2017-03-15 / Columns

Negev resident tells of life— the bitter and sweet—on the Gaza border

By JAYNE JACOVA FELD Voice staff


Michal Uziyahu (left) is pictured with JNF South Jersey Executive Board Member Helene Blumenfeld. Michal Uziyahu (left) is pictured with JNF South Jersey Executive Board Member Helene Blumenfeld. Michal Uziyahu describes life on the border of the Gaza Strip as “90 percent paradise and 10 percent hell.”

On most days, visitors to her farming community in Eshkol would observe happy people going about their business, carefree children playing outside and even happy dogs. The community is highly functioning despite the fact that residents must live in a constant state of alert, knowing that every trigger of the “code red” alert system starts the 15 second countdown to seek shelter before the next missile attack.

“When it’s bad, it’s bad,” Uziyahu, 39, told several dozen women gathered at Betsy Fischer’s Groove Lounge in Voorhees Mar. 8 for a Jewish National Fund (JNF) event intended both to raise funds for communities along the western Negev and for dancing the night away. “We are trying to make the 90 percent as heavenly as possible.” Earlier that day, Uziyahu spoke about the situation on the Gaza border to Federation leadership and staff.


Getting their groove on at the Jewish National Fund event were (front row, from left), Dara Gever, Diana Turek-Gever, Irene Sperling, Michal Uziyahu and Alise Panitch, and (middle row, from left), Gabrielle Abramson, Shelly Abramson, Phyllis Solomon, Elaine Waxman and Helene Blumenfeld, with (rear, from left), Cindy Silvert, Janet Gurvitch, Betsy Fischer, Diane Nussbaum and Julie Bannett. Getting their groove on at the Jewish National Fund event were (front row, from left), Dara Gever, Diana Turek-Gever, Irene Sperling, Michal Uziyahu and Alise Panitch, and (middle row, from left), Gabrielle Abramson, Shelly Abramson, Phyllis Solomon, Elaine Waxman and Helene Blumenfeld, with (rear, from left), Cindy Silvert, Janet Gurvitch, Betsy Fischer, Diane Nussbaum and Julie Bannett. The idea of combining high-energy dancing with an eyeopening talk about the realities of life at the doorsteps of the Hamascontrolled strip may sound incongruous. But to hear Uziyahu’s story is to understand how perfectly planned the night was.

“This is our life; the sweet and the bitter are always side by side,” said Uziyahu, who along with her husband Amir is raising her three children, ages 10 to 12, there. “Jews always say, ‘they tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat.’”

Uziyahu, the assistant to the mayor of the Eshkol Regional Council in Israel, is a liaison for her region to JNF, which has brought programs making it possible for residents to live well during the 90 percent time, such as fortifying the community resilience centers where people gather to learn coping skills. Fischer, head of the Sderot/Sha’ar haNegev Regional Council Task Force, became close to Uziyahu during her visits on JNF business.

Born and raised in a Sinai community that was returned to Egypt during her childhood, Uziyahu, along with her family, resettled on the Gaza border long before it was such a danger zone. After her stint in the Israeli army and obtaining an MBA from Ben Gurion University, she and her husband returned to the region to raise their own family.

When Israel left Gaza, she recalls feeling deeply sad for the many families that would be uprooted—so much like she had to do as child—but also supportive.

“I felt it was right thing to do,” she recalled. “We shouldn’t stay there; the army shouldn’t be in this area. We shouldn’t jeopardize these soldiers and the families living over there. We were hoping a new era would start now that they would have their own area, full self-determination and not one Jewish soul over there.”

But instead of devoting resources in their economy and children’s future, she said, Gaza invested in the hate industry. The missile attacks started up almost immediately.

Although firmly committed to staying put, she admitted that even she and her husband found their resolve shaken at times. Shortly after the second Lebanese war, when her twin boys were infants, the bombing was relentless. After a rocket directly hit her kibbutz community, she and her husband were not the only ones making plans to leave. But that was when the Israeli government stepped in, creating innovative resilience centers for communities along the border offering comprehensive group and individual therapy to all residents.

“The happy ending is that nobody left,” she noted. “On the contrary, more and more people are joining us.”

Around the time of the most recent Gaza war, her family was actually living in Boulder, Colorado, where she was working as a Shlichah, or Israeli emissary, to the region. It is only in America, when she is far from the danger, that she ever questions her choices.

“The problem for me started when I got lucky and was sent to Denver because suddenly I was among you, suddenly I see your children are different than mine,” Uziyahu said.

She recalled a conversation with one of her twins, five at the time, who pointed out that his new Jewish American friends will not have to serve in the Israeli army.

“I told him that’s right,” she said. “He then said, ‘I’m afraid to get hurt.’ I hugged him but I couldn’t promise him anything else.”

Instead, she told him about all the heroes in their family—from his great-grandparents down— who defended his homeland and that “one day it will be your turn.”

“We are lucky,” Uziyahu added. “We have a responsible government that spends billions of shekels on fortifying our homes and puts a lot of resources into supporting us, defending us and having a strong army. I have the Jewish army and I have the Jewish people. I know that when I don’t sleep at night, you don’t sleep at night. I know many of you carry on your cell phone the red alert. Every time a rocket falls, I get a text from Betsy. Palestinians don’t have this relationship with Diaspora Palestinians.”

As the program morphed into high energy dancing, Andy Friedman, a local Holocaust educator and ardent Zionist, observed Uziyahu dancing with the group like they were all old friends.

“Look at this great girl,” Friedman said. “You would never know she lived any differently than we do. I’m inspired and humbled by her. That’s my hero. American Jews need that kind of hero.” 

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