OFAKIM, ISRAEL — In a bomb shelter festooned with Israeli flags and colorful plastic bunting, children who lost parents in the Hamas attacks on Israel danced, sang and ate jelly donuts, courtesy of a young Californian boy who forged an unlikely bond with the devastated community.
At the center of Thursday’s bittersweet Hanukkah celebration was 13-year-old Ori Ohayon, whose father, Moshe, 52, and older brother, Eliad, 23, were killed when they confronted militants storming their small, conservative hometown of Ofakim in southern Israel. His mom Sarit and siblings Amitai, Yair, Shira, and Uri also survived.
Moshe and Eliad were among 48 people killed in the community, according to officials in the city, which sits around 11 miles east of the Gaza Strip.
After NBC News first met Ori as it reported on the tragedy that befell Ofakim, 12-year-old Chayton Tecumseh, thousands of miles away in California, was inspired to take action.
And after reaching out to Ori, the pair communicated via video calls and text messages.
“There was something about the boy’s dad that reminded me of my own,” Chayton told NBC News by text message Wednesday. “The more I learned about Ori, and the heroic acts of his dad and brother, the more I felt his pain and loss,” he added.
After learning that Ori was about to celebrate his bar mitzvah — a Jewish rite of passage that marks a boy’s 13th birthday — Chayton, who is not Jewish, donated $745 from his allowance money for the event, which has not been held yet as Ori is still grieving for his family.
After that Chayton was determined to do more for other kids orphaned in the attacks, so he went on a charity drive. Working with Ori’s family, they identified 32 children and teens to support.
Mical Santhouse, Ori’s aunt, said the family received $3,200 from Chayton, to be distributed as gifts of toys for younger children and cash for the older teens.
“There’s a saying in Hebrew that says, ‘Even a smallest light can defeat great darkness,’” she said. “Chayton, by his kind doings, is lighting not just a small light, but gathering a lot of his friends to bring a lot of light for the kids in this community. So I’m more than thankful to him for that.”
For the next step, Santhouse said Chayton’s and Ori’s families want to elevate their efforts to connect other kids who have lost their parents to conflict with families around the world, to create the same kind of bond that the two boys formed.
“This can be a going on relationship where they keep in touch and, and write each other cards on their birthdays,” Santhouse said. “Just knowing that somebody out there is reaching out to you is very uplifting.”
Back in the bomb shelter, Naomi Haimov, a 25-year-old mother of two, tried to wrangle her children as they squirmed on her lap, tugged her arms, and darted back and forth, their lips covered in powdered sugar.
She said it was “hard” to talk to them about their father — her husband, Aharon — a medic who was shot and killed by Hamas gunmen as he sat in his ambulance.
Residents in Ofakim say the militants roamed the streets of the town, shooting at civilians as they ran to take cover. It was the farthest west that the fighters were able to reach in Israel after breaching a security fence surrounding the Gaza Strip.
Haimov said her kids asked about Aharon “a lot,” adding, “They miss him, I miss him very, very much, and I can’t even go back to the house I used to live.”
However, she said, “The fact that I am here with other people who were hurt and were with me during these difficult events gives us comfort with each other.”
Nearby, Ori, with long curls of hair dangling from his temples, watched a new video message from Chayton with his friends who had gathered round in plastic chairs.
“If there was something I would tell Ori,” said Chayton, who could be seen lounging in his pajama bottoms next to a Christmas tree with perfectly wrapped presents tucked underneath, “it would be happy Hanukkah, and I hope you have a good bar mitzvah, and maybe in the future we can meet and play some basketball.”
Ori said he’s grateful for everything Chayton and his family have done for him and so many other children grieving those they lost on Oct. 7. He added that he hoped the party, and Chayton’s gifts, would help to ease some of their pain.
“I miss them, I’m sad sometimes,” Ori said of his father and brother. “But I need to keep doing the things that I like and make these kids to be happy.”