It has now been two and a half weeks since the Simchat Torah massacre, a day when our lives and the lives of every Jew around the world were forever altered. As I reflect on the past two and a half weeks amidst feelings of fear, uncertainty, anger and anxiety, I also have tremendous hope, respect and love for Am Yisrael and Eretz Yisrael. And I know that there is nowhere else that I would rather be.
On Thursday night, Oct. 5, Hoshanah Rabba, I went to see the new Har Etzion movie about the Yom Kippur War at the beginning of an all-night learning program at Heichal Shlomo. Never in my wildest nightmares could I imagine that another surprise attack, killing over 1,000 Jews, would take place again on a holy day. At the time, the movie was a history lesson for me, not something that could possibly happen in my lifetime–or so I thought.
I awoke Shabbat/Simchat Torah morning to a siren in Jerusalem, not realizing at first what the sound was since I had never experienced sirens in Israel. After running down to our mamad, (bomb shelter/safe room) three times that morning, I thought the sirens were over so I decided to go to shul for Simchat Torah. Of course everyone was talking about the situation in shul, especially because another five or six sirens went off while we were there. I remember hearing that 20 Jews had been killed, then later that day that 40 Jews had been murdered and some hostages taken, and I was horrified.
Little did we know that the number of deaths would climb by the hundreds and the stories of brutal killings of women, children and the elderly, kidnappings, beheadings and other horrible atrocities would consume our thoughts and become our worst nightmares. The realization of the scope of the terrible tragedy that had occurred hit us full force that night after Shabbat, when we turned on our phones and all of the horrendous images and reports of the massacre filled our screens and our minds.
Sunday morning found us still glued to our phones, but very soon the civilian population in Jerusalem and all around Israel jumped into action. By Sunday afternoon, my daughters and I were at a neighbor’s house with a group of 15 other women, baking and cooking for OneFamily, an amazing organization that assists victims of terror and their families. Since that first Sunday, we have been at OneFamily every day (with many other volunteers), helping wherever we are needed, cooking and baking for families in the North and South who are still in shelters and for all the families that were relocated, going through donations of clothing and sending them to those in need, visiting wounded people in hospitals, and bringing care packages and meals to relocated families in apartments around Jerusalem.
We have also been volunteering with Ohr Meir u’Bracha, under whose auspices we visited two army bases to give out camelbacks, tzitzit, pocket Tehillim, food, drinks and letters from children around the world. We went to show our support and pride for our chayalim and to give them chizuk, but I think they gave us more chizuk than we gave them. We went with a band of guitar players and singers, with whom we did a lot of cheering, singing and of course thanking the soldiers for protecting us and the land of Israel.
Over the past two weeks, I have been truly amazed at the amount of chesed that is going on in this country. I call it the “volunteer army.” Everyone is involved, from young to old, in whatever capacity they can. There are hundreds of people lining up to donate blood, people cooking and baking around the clock to give food to soldiers and relocated families from the North and South, people inviting families whose homes have been destroyed to live with them, children handing out candies and Israeli flags on street corners, teens making camps for kids whose fathers have been called up to the army, thousands of people showing up for funerals of lone soldiers and shiva calls to people who may not get enough visitors, hundreds of people making tzitzit for chayalim, people doing laundry for those who are hospitalized, Bnei Akiva members going to hospitals to clean because of missing workers–the list goes on and on.
My WhatsApp groups are full of opportunities to help out and often by the time I respond, even if it is within minutes, the need is already filled. I am truly in awe of this country and of my fellow Jews. We bring light and hope to the world by voluntarily doing many acts of kindness. And of course we daven. We daven for our six nephews, niece, numerous cousins and friends’ children who have been called to serve and for all of the chayalim and chayalot. There is no one in this country who doesn’t know someone who was called up. We also daven for all of those who have been kidnapped, including Hersh Goldberg-Polin, son of my brother’s high school friend Jon Polin.
Friends and family from abroad are constantly reaching out to see how we are doing, which we greatly appreciate. How are we doing? Physically we are fine, thank Hashem. Emotionally we, like everyone else, are heartbroken, angry, confused and yet very resilient. Are there days that we want to run back to the “safety” of our Teaneck house and life? Definitely. Especially when I see how much this affected our sweet daughter, Miri, who sleeps fully dressed every night in case a siren goes off, who won’t sleep alone in her room anymore and who jumps at every loud noise (even in her sleep). This once very independent teen who loved taking buses all over Israel, won’t take a bus or walk anywhere by herself. And she is a teenager who is experiencing this for the first time in the relative “safety” of Jerusalem, where we have 90 seconds to get to our safe room. I can’t even imagine what kids in the South must go through; they have only 15 seconds to get to a shelter after a siren, and they’ve gone through this so many times over the years. Now they have witnessed unspeakable atrocities that will likely haunt them for the rest of their lives, Hashem Yerachem.
Currently we are two and half weeks into what may be a very long war. Life in Jerusalem is slowly starting to come back to what I guess is the new normal. Unfortunately (or fortunately), Israelis are adept at returning to life after tragedy. Restaurants are busy, the malls are open, people are out walking and running, most elementary and high schools are back in session and traffic seems back to normal. Yet in light of the current situation, so many restaurants are still donating food to chayalim and displaced families, people are shopping for families from the North and South whose homes have been destroyed (or where it is still too dangerous to return), students are going to school in the morning and volunteering in the afternoons; in short, the new routine includes constant helping and giving. This is the beauty of our “volunteer army.”
For anyone coming to Israel or living here and looking for volunteer opportunities, please reach out to me. I am coordinating volunteer efforts on behalf of Areyvut (a Teaneck-based chesed organization) for a number of organizations in Israel. For everyone outside of Israel, thank you for all of your support, for sending so many supplies to Israel, for the pro-Israel rallies and of course for all theTehillim, prayers and learning on our behalf.
Please continue to daven for the chayalim, the wounded and the kidnapped. And speak out loudly against all the pro-Hamas activities taking place on college campuses and other places. As we all know, Hamas terrorists don’t just hate Israel and Jews, they hate Americans, Westerners and all non-Muslims. This is not just Israel’s fight. We must all do our part.
Elana Kaplan, museum educator and lecturer, is part of the Areyvut Israel staff.