Like most everyone else, things changed dramatically for me after Oct. 7. However, for me the shift wasn’t simply on a personal or emotional level, but professionally as well. As someone privileged to work at major Jewish organizations — specifically World Mizrachi and Young Israel in Israel — the situation on the ground after Oct. 7 provided me with a unique way to help. I was given the opportunity to join, help facilitate, and ultimately lead many solidarity missions to Israel. To date, I have been a part of nine solidarity missions run through World Mizrachi, Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) and Emunah of America.
Such solidarity missions generally include a combination of visits with bereaved families, injured soldiers, families of hostages, displaced families, volunteer work, a barbecue with soldiers on the front lines, and one day down south seeing and hearing about the destruction that took place in the cities and yishuvim on the border. Each time I have taken part in these missions, I have found them to be powerful and moving, with each trip adding different nuances and experiences that make them unique.
But there is a clear message that seems to run throughout all these missions — a message often noticed and discussed by the participants of each mission — and a message that I have seen as well from living in Israel during these particularly challenging times: We are hurting, and we are strong — and that is not a contradiction.
As a nation and as a people, we are hurting. The sheer number of people in Medinat Yisrael and beyond that have been affected in direct ways by this attack and the ensuing war is staggering. And the different layers of impact beyond that is quite astonishing as well.
It’s worth revisiting all these layers in order to fully appreciate how this is affecting our country.
On the first level, there are those who were killed on either Oct. 7 or the ensuing war, both civilian and military personnel. Each of those kedoshim, aside from being a world unto themselves, was also a child, spouse, sibling, parent, cousin, friend, and more, creating a tremendous vacuum of loss for all those around them.
And those injured in the attacks or war, with varying levels of severity, their lives and the lives of those around them will never be the same. Surgeries, rehabilitation, adjustment to new physical limitations, and perhaps even dependence on others, are now a part of their changed realities.
And those taken hostage and their families — we obviously cannot fathom the experience of those who remain in captivity and the physical and emotional trauma they may be experiencing — something that may remain with them for the rest of their lives, even after B’ezrat Hashem they are released. We similarly cannot fathom the pain that their families continue to endure — the fear of the unknown and the continued worry and concern for their loved ones. It is safe to say that even those who have been released will live with the trauma for the rest of their lives.
And those who are still missing, or whose bodies have not yet been identified — again the unknown, the fear, the pain, is unimaginable.
And the thousands of families from the communities that were attacked yet managed to escape physically intact — the emotional impact of what these families experienced and what many of them were witness to, both young and old, will impact them for years to come.
And the ZAKA/Hatzalah/police/army personnel who were the first responders to the massacres of Oct. 7, aside from the dealing with the very real physical danger many of them were in and had to deal with, were the unimaginable sights that they saw and had to deal. Having heard just a few of them talk about their experience and the emotional toll it has taken on them, it is hard to understand how they will be able to return to their regular lives.
And some of those soldiers, b”H return home physically healthy but far from emotionally healthy. The stress and pressures of war, the burden and responsibilities placed on their shoulders, the unknown and intense nature of combat, the long time away from the physical and emotional comforts of home and family, actions they were forced to take and split-second decisions they were forced to make. They, too, return home in some way different than they were when they left.
And the tens of thousands of displaced people from the destroyed communities. Many of them have no home or community to return to: homes burnt completely, lifelong possessions destroyed, livelihoods shattered. For many, it will be years before they are able to return to the lives they once lived. The impact this has on the different members of these families is tremendous.
And the hundreds of thousands of displaced people whose communities are still standing but remain under physical threat — these families haven’t slept in their own homes or beds since Oct. 7 — no regular school, no regular home life, no proper schooling for the children, social, physical and emotional upheaval, a lack of clarity regarding the future.
And the hundreds of thousands of families who were not displaced but have been within range of the hundreds of rockets that Hamas has fired since Oct. 7. During the initial few weeks after the attack, families in these areas were forced to sleep and live within or close to their safe rooms out of fear of a rocket attack at any moment. School was canceled, parents were unable to go to work, and children were surrounded with fear, danger and constant talk of war and death. Children growing up thinking that seeing “booms” in the sky is normal. And this was for the lucky families that have actual safe rooms in their homes.
And our soldiers — the over 300,000 soldiers who were forced, on a dime, to put their lives on hold and run into war. Both those in regular service or those in reserves, those on the front lines in Gaza or up north. and those who are serving in other parts of the country to enable others to be on the front lines. They have had to put their lives on hold and push their dreams, future plans, parnasa and family needs aside. What they have seen at war: the images of death and horror, endangering their lives, dealing with the deaths of their comrades and friends. The pressures that have been placed upon them, the decisions they have had to make and sometimes the actions they have had to take, are simply incomprehensible to those of us back at home.
