50 years later

50 years later

Local man remembers his time in the IDF during the Yom Kippur War

Avri Ravid
Avri Ravid

When you meet Avri Ravid at home in Leonia, you’re struck by how regular he seems. Normal, nice, offers you good espresso (the trick’s buying good-enough serious machines and knowing that you’ll have to replace them frequently, he said), sets out apples and dates and nuts to munch on because it’s the holiday season, and speaks calmly in entirely colloquial English.

Then he plays you a recording of himself from just about exactly 50 years ago, when he was a young reporter for the Israel Defense Force’s official news organization, stationed in the Golan. The voice on the tape is urgent but controlled. The news is breaking. The battle is ongoing. The situation is dire.

Back at home, his mother is listening. Her husband, an engineering consultant who rarely travels for work, is stuck in Europe; he had traveled there for work. She knows that one of her two sons is safe, at least for now, because she can hear him, but she has no idea about her other son, Gad, her only other child. (Avri has heard that his brother’s unit was decimated but doesn’t tell his mother until later, when he knows that Gadi has survived.)

Later, the Ravids learn that both their sons survived the Yom Kippur War, which began with a surprise attack, on the holiday, in 1973. The experience, for the Ravids as for so many other Israeli families, was terrifying, and it undercut some of the country’s belief in itself as unbeatable. About 2,800 Israelis were killed in the war, and about 8,800 were wounded, and it also scarred the nation’s psyche.

Avri Ravid reported on that war, and now, 50 years later, he looks back at it for us.

So if we are to see the war through his eyes, who is he?

Dr. S. Abraham Ravid is the Sy Syms Professor of Finance at Yeshiva University’s Sy Syms School of Business. His résumé is long and varied; to list just some of his credentials, before he got to YU, he was a full professor at Rutgers, and he’s held full-time visiting positions at Cornell, the University of Chicago, Wharton, Columbia, NYU, and UCLA. He’s a co-president of YU’s university-wide faculty council, chaired the finance department at Syms, and is president of the MFA, a general finance association.

Avri Ravid carries another candidate in officer training school in 1971. (All photos courtesy Dr. Abraham Ravid)

But that’s his second career. We’re going to focus on the first one, and what led up to it.

Dr. Ravid’s story is quintessentially Israeli.

He was born in Haifa in 1951. “On her father’s side, my mother was the nth generation” — too many generations to count, he means — “in Sfad,” the city of mystics. “My grandfather, Rabbi Shimon Shabtai, was well known. When they moved to Tel Aviv in the ’40s, he was on the rabbinical council there.

“About 15 years ago, my son and I went to Sfad, and they still remembered him there.

“My mother’s mother apparently was from Morocco, but we don’t know if she was born there.”

Although Dr. Ravid thinks it was surprising that his grandfather made this decision, Rabbi Shabtai allowed his daughter — that’s Sarah Shabtai, who became Dr. Ravid’s mother — “to volunteer in the British army in World War II,” he said. She was stationed in Egypt, where she became a radar operator. “She met most of her friends there,” he said. “She also picked up smoking there — she died pretty young, of lung cancer.”

Sarah Shabtai Ravid had strong political beliefs, and she worked on them. “My mother founded Beit HaGefen in Haifa,” he said. “She was very much for Arab-Jewish cooperation,” and that’s what the center, which is still ongoing, works toward. “She was on the board for many years. She also was involved in Israel’s Foreign Ministry, in a unit that helped women in developing countries.

A page from Dr. Ravid’s wartime diary.

“The thing that’s sad is that at one point, she was told that she would have to start traveling for this work, and she didn’t want to. We told her, ‘Just go! We’ll manage.’ But she said no, and that ended her career.”

His father, who was born Yitzhak Rabinowitz but Hebracized the family name, was born in Poland. “His family was rich,” Dr. Ravid said. “They owned a big factory and exported dinner jackets across Europe.

“But he had polio when he was young — he did well otherwise, but he limped throughout his life. His family sent him to England to study in the 1930s, to a school called Whitinghame College, and that is what saved him. The rest of the family didn’t make it. His mother was in the Warsaw Ghetto; she had a lot of opportunities to escape but missed them all and was sent to Treblinka instead. My grandfather, the story goes, tried to escape to Romania, but the Germans stopped him at the border.

“Because he had been an officer in World War I, the Germans offered him two options. They could send him to a concentration camp, or they could kill him then and there. And he said, ‘Kill me now.’” They did.

“My father went to Palestine by himself — he had a couple of uncles there. Then he went to the Technion, became and engineer, and he and my mother met and married in 1948.” There was a war going on. “They got married in Haifa, and my grandfather and uncles couldn’t get there. It was not safe to travel at that time.”

