All through Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur I had been filled with a sense of dread from the nonstop protests that had set us against each other—religious against secular, right versus left, culminating in the shocking interruption of Kol Nidre prayers in Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Center by people who disapproved of its separate seating for men and women. For Jews to desecrate the most revered and awesome moment in the Jewish calendar indicated something had truly gone off the rails, I thought, tearing us apart and actualizing the ugly raised fist that was the symbol of the protests against the government’s judicial reform proposals.
One of my most heartfelt prayers was for God to bring us together again. But I never dreamed how that was going to be accomplished.
The first indication of the events that would change Israel forever came on the morning of Simchat Torah. As I walked to the synagogue, my 13-year-old grandson came running toward me. “There’s a war!” he said, his face red with exertion. He was going home to warn his mother.
I was skeptical. When I got to shul, however, I heard it repeated. Then someone whispered, “Hundreds are dead.”
It was impossible. Rockets kill one, two. Even exploding buses killed “only” dozens. Hundreds? Only after Shabbat when we turned on our phones did we find out the truth, an unimaginable scenario of invasion from Gaza of carloads of heavily armed, bloodthirsty Hamas terrorists who had blasted through our border defenses as if they were papier-mâché.
We sat in stunned silence as the Holocaust-like scenario slowly spread through our unwilling consciousness, forced by the incontestable, nightmarish evidence: a paradigm change of all we had depended on and believed about our security.
How could this have happened? Where was our army when people were beheaded and burnt alive? Where was our vaunted Mossad with its sophisticated electronic surveillance devices? Why did the terrorists encounter no resistance to its abductions?
Israelis have long been aware they are a lamb surrounded by wolves. What allowed us to build and nurture our families, create and flourish in our economy has always been the solid wall at our back: IDF. And now the unthinkable had happened. That wall, however briefly, had collapsed, allowing the barbarians next door to flood inside. We knew they were hate-filled, but even we were stunned by the depths of their depravity, their targeting of babies and children, the sick and elderly.
Their behavior was deliberate, not impulsive. Directives from a Hamas leader in Gaza, Sinwar, found on dead terrorists, laid it all out plainly. Their mission was to commit atrocities so terrible that Israeli society would collapse, and the Jews would all flee in fear. That is why they filmed and broadcast their atrocities, something even the Nazis were reluctant to do. The whole point for Hamas was to let us know what they’d done, even going so far as to use the iPhones of the murdered to film the killings and forward them to victims’ families.
By Monday and Tuesday, after the fog of horror and shock had partially lifted, we realized two things: One, that our people had been killed in the hundreds, or more, in the largest massacre since the Holocaust; and two, that were it not for the heroic, self-sacrificing efforts of many Israelis who put themselves on the firing line to help save their fellow citizens, the deaths would have been in the many thousands. The stockpile of devastating weaponry left behind by the terrorists leaves no doubt of that.
But if the purpose of the Hamas attack was to destroy Israeli society, it has accomplished the very opposite. From a warring and divided nation, they have managed to unite us as never before.
The stories we are hearing bear witness to the heroes all around us. Former General Noam Tibon holstering his pistol and jumping into his jeep along with Grandma Gali to rescue their surrounded son and grandchildren in Kibbutz Nahal Oz. The two sons of Rabbi Shmuel Slutzky, Noam and Yishai, young fathers and devoted husbands, who went straight from the synagogue to overrun Kibbutz Alumim to fight, who saved so many lives and lost their own.
Paramedic Amit Mann, 22, from Kibbutz Be’eri, who bravely faced down terrorists to care for the wounded, unwilling to leave, found murdered still wearing her sterile gloves. And new national heroine Rachel Edri, 65, held hostage by five terrorists for 17 hours, who charmed them into keeping her alive with cookies and tea, all the while communicating information to rescuers outside with hand signals, until she was rescued and the terrorists shot dead.
Less dramatic, but equally uplifting, is the new spirit of giving that has infused all of Israel. Calls for supplies for soldiers for everything from snacks to ceramic helmets and bulletproof vests have been answered in record time and in abundance. My grandson, Eilon, in uniform on the border, told us, “There is so much Bamba [a popular peanut snack] we can’t find our equipment.” Sergeant Amit Sharet, in charge of logistics for Platoon 98, says there isn’t any shortage of equipment in the IDF. “We had everything we needed, but we got a 130 percent response rate to our call up.”
Equally heartwarming has been the tremendous volunteerism to help displaced Israelis ousted from home by war. Everything from a place to live, to clothing, toys, baby equipment and food, Xboxes and computer equipment is on offer. Volunteers have also answered the call to help the milk cows of the shattered dairy farms in the kibbutzim in the “Gaza envelope”—as the area near the border is called—that have been left without food or milking machines. Elderly retirees from Ma’agan Michael, who haven’t milked a cow in 24 years, have come to the rescue, caring for the animals and saving the businesses for the return of their owners.
ZAKA, an organization made up mostly of volunteers from the haredi community, who pick up the dead and help prepare them for burial, has worked nonstop at the hardest job imaginable. And since the war began, 3,000 yeshiva students have asked to join the army.
Rabbi Shmuel Slutzky, who lost his two sons, perhaps said it best: “We have passed a very difficult year socially. The actions of my sons and many others willing to risk their lives to save their fellow Israelis shows we are one people. The way to restore our security, pride and national resilience is to accept devoted mutual responsibility for one another. I hope all of us will remember that mission.”