It’s war

It’s war

A few of the very many stories that local people are telling

ON THE COVER: An Israeli soldier stands in the ruins of Kibbutz Kfar Aza, near the Israeli-Gaza border, on October 10, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)
ON THE COVER: An Israeli soldier stands in the ruins of Kibbutz Kfar Aza, near the Israeli-Gaza border, on October 10, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)
A rocket fired from Gaza into Southern Israel hit and caused damaged in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon on October 7, 2023. (Erik Marmor/Flash90)

Many local people have strong ties to Israel. As the brutal invasion continued, many of them were in near-constant contact with their friends and families there.

We present a few of the very many stories that local people are telling.

We do so because we know that every person has a story, and every life matters. Everyone reacts differently to trauma and evil; we should listen as well to the stories of people who were not directly affected but have had their most basic assumptions about trust and safety and hope upended.

Here are a very few of the many stories coming out of Israel.

Hayley Nagelberg

Allison’s story

My husband and I woke up early Saturday morning to a two-word WhatsApp text from our daughter, Hayley, who is serving as an officer in the Israel Defense Forces. The text simply said, “We’re ok.”

Those two little words packed an enormous punch.  What had happened in Israel while we were sleeping in blissful ignorance?

Hayley made aliyah to serve in the IDF over four years ago. She lived on Kibbutz Urim in the south of Israel — just a few miles from Gaza — for over a year, and then she moved to Ramat Gan, near Tel Aviv. During Operation Guardian of the Walls in May 2021, we also woke up to her WhatsApp text with those two words, “I’m okay.” A rocket had landed a block from her home, shattering all the windows in her apartment, and killing one person outside. She made many trips to the bomb shelter during those perilous days, but thankfully she was not harmed.

I have seen the shell of this neighboring building, which took a direct hit from a Hamas rocket.  I have seen its proximity to where she lives. Had that rocket taken a slightly different path, had her building not had a safe room, had Iron Dome failed to intercept as many rockets as it did, I might be writing about a very different outcome. That operation was our first exposure, as parents of a Lone Soldier, to the indiscriminate rocket-fire that Israelis experience all too frequently.  With typical Israeli resilience, her friends helped her sweep up the glass and provided housing when she had none, and her landlord made sure that the glass was restored within a week. For most of Israel, life soon went back to normal.  But Israelis do not have the luxury of being complacent.

This past weekend, immediately after receiving Hayley’s text reassuring us that she was fine, we received another text from her about her host dad in Kibbutz Urim. He is a wonderful man who, together with his family, not only opened his heart and home to her and many other Lone Soldiers; he has invited me to dinner and kibbutz events whenever I’ve been in Israel. She texted, “He was shot in the hands by terrorists in Sderot and is on the way to the hospital — he says he is ok. Dozens of terrorists have infiltrated Israel from land and sky and have taken over kibbutzim, they stole cars and drove around shooting — he was on a bike and a car drove by and shot at him. There are lots of missing people right now.”

In horror, we realized that Israel was not “just” being bombarded with thousands of rockets heading toward civilian populations; Israel was facing terror on the ground on a massive scale. And our daughter was caught in this brutality, 6,000 miles away from us.

The last couple of days have felt like a year.

While we remain glued to the Red Alert sirens on our phones, and the dreadful news of mounting numbers of dead, wounded, and kidnapped, we wait anxiously for every status update: Where is she? Where is her boyfriend, who is a reservist? Where are her friends who have been called up for service? What are the army’s plans? What has the media not disclosed?

We are grateful that Hayley can generally contact us, when so many others cannot call home.  We are grateful for the loving friends and family surrounding her, checking in, preparing meals, helping with rides to her army base when the bus doesn’t show up; and all of this at a time when countless others are missing, alone, and frightened.  We are grateful for her safety when thousands are hurt or will never return to their families.

As a professional for Jewish National Fund-USA, I have so many friends and partners in Israel who are grieving, and my heart breaks for each and every one.  As a mom, I have a knot in my stomach that simply does not go away until the next time that I hear from my daughter.

Beyond my parental concern for Hayley, and my professional concern for my colleagues, I have learned something in recent days that I had not processed as we live in our own social media bubbles: Everyday Israelis are not necessarily feeling our love.

While our own news feeds may feel to us like wall-to-wall coverage of the unfolding events, these sentiments of support do not always make their way to our brothers and sisters in Israel.  It is our job to call and email and text and post; and not just right now while the situation is so raw, but throughout the coming days and months.