So, he summed up, “I’m half Ashkenazi and half Sephardi, and half of the Sephardi half is Moroccan. That covers all the bases.”

Avri was a student at the Reali School in Haifa; the school produced many well-known Israeli public figures. “Many did well,” Dr. Ravid said. He was a swimmer — he made the national-level swim team — “and I made movies, some for myself, some commissioned.”

Dr. S. Abraham Ravid of Leonia is the Sy Syms Professor of Finance at Yeshiva University’s Sy Syms School of Business.

Who would commission a movie from a high-school documentarian? “One was for the municipality,” Dr. Ravid said. “They wanted us to use a hidden camera to show litter in the street, and how you clean it.

“I don’t have that one anymore.

“The next one was for the school, celebrating its 50th anniversary.” The school was founded in 1913. “We still have that one. Some of the kids in it died in the war. And the third was because through friends, the University of Haifa, where I taught later, commissioned a film about the trends and feelings of the youth.

“That would be us, at that time. I made it into a plot, and I had a kid who was really good in the lead role. We made a significant amount of money from that one.”

Money? “I didn’t make the films to make money, but every time I got a commission, I used the money to upgrade my equipment. By the time I was 18, I had professional equipment.”

The other big thing to happen to Dr. Ravid when he was in high school was that “I was elected to be Israel’s representative to the World Youth Forum,” he said. “It’s organized by the U. S. State Department, and 40 to 50 countries participate.” Each country gets one delegate, who spends three months in the United States. “It was 1968. We met with the U.N. secretary general, U Thant, and we met senators. We went coast to coast, speaking in high schools.”

Dr. Ravid made friends from that program who still are his friends today. “One is a retired lawyer from Harvard, and one led Finland to join the European Union and then was the head of the central bank of Finland,” he said.

Dr. Ravid carries his helmet and his tape recorder near a personnel carrier during a lull in the fight in the Golan.

For another part of the trip, students went to different places to live with families. “I stayed with a Catholic family in Teaneck,” he said. “The other two families were Jewish. One was in Metuchen; the daughter there, who was my age, Pamela Rockman, is the mother of Chanan Weissman, who was President Biden’s liaison to the Jewish community last year. The other family was in Merrick, on Long Island; the son there is the lawyer from Harvard.”

One of the criteria for the delegates to the World Youth Forum is that they had to speak English. That wasn’t a problem for Dr. Ravid. “My parents each spoke seven languages,” he said. “My mother spoke many of them without an accent.”

The family spoke Hebrew at home, but both sons learned English early. “When my parents didn’t want us to understand what they were saying, first they spoke English.” That didn’t last long. “Then they switched to French, and then, finally, they switched to German.” That more or less worked. “I can carry on a light conversation in German, but not as well as in other languages.” Dr. Ravid is fluent in French and also speaks Arabic. “I took enhanced Arabic in high school, and I could read a newspaper and chat in Arabic — but unfortunately, there was not a lot of opportunity to practice it,” he said.

After high school, Avri Ravid, like most other Israeli boys, joined the Israel Defense Forces. As a documentarian and an aspiring journalist, he very much wanted to be assigned to the IDF’s radio network, the Galei Zahal. “If you get in there, most people get to high levels of the media in Israel. It’s very competitive, and I was interviewed, and I got in.

“But then the army said that I was too healthy — because, remember, I was a swimmer — so they wanted me to be in a combat unit. So I went to an artillery unit for six or seven months, I did boot camp and took basic artillery training.”

But Galei Zahal wanted him, “so they made a deal with the artillery. They said that they needed combat-ready journalists. So I spent a year as a correspondent in Gaza. In Israel, there is no quiet moment. That’s when they were throwing grenades at us, at the central Israeli command. We would drive there, and they would throw grenades at us and then disappear in the maze of alleys. You just wanted to make it there and back safely.

“Ariel Sharon was the head of the Southern Command then, and Meir Dagan, who later was a major general and the head of the Mossad, was a major then. He had a special unit trying to find terrorists. There had been a list of 100 terrorists; by the time I left, a year later, there were maybe 10 left on the list. We had a lot of conversations, and I remember him fondly; he was a very interesting person.

Dr. Ravid’s father, Yitzhak Jan Rabinowitz as he was then, in 1938, leans forward, second from right in the back row, in Whittinghame College in southern England.

“Another part of my job was to help the Israeli spokesman for the Gaza Strip. I met a lot of people from the U.N. and a lot of journalists there. One of the journalists worked for Kol Israel, the other radio network, and we became friends. He recruited me for Kol Israel years later, when I got out of the army.”

