The Filipino caretaker looked at the Hamas terrorist straight in the face and did not flinch.
“Hello, sir,” she said to him in Hebrew in the darkened secured room where she and her 95-year-old employer had been hiding for hours while their house in the kibbutz near the Gaza border was broken into and ransacked.
It was the climax of a morning of terror on the national nightmare that was Oct. 7 for southern Israel, when thousands of Hamas terrorists from Gaza overran nearly two dozen locations and would carry out the worst one-day attack on the Jewish people since the Holocaust.
It was just a day earlier that Camille Jesalva, 31, from the Philippines was enjoying a party at Kibbutz Nirim with her employer, Nitza Hefetz, marking 77 years since the communal farm’s founding in 1946. The two looked at photos together of past holidays that they had shared over the last four and half years since Jesalva began working for her, had a drink and celebrated together.
All of the caretakers at the kibbutz had gathered there and felt as one with the residents, she said. In a twist of fate, Jesalva was actually supposed to be on vacation in the Philippines but had postponed her departure to be at the kibbutz gathering, and then got delayed again finding a substitute to take her place.
Yet that night, Jesalva didn’t sleep well; she said she had a premonition something bad was about to happen. At 5 am, she was already totally awake — 90 minutes before the sirens would go off warning of incoming rocket fire.
Accustomed to years of intermittent rockets launched towards Israel from the Gaza Strip, the two women went into the safe room, thinking it was just a routine attack. But the red alerts kept coming, and Hefetz wanted breakfast. Jesalva ran to the kitchen to bring the easiest thing she could get as the elderly woman dozed off.
Hours went by. Then the electricity suddenly went out. Jesalva heard gunshots. She tiptoed around the house to see what was going on and noticed someone had broken in. She frantically messaged her employer’s son that she heard noises in the house, the door was ajar and the window open. Soon enough, she heard people speaking Arabic in the house; at first, she wondered if it was Israeli soldiers.
“They were so loud and noisy, I realized it was not the military,” she recalled in an interview with JNS.
Jesalva, who had worked in Dubai before coming to Israel, then understood that Arabs were in their home. And not friendly ones.
She messaged her mom in the Philippines that she didn’t know if she would survive and to send her a picture of her 6-year-old son.
“Before I closed my eyes, the last thing I wanted to see is my son,” she said, breaking into tears, the memory of that fateful day still fresh in her mind.
Four times, the terrorists would enter the house. At one point, she had to muffle Hefetz, who asked her if she was calling her son so that the attackers wouldn’t hear them. Hefetz saw that the caretaker was crying, so she quieted down.
But on the fourth attempt, a terrorist suddenly entered the safe room of the house, whose door did not completely shut, the flashlight from his cell phone illuminating the darkened room.
“Hello, sir,” Jesalva said to his face.
“Where is the money?” he asked.
The elderly woman woke up from the news. “Go home,” she told him. “Nitza, please be quiet,” the caretaker pleaded with her employer.
“She saw I was scared, so she shut up,” Jesalva recounted.
“I’m sorry, sir, she is old. She doesn’t know anything,” she told the attacker who had shown a flash of anger.
“Where is the money?”
Jesalva got her wallet off the table right in front of him and took out NIS 1,500 ($375) in cash — all the savings that she had amassed for her planned trip the following week to the Philippines.
“Please, sir, don’t take my passport or my ticket for my flight,” she urged.
“Is there more money?” he demanded.
“No,” she responded.
After searching the overturned house, she walked him to the door.
“Thank you, sir. I am closing the door now,” she told him. He nodded at her and walked out.
For the next two and half hours, she lay huddled in bed trembling and sobbing violently next to her employer, who clutched her and embraced her. “She had this look on her face. I love you,” she said, “and smiled like a doll.”
“If it wasn’t for Nitza, I would be dead,” she said.
“The whole house is broken,” she texted her employer’s son again at 12:28 pm. “They took all my money.”
But the two women escaped unscathed.
Later that afternoon, the Israel Defense Forces arrived and rescued the women, taking them to the very kibbutz social hall where they had attended the party a day earlier. On the way there, Jesalva saw burnt cars, bullet-riddled houses and other destruction from the hours-long attack. Families were separated at the dining hall. She realized they got off lucky.
Elsewhere in southern Israel, two Filipino caretakers were taken hostage by Hamas into Gaza while four were killed.
The next day, the women were taken to a hotel on the outskirts of Jerusalem.
“I kept asking myself: Am I alive, or maybe I’m dead?” she recounted.
The following day, they were brought to the Nofim Jerusalem assisted-living facility, where they were offered every possible care, and where Hefetz celebrated her 95th birthday.
“It was a new life for me and for her,” her caretaker said.
“We knew from the start that we were blessed with a wonderful and committed caretaker,” said Hefetz’s daughter, Anat Ben Moreh, 70. “Now we know that in addition to all her attributes, she is very courageous and quick-witted.”
For now, Jesalva has again postponed her trip to the Philippines until her employer gets more settled down.
“It’s all G-d’s will,” she said. “G-d gave me the strength.”