And the families of our soldiers — the spouses, children, parents, siblings, grandparents — who have also been forced to turn their lives upside down to enable their loved ones to protect us. The sleepless nights, the constant worry, the “jump” each time someone knocks on the door — these are all now part of their “new normal.” And in particular the impact on spouses who are now forced to take care of the children and all family needs alone, as well as the children, many of whom have gone months without seeing their parent and not knowing when he/she may return.
Suffice it to say that as a nation, we are suffering, in so many ways.
We are strong.
We are strong because during the horrific massacre, heroes appeared from all over, risking their lives to help and save as many people as possible. Hundreds of police, soldiers and civilians traveled directly into the lines of fire because they felt it was their duty and responsibility to do so.
We are strong because despite the last minute notice, the army had 130% reserve enlistment in the days after the tragedy, including thousands who returned from chutz la’aretz specifically to join.
We are strong because immediately after the events of Oct. 7, the entire country (and beyond) mobilized to help those most directly affected by the horrors and created hundreds of volunteer initiatives to care for those in need, continuing those efforts until today.
We are strong because despite all their challenges, our chayalim have displayed incredible courage, resolve and determination to do what must be done, no matter the personal cost to them.
We are strong because it is not only the chayalim themselves who have this resolve. but their parents, spouses and families share their resolve, amid all the pain and worry for their loved ones.
We are strong because we are witness to the superhuman gevura of the families who have lost loved ones, or whose loved ones are still in captivity.
We are strong because we learn and grow from the incredible lives of those who have perished, even as we mourn their passing.
We are strong because we have come together as a nation in ways thought impossible just weeks before. When we are united, we can overcome that much more.
We are strong because we realize that this war is about so much more than any one individual person — it is about the future of the Jewish people, the Jewish nation, and the Jewish future.
We are strong because of whom we have to lean on — our Father in Heaven.
We are hurting, and we are strong — and that is not a contradiction.
I have been privileged to hear Rav Doron Perez, chief executive at World Mizrachi, speak a few times regarding his experience as the father of a hostage soldier who also married off his other son soon after Oct. 7. He has shared often that one of the main messages he has learned from his experience is that a person is able to hold two contradictory emotions at the same time — he was able to both celebrate the wedding of his son Yonatan while also experiencing the pain of missing his son Daniel.
On some level, many of us have also been experiencing contradictory emotions: the pain and hurt of all that has been going on and the pride and strength of what our nation has accomplished.
I have been privileged the past few months to guide visits of missions to Har Herzl, the national military cemetery, and visit the graves of many of the soldiers killed since Oct. 7. As I begin the tour, I share that to my mind, Har Herzl is the epitome of these contradictory emotions. On the one hand, Har Herzl represents the height of pain and agony, burying a loved one killed in battle. On the other hand, the mountain also represents tremendous strength as we learn from the lives of these incredible heroes.
But what is it that allows the strength to overcome all the pain?
On Oct. 7 and the days that followed, I watched as tens of soldiers from my yishuv — husbands and sons called up on reserve — dropped everything they were doing and responded to the call to fight and protect our country without hesitation. I watched in awe as their parents and spouses took a minute to shed a tear, but then picked themselves back up and continued with their lives as much as possible. I was amazed — where do these soldiers and their families get the strength and courage?
As I considered the atmosphere in the country just weeks before, I was even more dumbfounded. How is it that so many individuals who last week could not tolerate or speak to those on the other political aisle from them, could so easily drop it all to fight together with those same people and under the direction/leadership of those same people, trusting them with their lives?
I believe that the answer lies in a fundamental perspective that is prevalent in Israel and is particularly reinforced in the army: the perspective that Yahadut and Am Yisrael are about much more than any one individual. This war is an existential war for the entire country of Medinat Yisrael, perhaps even for the diaspora Jewish communities as well. To take it a step further, this generation is but one link in the chain of history, a chain spanning thousands of years. This war is not simply about the existential threat to this generation, it is also about the continuation of the Jewish people and Jewish tradition for generations to come. When that perspective is taken, people are willing to risk their lives and those of their loved ones for the greater good. The more that we realize that we are part of something beyond ourselves, something greater than us, the greater the sacrifice we are willing to give.
We are hurting, and we are strong — and that is not a contradiction.