Coloring in Ofakim

By Nava Ulmer

Vibrant pink and orange flowers climb the gates that secure the elementary school in Ofakim. A large Israeli flag waves us in, as the campus glows in sunshine and whose clear blue sky serves as a befitting backdrop for the laughter we hear skipping across the idyllic school playground.

Ofakim is a large town in Southern Israel, the furthest, by far (15.5 miles), from Gaza out of the 30 towns that were attacked by Hamas on Oct. 7. You might recognize it as the setting for the heroic story of Rachel Ederi, whose quick wit and slow-baked cookies distracted five terrorists until help arrived. 53 of her neighbors were murdered that day. 

For the first time on our mission, we were to meet with kids. However, we were not just meeting them in the context of Oct 7., but with the added knowledge that this school has a pre-existing partnership with YouthFuture, an essential nonprofit supported by UJF that supports youth at risk. Layers of trauma, we’ve learned, has become the Israeli norm.

Kids from the school came to color a large banner with us that would be hung up in their playground -  it read “Am Yisrael Chai.”

I chose to sit with a group of girls who looked the same age as my oldest son. My Hebrew isn’t great, but I wanted to try to talk with them, so I began asking softball questions like how old they were (9), how many siblings they had (one had a toddler brother whom they all agreed was very cute, and one had 4 siblings, of which the oldest and only boy was 19 and currently fighting in the war - she wrote many notes about strength on the banner). All the while we were talking, we kept coloring. 

Except for the girl on my left. Although she had been dedicatedly coloring this whole time, she had remained mostly silent. But, when there was a lull in conversation as we got more into our coloring, she suddenly asked me where I was from. I told her, “United States.” She then followed up asking, casually, if I have war in my city. 

The very innocent nature by which she asked what I knew to be an extremely loaded question  knocked the air out of me. Of course war was always on my mind here, but for the first time all trip I had assumed that topic was off limits, given that we were meeting with, well, children. 

Wondering how I was going to continue this important conversation in my minimal Hebrew, I slowly replied, “No.” She continued by commenting that she has war in hers. Still coloring. “I know,” I said. Pause. “That’s why I’m here.”

Then it was her turn to be surprised. She looked shocked. “But why did you come?” she asked.

My mind raced. Of course I had an answer, but I didn’t have the Hebrew vocabulary to extensively and appropriately answer this introspective young girl. To tell her how for the past four months, I’ve been physically aching to be with my people in our homeland, how I cried most nights while being far away in their time of terror, how I wanted to tell them in person how sorry I am that this is happening to them, how I wanted to hear their stories, hug them, and share their pain. 

So I said what I knew how to say, and what I felt captured the Truth, even in its perhaps over simplification. “Because I wanted to say hi and to say that I love you.” For the first time since our conversation had started, she stopped coloring. She turned to me, looked me in the eye, and broke out into a big smile.

And in that moment, my heart stopped aching for the first time since Oct 7, for a beat. And I prayed that hers did too.

And we continued coloring.

This is just one of the entries that will be included in the upcoming April issue of The New Jewish Voice, highlighting reflections from community members who recently took part in UJF's Solidarity Mission trip to Israel.