April 16, 2024
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April 16, 2024
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A Trip to Israel Like No Other

Today was a totally different shiva call than the others … But first let me back up a bit.

I had the privilege of spending the last four weeks in Israel. What started as a celebration of Sukkot with our kids who are new olim to the Holy Land ended with a mixture of sadness and pride. Sadness over the tragedy of Oct. 7 and pride in our amazing nation.

We had never spent a Sukkot away from home and were swept up in the energy of Jerusalem preparing for the holiday. We saw marketplaces bustling with lulavim and etrogim for sale lining whole city blocks, and sukkot built on almost every patio and precariously suspended seemingly in midair. We watched throngs of people flooding the streets of the Old City, making their way to the Kotel for the Priestly Blessings, and Mark danced hand in hand with thousands of Chasidim in Mea Shearim.

A highlight of our Sukkot was a family reunion of all the descendants of Rav Duvid and Sarah Weiss (my great-grandparents). They emigrated from the town of Oswiecim (Auschwitz) to Brooklyn in 1934. A couple with 10 children (three of whom died in the Holocaust) who escaped from Poland to America whose descendants now numbered over 1,500. This made such an impression on me as I thought about how each person is a world, how this one couple with their strong beliefs and values created a dynasty which includes leaders, educators, professionals, Torah scholars, doctors, lawyers, farmers, artists and more.

As Sukkot was coming to an end, we celebrated Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah evening dancing joyously with our children and grandchildren with the Torah scrolls. At midnight, Mark went to the Kotel and danced with Chasidim, chayalim and students from Yeshivat Hakotel, celebrating our heritage and our Torah.

However, the next morning everything changed when the sheer joy of the holiday atmosphere was shattered with the wail of a siren at 8:15 a.m.. We had no idea where the safe room was in the apartment. We realized there was no safe room—so we went into the stairwell. We then had two more sirens in quick succession. We were nervous and felt alone. We wanted to go to shul to feel the power of numbers. As we got to shul another siren went off.

In shul everyone was in the maamad, the safe room (nursery room during the week) and they were singing Hallel. It was beautiful, sad and surreal. To be singing Hallel in a bomb shelter with paintings of cartoon characters on the wall. We spent the next few hours davening, singing and dancing in the main shul and periodically running into the safe room to continue davening there. There were many sirens. During one of the sirens, we left the room a bit early and watched the miracle of the Iron Dome intercepting a rocket in the sky, saving thousands of lives. We saw from the windows many chayalim with guns and knapsacks piling into cars. The rabbi pointed out how it is easy to praise God in the good times but especially now in this time of war we must call out and acknowledge that it is He who runs the world for what is ultimately the good. Many synagogues shortened the davening but we danced and sang. The next morning, as we heard the atrocities of what happened on our southern border, we were all devastated and felt somewhat paralyzed in fear and dismay. I kept thinking about how many worlds were destroyed, how many families were in anguish.

We were supposed to go spend the week with our children and grandchildren in their new home in Carmei Gat down south. However, after a short visit, seeing the army tanks present and the thundering booms shaking homes, we decided that we would feel more comfortable with my sister in the Gush. We invaded my amazing sister and brother-in-law’s home in Efrat, where we spent more than 10 days. There were 19 of us total at her house sleeping and eating every meal.

During those 10 days we watched a nation step up and pull together. As many men were called up for reserve duty, many daily chores and jobs that were usually carried out by these brave young men as well as the Arab workers who were no longer able to work in the Gush needed to get done. We volunteered picking grapes for the Gush Etzion Winery, stocked shelves in the local supermarket, made tzitzit for the soldiers, grilled at a barbecue on an army base for 250 soldiers, and cooked for a caterer who had no one to chop, fry and cook for three weddings.

We delivered cards and cookies to soldiers and watched as everyone stepped up by visiting those who were elderly and helping mothers who suddenly found themselves with five kids and a husband on the southern border. The people of Efrat housed families from Sderot and hosted a bar mitzvah for those displaced from their community. I went to the bris of a dear friend’s grandson. The nation was united, everyone doing what they could, no matter what their religious affiliation or political stances.

Unfortunately, we felt the need to make three shiva visits, all to people who lost children in the army. In the Jewish world we are all so closely knit that there is not a family who doesn’t know someone affected by this massacre. We visited the homes of massacre victims Roey Weiser, Yoav Malayev and Eliyahu Zeiring. We heard story after story about their lives and their army experience. We heard of acts of heroism to save others, about musical talents, and from best friends who lost soulmates.

After three weeks in Israel, I felt like I did what I could, and now I had to concentrate on my life back home. The rest of my family was safely back in New Jersey, and it was my turn to return. The morning of the flight I just couldn’t get on the plane. I couldn’t even check in online. Psychologically, I wasn’t ready to leave. There was more for me to do with my family. My children and grandchildren were ready to leave my sister’s home in Efrat and go home to the south and I wanted to go with them. I wanted to see their new home and their community. I wanted to be an Omi for my last few days here, I wanted to go to the park and push my grandkids on a swing. I wanted to see them settle into as normal a life as possible under the circumstances.

We had been there only a few hours when my daughter got a WhatsApp message in the Carmei Gat group that a woman was sitting shiva for her husband in a building nearby and had very few visitors. I decided to go.

The shiva call was a totally different shiva call than the others I had been to. Sharon Leibovich had been in the police force for over 20 years. His wife Sivan was sitting shiva in the lobby of a building nearby. They had five children ranging from 5-year-old twins (Ella and Nili) to an 18-year-old who was drafting into the army next month. They lived in Avshalom, a small community of 150 families near the Gaza border.

Sharon was working as a policeman at the music festival. When the first siren went off Shabbat morning Sivan got a text from her husband, “It’s all ok. We are just getting things in order here.” It was the last text she got from him. For an entire week she had no idea if he was taken hostage or killed. She wasn’t sure what she was hoping for.

Why was she in Carmei Gat? She was sitting shiva in the lobby of a building where someone gave her family an apartment to live in for a week. She and her family had nowhere to live as everyone from Avshalom was evacuated.

Why was this shiva different? The other shivas I went to were in homes with friends and family around. This shiva was totally different. Sivan had no friends around. She was surrounded by two sisters, a member of the Knesset and the rabbi of the town. Sivan has to find a place to live and continue being the caregiver and breadwinner for her family.

There are 1,400 shiva houses in the country since last Sunday. Every person has a story. When I left the shiva to play with my grandson in the park right outside the building I met 5-year-old twin girls playing in the park. One called to the other, Nili. I realized who these children were and I felt sick and distraught. My mind drifted back to my family reunion and how on Oct. 7 not only were 1,400 worlds destroyed but there were tens of thousands of potential lives that will never be. May the mourners of Zion be comforted and may all our soldiers and all Am Yisrael be safe. Am Yisrael Chai.

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