It was the lingering smell of death that disturbed Rabbi Jay Kornsgold as he walked through Kibbutz Kfar Aza, one of many settlements attacked by Hamas on Oct. 7.
Nearly 60 Israelis were killed and many others were kidnapped when Hamas terrorists rampaged through the small community, which is less than two miles from Israel’s border with the Gaza Strip.
“I can tell you, it smelled of death. There was a smell that wasn’t like anything I had smelled. It was a very strange smell. It was eerie,” Kornsgold said.
Kornsgold, who is the senior rabbi at Beth El Synagogue in East Windsor Township, recently returned from a visit to Israel and a tour of several sites of the Hamas terror attacks. He was one of 28 rabbis and lay leaders on the trip.
The purpose of the trip, which took place in early November, was two-fold. It was designed to show support for Israelis, and to bear witness to what happened in an effort to counter those who would deny it took place, Kornsgold said.
It was clear from the moment they walked off the plane in Israel that life was different, he said. Posters of hostages lined the walls of a long hallway in the airport, and there were many signs pointing to bomb shelters.
“On the (tour) buses, we put on helmets and bulletproof vests. As soon as we did that, the bus got silent. We stayed silent. It was really very emotional,” Kornsgold said.
The group visited Kibbutz Kfar Aza and the nearby city of Ofakim. They visited the Shura army base, where the bodies of the victims of the terror attacks were identified, he said.
They also went to the site of the Tribe of Nova music and dance festival, which was one of the first places that the terrorists attacked. They saw the burned-out and bullet-riddled cars of the festival goers.
“We saw for ourselves the atrocities (that occurred). We saw it with our own eyes. You hear about it, (but) to be able to see it makes it more real,” he said.
“I tried, when I walked through the kibbutz, to imagine what went on. ‘There are no words, there are no words,’ we kept saying,” Kornsgold said.
“Just to think that in 2023, people could be that cruel and do things beyond human understanding,” said Kornsgold, whose parents are Holocaust survivors.
The carnage of how the terrorists destroyed homes was devastating. There were bullet holes in the walls. People were yanked out of their homes. It was “utter, utter devastation,” he said.
As they were leaving Kibbutz Kfar Aza, they met a woman who had returned to check on her house. The Israel Defense Forces soldier accompanying them greeted her, and they stopped to talk.
The woman told them some stories about the people who had lived there. She pointed to a house where two little girls lived. She talked about all of the people she knew who lived there, he said.
“She was going through her house. These are real people who went through a tragedy. It was very emotional, very painful and very heart-wrenching,” Kornsgold said.
The group visited the Hadassah Medical Center and spoke to two women who had been injured in the attacks.
One woman was on a bus and was injured because she could not get to the shelter in time. The second woman was visiting an Israel Defense Forces army base with her family when it was attacked, he said.
“The general feeling in Israel is very unified. They cannot live this way anymore. Hamas has to be obliterated. We saw the border fence that was broken (by them). They literally came into a sovereign country,” he said.
Reflecting on recent events and the rise of antisemitism, Kornsgold said he has a “major concern that it has reared its ugly head again. It is the oldest hatred.”
“It seems like antisemites have come out of the closet, and that is cause for concern. It’s almost like they have been given permission to come out now. They had been quiet, but now it’s okay to come out,” he said.
But at the same time, Kornsgold said, “We as Jews have to continue to practice our religion. We have to be vigilant.”
Jews have to teach their children how to react when accusations are hurled at them – giving facts to respond and debunk myths, and to use the right language and right terminology, he said.
“Ultimately, it comes down to education. The people who protest, who are anti-Israel and pro-Hamas, do not know what they are protesting about. They are misinformed, but they don’t see it. They are focusing on part of the story without understanding the full story,” Kornsgold said.