After that year, Dr. Ravid decided that “I wanted to do an officer training course,” he said. “I wanted to take the whole regular army path. It was a risk. I wanted to get back to Galei Zahal — there had been one precedent for someone doing that — so I became an antiaircraft officer. And then they did get me back to Galei Zahal for a year.” As a Tel Aviv-based editor, “I was responsible for two hours of broadcasting a day. It was mainly music, but I was responsible for everybody who said stuff on the air. I met a lot of interesting people that way — Israel’s major artists and politicians. I interviewed Leonard Cohen, Dizzy Gillespie, and Jose Feliciano.

“With several other people, I interviewed Ben-Gurion and Abba Eban. I went to Menachem Begin’s apartment to interview him when he was the head of the opposition — I was struck by how modest it was. That was a different breed than today’s politicians.”

And then history happened. On October 6, 1973, Egyptian forces attacked Israel from the south, and Syria attacked from the north.

“We actually knew about the war a day in advance,” Dr. Ravid said. “Galei Zahal didn’t know exactly what would happen, but there was a lot of information floating around. We had a lot of good sources. We knew that something very serious was brewing in the north.

“So when I went home for Yom Kippur, I brought an Uzi and a tape recorder with me.”

But even though the Israelis knew that something was happening, “we were convinced that we would have another lightning victory, like we did in 1967,” Dr. Ravid said.

Sara Shabtai Ravid stands with her two young sons; that’s Gadi on the left, and Avri.

In some ways, the Israelis’ confidence then was not unlike the Russians’ when they attacked Ukraine last February. The situations are entirely different — the Russians were the instigators and Ukraine was invaded, just as the Egyptians and the Syrians were the instigators and Israel was invaded — but the Russians were supremely confident that it would take just a few days before Ukraine would realize that resistance was futile, and they’d welcome the victors. The Israelis were sure that it would take just a few days to defeat the invaders; that they could defeat them now just as they defeated the armies that invaded them in 1968, in the Six-Day War.

But it didn’t work that way.

The sirens went off at 2 on Yom Kippur afternoon; “at 2:15 I got a call from Tel Aviv,” Dr. Ravid said. “My editor said, ‘Go to the Golan.’ So I collected two other reporters — we’d agreed in advance that we’d do this, so they were ready. I had a Fiat 600, a subcompact, and normally it would break down every time I tried to drive from Haifa to Tel Aviv. I was a good mechanic, so I could fix it. But thankfully, this time it didn’t break down.”

He hadn’t eaten. “My mother wanted me to break the fast before I left. ‘Who knows when you’ll eat,’ she said. But I said, ‘It’ll just be a couple of hours. I don’t want to break the fast.”

It was days before he ate.

“We picked up a hitchhiker, and about 30 years later I learned that he was a war hero; he fought alone against Syrian tanks.

“We went up to the Golan, and we had no clue what was going on. If you had asked me at 4 that afternoon how long it would last, I would have said give us a day.” The idea that this would last so long — 18 days — and that so many people would die — he didn’t think about it.

This is what the fight in the Golan looked like.

“We went to the command post at about 2 a.m. Nothing was working. An officer came in and said that the Syrians were everywhere, but we didn’t believe it.”

When the order for all nonessential personnel to leave the command post was given, most of the reporters had to go. Dr. Ravid went to the command post in Sfad. “I wrote in my diary that we were trying desperately to call and report what we could. Everyone was trying to connect.” But the phone network wasn’t up to the task, and not everyone could get through.

Dr. Ravid left his car in Sfad and went back up the Golan Heights in a personnel carrier. “At that point, we realized that things really were not going well,” he said. “We saw more and more people coming back burned. I remember a guy coming back, and there was a tank that was completely burned. He said, ‘Everything is okay. The commander is okay — except that he doesn’t have a head anymore.’”

Everything was changing, and the IDF had to readjust to what they were seeing. The task wasn’t helped by the fact that many of them hadn’t eaten since before Yom Kippur, a few days earlier. “We weren’t disoriented,” Dr. Ravid said. “We were focusing. But I knew that everything I thought I knew wasn’t right.

“I started to have the feeling that we actually might lose. What would stop the Syrians? They were very close. They took almost the whole Golan Heights. And I knew that if we lose, that will be the end of Israel.

“That was the first time I thought that. And then, you stop thinking it. You think, ‘Okay, let’s not think about it.’ You move on. You try to do the best you can.”

At one point, Dr. Ravid went up the mountain with a convoy carrying ammunition to the troops. “We saw two planes coming, and we saw bombs falling, and I thought, ‘Okay. It’s going to be quick. I’m not going to suffer. It will be a quick end.’ And then the bomb didn’t hit our truck, but it did hit another truck in our convoy, and everything blew up.

