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War hits home for Israelis in Tampa Bay. ‘We live it every moment.’

Last weekend’s attacks, followed by plans for a ground incursion, have locals worried about loved ones in their homeland.
 
Kfir Cohen, right, with his uncle Eli Belaish (left) and grandfather Nisim Belaish, in Jerusalem in late 2022. Cohen, who lives in Clearwater, came to the U.S. from Israel as a teenager, and most of his extended family still lives there.
Kfir Cohen, right, with his uncle Eli Belaish (left) and grandfather Nisim Belaish, in Jerusalem in late 2022. Cohen, who lives in Clearwater, came to the U.S. from Israel as a teenager, and most of his extended family still lives there. [ Courtesy of Kfir Cohen ]
Published Oct. 14, 2023|Updated Oct. 14, 2023

Anat Ezra woke at 5 a.m. last Saturday to a flurry of messages in the family WhatsApp chat. Talk of missile launches and bomb shelters — distressing but routine enough to get from her family in southern Israel, about an hour from the Gaza Strip.

Ezra, at home in Clearwater, soon realized something much bigger was happening as she opened an internet browser and read the news of the Hamas attacks. Then came devastating information from her sister: An uncle had gone in search of Ezra’s missing cousin, 26-year-old Noa Argemani, and wound up at a police station. An official showed him a video that would soon circulate around the globe, of Argemani wedged between Hamas militants on a motorbike. She was among those taken hostage at a music festival where militants killed hundreds.

Ezra, 54, was born and raised in Israel. She came to the United States in 2000. But she had been back home just weeks earlier, celebrating Rosh Hashana with her family. They prayed, she recalled Friday, “for a good year, for love, for peace.”

“And then the next moment …” she said, trailing off.

Noa Argemani, pictured in an undated family photo with her father, Jacob, was among the hostages taken by Hamas militants during an attack on a music festival in southern Israel. Her family, including cousin Anat Ezra, who lives in Clearwater, is pleading for her return.
Noa Argemani, pictured in an undated family photo with her father, Jacob, was among the hostages taken by Hamas militants during an attack on a music festival in southern Israel. Her family, including cousin Anat Ezra, who lives in Clearwater, is pleading for her return. [ Courtesy of Anat Ezra ]

For Ezra and others with family in Israel, the past week has been a gantlet of grief, worry and bad news. The war, from halfway across the world, feels ever-present. Ezra has been in the U.S. for a long time, she said, but Israel is next to her heart.

“What’s going on here and what’s going on there — we live it every moment,” she said.

To Kfir Cohen, 30, a Clearwater resident who moved from Israel at 13, the factors that make the war so personal for Israelis in America are bound up in the qualities that make the country special. Israel, he said, has a warm and welcoming spirit and is defined by its sense of community. Though more than 9 million people live there — including more than 7 million Jews — it feels like the kind of place where everyone knows everyone. Those bonds have both buttressed the nation and Jews across the world, Cohen said, and amplified the sense of tragedy.

“Every person I know either knows of someone who’s either dead, kidnapped, injured,” he said. “I may not know every person that died, but I feel like I’m a mourner as if my own brother or sister died.”

Most of Cohen’s extended family still lives in southern Israel, he said, including three teenage cousins who serve in the Israel Defense Forces. He heard from one of them, a secretary at an Israel Defense Forces command center, soon after casualty reports started emerging.

“They’re trying not to lower our spirit as a people,” he recalled her saying. “But I’m just telling you right now that what you’re hearing is a tenth of how bad it really is.”

Death tolls in both Israel and Gaza continued to climb throughout this week. After days of airstrikes on Gaza, Israeli forces appeared poised for a ground incursion. The country had ordered more than 1 million Palestinian civilians in the northern part of Gaza to evacuate. But such an evacuation is impossible to humanely carry out, the United Nations warned, and will create a “humanitarian catastrophe.”

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Cohen and Ezra expect more casualties in Israel and Gaza, and they can only hope their loved ones will come home alive.

Another of Cohen’s cousins is on the front lines. Ezra said her family doesn’t know Argemani’s whereabouts. A video released of her after her kidnapping shows her sipping water on a mattress in a nondescript room. It’s the only information they have for now.

“When I see (the airstrikes), I don’t know what to think,” Ezra said, referring to Gaza. “My cousin is important, and also all the other people — there are babies there and little kids and elderly people.”

Ezra’s mother, siblings and nieces have been confined to their homes since fighting began last week, she said. But they are not entertaining the possibility of fleeing the country, even if the war worsens and moves deeper into Israel.

“My family will not leave, no,” she said. “This is our country.”

Rabbi Levi Hodakov, the director of the Chabad of Clearwater orthodox synagogue, knows both Cohen and Ezra. He said one silver lining has emerged from the conflict so far: an unprecedented sense of unity among the Jewish diaspora. He’s seeing and hearing of it in ways large and small, he said.

In recent days, people who haven’t visited a synagogue in years have walked into his. He has heard rumblings that worldwide religious service attendance this weekend could top that of Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar.

“When we are united, God showers his blessings upon us,” Hodakov said, adding that he supports Israel’s role in the war and believes it’s Hamas’ responsibility to surrender and end the conflict.

“We are all connected. We are all part of one organism,” he said. “And when one person is hurt, God forbid, the other person feels it.”