional Bedouin village. There is a quality to it that is both serene and haunting. Suddenly, the road drops steeply until arriving at the Dead Sea, the lowest point on Earth.

When I arrived it was December, a few days after Hannukah, and brightly colored children’s bikes crowded the entrance to the resort in a messy pile. Since Oct. 7, most survivors from Be’eri had been living in the resort. I could hear high-pitched voices of children throughout the lobby and down by the restaurant, and bare feet slapping across the cool stone floors, as the children called out to each other in what seemed like improvised games.

In the weeks and months following the October 7 attack, most of the surviving Kibbutz Be’eri residents were housed in a resort at the Dead Sea. | Daniel Rolider for the Deseret News

Outside, the Dead Sea’s turquoise water, the soft breeze, the white sandy beach — it seemed almost cruel: an awful reminder of how beautiful life can be, how in another time the people who now made the resort home would be here to vacation, to laugh, to play games, to doze in the sunlight with warm sand at their feet. Now, there were Israeli flags hanging from balconies and the feeling was more of a way station between two realms of existence.

When they first arrived, members of the kibbutz hugged each other for so long and so often that one member, Michal Pinyan, told me she now thinks of it as “the hugging time.”

“We hugged like we never did before,” she said. “The first two weeks were full hugs with everyone.” She told me people often stood in the lobby, in hallways, holding each other and just sobbing.

Another member, Miri Gad Messika, told me she often watches her friends, people she grew up with, looking through the resort’s floor to ceiling windows to the pale blue waters of the Dead Sea, their eyes hollow. “We lost so many people. Most of them are my friends. My mother’s friends. My kids’ friends. I see children who lost their parents and are now alone, or parents who lost children. I see a woman, and I know who she’s lost, and it’s like she’s looking through you. She doesn’t even want your eyes to meet because her husband was murdered.”

I asked her how she copes with the loss.

“There is no way to process this,” she said. “It isn’t one person that you lost. It’s your entire community. It’s over 100 people. How do you begin to process what we’ve been through?”

Oct. 7 was the largest single-day massacre of Jews since the Holocaust. And no community in Israel lost more people than Be’eri.

What struck me most is that no one I talked to at the resort, or at Be’eri, blamed the people of Gaza. While their fury toward Hamas was palpable, they still expressed sympathy for the plight of the Gazans and wanted their government to find a way to live peacefully with them, rather than engage in an endless cycle of war.

An estimated 20,000 Palestinians had already been killed in Gaza amid Israel’s retaliatory response to the Oct. 7 attack (that number now exceeds 30,000) and 2 million had been displaced. Global observers had begun to call Israel’s incursion into Gaza a genocide and yet the Israeli military was pushing forward, reducing everything in its wake — apartment buildings, schools, mosques — to rubble.

“Every parent tells their children, ‘When you are 18 you won’t have to go to the army because we will not need an army because there will be peace,’” a man named Elad Kedar told me. “My parents told me this, and their parents told them. And we told our children.” He smiled ruefully. “We had that hope.”

Mostly, what people wanted was the return of the hostages. When I arrived, a cease-fire had just ended during which 105 hostages were released. Another 130 remain in captivity. The thought of them being trapped somewhere in Gaza seemed unbearable.

Today, Be’eri is in ruins. Where homes once stood, craters gape in the dirt. Bullet holes are everywhere: riddling refrigerators, pockmarking exterior walls, even shredding Israeli flags and picnic umbrellas. Houses have been reduced to charred husks. In one safe room I entered, everything was black, even a children’s white teddy bear covered in soot. Walls and floors were still thickly smeared with blood in some homes.

In the first week after the attacks, Uri slept in the hotel where his mother had been sent to in Tel Aviv (his father was sent to the Dead Sea resort, with most of the other kibbutz members). Uri said he still visits his mother every few days at the hotel, and every few weeks he goes down to the Dead Sea to see his dad and other kibbutz members.

He’s been back to his mother’s home in Be’eri four times, the first time with the army, just two weeks after the attack, to assess the wreckage. While the home sustained some fire damage, and his mother lost valuable jewelry, the home is largely intact. His father’s home is also in decent shape, although both need repairs before they will be livable.

The future of the kibbutz is in doubt, however. Most people I met at the Dead Sea told me they planned to go back, but in the ensuing months that resolve seemed to wither. People started leaving the resort in small groups, not to go back to Be’eri, but to start a life elsewhere. And while most do plan to return, they have no idea how long they will have to wait, or if they can ever truly feel safe living next to Gaza.

“We had our life taken from us, even though we are alive,” said Meyrav King. “And we’re really grateful we’re alive, but our life was taken from us. I mean, there’s nothing. It’s not just the house and the stuff in the house. It’s all our memories, our work, our friends, our family.”

The last time I talked to Uri, he stressed the kibbutz wasn’t perfect. I had been asking him about things I had read from obituaries of early members of Be’eri, their memories of gardens of oleander and falling asleep in orchards of peaches and plums. He grinned and shook his head gently. It wasn’t all chasing lizards and butterflies and looking at the stars, he told me. As children they could be a “bit nasty.”

And yet, when I asked him how he will remember Be’eri, he closed his eyes and a smile spread across his face. “There’s this time of year in Israel when the orange blossoms open and for some reason you can smell it across the whole country. And then the bees come, and you can hear the bees, and then the birds. In the kibbutz, that meant the arrival of summer, and that meant the swimming pool. Those long summer days.”

This story appears in the April 2024 issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.