Avri Ravid stands between two other IDF soldiers in the Golan during the war.

“We kept going. We had to. We had to get the ammunition to the front.”

Some of the men couldn’t take it. “There was a guy who was supposed to go back, and he couldn’t. He kept saying ‘I am not going. I am not going.’ It was total PTSD. They had to drag him back.”

In fact, Dr. Ravid said, “there are now people coming out, 50 years later, saying that they had PTSD all this time.

Another horrible story — “One of the most frightening things for everybody was attacks by Katyusha rockets,” Dr. Ravid said. “They have a honeycomb — a lot of rockets are shot at the same time, and cover a large area. We were camping for the night, and I was standing next to a tank, talking to a guy, and then when we stopped talking, I walked away.

“All of a sudden, everything lights up. The noise was horrible. And the tank that I was standing next to was gone.

“I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t moved a few meters away. We had a lot of casualties,” including the man he’d just finished talking to.” Some of the men were badly burned; the others tried to get them out, “but there were no helicopters, and there was no hope.”

Life — and the war — went on.

Dr. Ravid and colleagues interview American singer Jose Feliciano, right, in 1973.

“I joined two generals, the commanding officers,” Dr. Ravid said. “The structure kind of broke down, with so many casualties. You thought you had a battalion, with 20 tanks, and then half of them are gone. So people were reformatting units.

“Those two commanders were very impressive. One of them was Dan Laner, a major general, and the other was another major general, Moshe Brill.” (Moshe Brill Hebraicized his name, becoming Moshe Bar-Kochba.) “They were very calm. The war then was a total disaster, and we heard that the south wasn’t doing too well either. But it was very calm. We would do what we could.

“One of the majors came in, and said to Laner, ‘We had to leave our cows. There isn’t enough food for the cows.’ And Laner said, ‘Okay. I will get some men to help with that.’

“They were both from a kibbutz, and they knew to take care of the farm. That no matter what, they had to take care of the farm. It was surreal.”

Dr. Ravid’s job “was to go up with the units, to tape, and to report,” he said. “I had access to the communications network in real time.

“As the war went on, things improved. After the first five or six days it was clear that we had made it. Now it was just a question of what would happen, but the immediate danger of the state being wiped out was over. It would take another two weeks for it to end — but you could breathe.”

At some point, Dr. Ravid learned that his brother still was alive, although much of his unit had been slaughtered. “He and several of his friends had been hiding behind enemy lines. They were in an artillery unit. They had big cannons — but the Syrians had tanks. Everyone thought that the fighting would be over in a few hours, so they could wait and then just go back.

In 1968, the World Youth Forum delegates, including Avri Ravid, meet with U.N. officials; here, Secretary General U Thant speaks to them.

“After two or three days went by and no one came back, they communicated with the unit — probably by radio‚ and they had a Jeep, so they went through enemy lines.”

Dr. Ravid had not told his parents that he was afraid that his brother had died. His father eventually made it back home. It had taken a long time for him to get a flight back to Israel, because all the seats on all the planes heading home were filled by Israelis rushing back to fight, and his father was too old. But eventually the family was reunited.

Dr. Gad Ravid, who earned a Ph.D. at the University of Toronto, “went back to Israel, worked in industry, and then went back to academia as a dean at Natanya Academic College. He’s now “founded a new Israeli/Chinese collaboration, which started during the pandemic and he’s trying to pick up and build.”

The war ended on October 25.

“After the war, things were really different,” Dr. Ravid said. He’d enlisted for 4 1/2 years, so he could begin college, studying part time. Once his term was up, he decided to leave the IDF to be a fulltime student, and graduate. Like just about all other IDF veterans, he was in the reserves, retiring as a captain.

He left journalism. “I did my Ph.D. in Cornell, in business economics,” he said. “I graduated in 1980. I went back to Israel to teach in Haifa University. But as soon as I saw my first paycheck, I said, ‘This can’t be right.’

“I started being a visiting professor in U.S. schools, and at Rutgers they made me an offer. They said, ‘We’ll hire you, and we will give you a lot of time to go back to Israel.

“My kids were born in the mid ’90s. We went back and forth a lot, but when they were born, my ex-wife and I — she’s also Israeli — had to make a decision about where to live.

“Rutgers gave me tenure, and we decided to stay here.”

Dr. Ravid has two children. Oren works for Microsoft in Seattle, and Sara works for an experiential marketing company.

In 2012, he went from Rutgers to YU, where he has been extremely busy. But no matter how much life has happened to him since, neither his memories nor the lessons of the Yom Kippur War have faded, and often its echoes resound.

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