June 2, 2023

Sagui Gavri: The heart healer from Kibbutz Nir Am - opinion

By Barbara Sofer

I ask him to write this story himself, but he waves it away. He’s busy treating children, doing research and writing medical papers.

But after the ceasefire of our most recent confrontation with Gaza, the one called Shield and Arrow, just going back to business as usual seems impossible to me. I’m standing in the lunch line at the Hadassah-University Medical Center, in Jerusalem’s Ein Kerem cafeteria. Dr. Sagui Gavri is in line, too. I have to ask him about his week.

Gavri is the head of the Department of Pediatric Cardiology in Jerusalem, but he lives on Kibbutz Nir Am, so close to Gaza that kibbutz members could hear the terrorists digging the attack tunnels under their homes before Israel developed the technology to stop the underground penetration into the kibbutz.

The young members of the Gordonia youth movement, followers of Aaron David Gordon’s philosophy of redeeming the Land of Israel through manual labor and revival of the Hebrew language, founded Nir Am. The would-be kibbutzniks worked as longshoremen in the Haifa port to earn their living before they received permission to move to the Western Negev.

They pitched their tents on Tu Bishvat. Among them were Gavri’s grandmother Yehudit and his well-known grandfather Ya’akov Gavri. Everyone called him Yanchik, or “the mukhtar” because he served for 40 years as a sort of unofficial mayor. Followed by his dogs, he rode a horse throughout the area to come up with solutions to problems.

On a Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund tour, you might see the metal silhouette of him on a hillside lookout near Nir Am. In the War of Independence, the kibbutz became the site of pre-state Israel’s military air base. On your table, you may have their stainless steel Michsaf cutlery made in the kibbutz factory.

Today, there are 400 residents. The kibbutz website makes it clear that they are eager to absorb new members.

But you’d have to be a special person to move there or, for that matter, to stay there as do Gavri, his wife and their two sons and Gavri’s parents.

During the five days of Operation Shield and Arrow, 1,469 rockets were launched toward Israel; 437 were shot down by the Iron Dome. Israeli planes flew over the kibbutz to enter Gaza.

Imagine living with Nir Am’s sound effects.

Living along the Gaza border


TWO YEARS ago, on May 6, 2021, when a previous round of violence broke out, Gavri was taking care of Jewish and Palestinian children with heart irregularities in Jerusalem. It took him longer than the usual hour and ten minutes to get home because he had to leave his car and hit the ground twice as rockets flew overhead. His children had gone to his parents’ house, which is also on Nir Am but a little better situated for getting away from the noise of the sirens and rockets.

Their two dogs – like his grandfather, these Gavris are dog lovers – were howling at the noise. The mother decided to stay with them overnight in the reinforced safe room. Sometime during the night, she got up to use the bathroom. Suddenly, she heard a familiar boom. When she stepped out of the bathroom, shards of glass pricked her bare feet.

Only then did she realize that their own house had been hit. The yard was incinerated, the windows were blown out, the roof was broken, the TV was smashed, but the dogs were okay in the safe room.

Looking back grimly at that day, Gavri says to me, “Our home is renovated, but we still have the emotional scars.”

When Operation Shield and Arrow began, this time the family left first to Jerusalem, then with other Nir Am families to hotels in Netanya, “Everywhere, the hospitality was wonderful,” he says. “We’re grateful.”

Nonetheless, it was a rough week, he tells me, I wondered how he felt about the concert in Tel Aviv while he and his family couldn’t live in their own home.

“I’m happy that the people in the center of Israel feel safe because it means the terrorists failed to inflict terror on the entire country. I wish Israel would treat the brutal attacks on my home with the same standard they respond with when Tel Aviv or Jerusalem is under attack. Unfortunately, we have gotten used to the shooting on Nir Am and Sderot and consider it acceptable.”

As soon as Operation Shield and Arrow was over, Gavri was back to work, talking to colleagues about ventricles, aortas and valves of small patients and which operations were necessary to repair them. He’s treated 730 Palestinian children, 200 from the Gaza Strip, with congenital heart disease, including many from Gaza City.

He’s also the head of a medical outreach project called Un Coeur Pour la Paix (One Heart for Peace). The project raises money among French Jews, the European Union and private donors to cover the cost of heart surgery at Israeli hospitals for Palestinian children. “You can’t blame the children,” is his motto.

You can see into Gaza from the hillside memorial to Grandpa Yanchik, who responded to the antisemitism of Eastern Europe by putting down his roots in the soil of the Negev and turning it green.

The trees that provide shade on the hillside were planted as each of his grandchildren was born. One, of course, was for Gavri. As a teen, he would ride alongside his grandfather and the dogs.

When he was 16, his grandfather told him what he would want written about him after he was gone: “Here lived, fought and dreamed the mukhtar, the ‘cowboy from Nir Am.’” You can see it on the landmark next time you visit the area.

The Gavri offspring are still heroically holding the land; living, fighting, healing and dreaming of peace.