Life in Israel is not going back to normal anytime soon.  It is our responsibility to let Israelis know that they are not alone. We are all Am Yisrael.

Allison Nagelberg of East Brunswick works for the Jewish National Fund-USA.

Alex’s story

Starting on Saturday morning, “my phone was just blowing up,” Alexander Smukler of Montclair said. His friends in Israel, from both inside and outside the Russian community there, were texting about the attacks, the deaths, and the disappearances of active-duty soldiers and reservists as they responded to the assault.

Within a few days, some of those soldiers were dead.

Alex tells the story of his old friend Haim Ben Yakov, the director of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress.

“I was talking to him,” Alex said. “I was just talking to him.

“His son had just left the house. And now he’s dead.”

Alexander Smukler of Montclair, a businessman and art collector, analyzes the war in Ukraine for us.

Aharon Chaimov, an emergency responder, was one of the first to be murdered. The ambulance he was driving.

Elie’s story

I am currently with my family, working for an American tour company that is hosting a holiday program in Jerusalem, and I would like to share my thoughts and experiences during these difficult times.

The last three days have been challenging, stressful, and tense, to say the least. In addition to my responsibilities as program host, I have been acting as the unofficial information officer as well — keeping guests informed of the latest news, making announcements via the hotel emergency PA system as needed — all while darting in and out of bomb shelters as the sirens sounded.

Many of the Israeli hotel staff members were called up to serve, and I, along with the remaining hotel and program staff, stepped in to help our guests. As we worked to keep everyone comfortable and safe, I was mindful of the fact that the remaining staff all have family members and friends who have been impacted by this horrific terrorist action. In fact, we were dismayed to hear that the waiter who was serving us so kindly and graciously mentioned that her apartment was destroyed, leaving her homeless and without a plan for where she will live.

Most flights out of Israel have been canceled, and my family, along with thousands of other Americans, is left searching for a way to return to the United States. News reports have been sparse and there is a feeling that we can’t determine the accuracy of all reports that we receive. Compounding these concerns is of course the overwhelming sense of sadness. Although we know and believe that troops are prepared and ready to meet this challenge, it is difficult to not feel heartbroken as I walk the streets of Jerusalem and see the sparse traffic and pedestrians on a day when it would normally be filled with the usual post-holiday hustle and bustle inside the city.

It is easy to fall into a sense of helplessness and despair. But there is much to be done and should be done to help.

In 2022, our family, along with other families in the United States, organized, raised money, and sent an ambulance to Magen David Adom,
Israel’s ambulance and blood agency. Tragically, we were told days ago that Aharon Chaimov, the emergency responder who was driving that ambulance, was one of the first people killed in the attack. He left behind two children, a wife, parents, siblings, and family members. Magen David Adom is raising money in northern New Jersey now to replace that ambulance.

Elie Y. Katz, Teaneck’s deputy mayor, is a business developer.

Rabbi Jeremy Borovitz

Jeremy’s story

I took this picture in the evening of October 9, 2019. Four years ago today.

I wish I could go back and ask this version of myself what inspired me to do so. Instead. I’ll have to rely on my phone to be my memory.

It was the end of what I thought was the worst day in my life. I was broken, and traumatized, and sad.

Four years ago today, I became broken. And on February 24, 2022, with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, I was shattered. And on Simchat Torah 2023, as our security consultant knocked on our door on Shabbat afternoon to let us know what was going on, I disintegrated bit by bit.

The world seems to be falling, and I don’t know how to save it. The world is full of monsters, and I promise my daughters I will always protect them, and at best I am lying to myself. The world is full of monsters, and I want to turn on the lights, but I can’t find the switch.

Four years and one day ago, there was still much hope. But time and death and destruction have whittled it down to a whisper of a past I can barely hear. And each time I emerge from the pit I see new horrors, and the world becomes dark again.

I never wanted to watch the video of the monster who tried to kill me four years ago. I didn’t want to see videos of Bucha, nor of Kfar Aza. The terrors in my mind are enough for a lifetime.

I don’t want to see it, but I also don’t want to fall into the complacency of looking away. Because while these are my tragedies, others happen in Las Vegas, or Tehran, or Christ Church. Others happen everywhere, and every day. And sometimes the monsters look the same, and sometimes they look like me.

Rabbi Eric Wisnia z”l, a dear friend of my father, used to say: Prayer may not change things, but prayer can change people, and people can change things. So tonight I pray for a time machine, which can give me the hope of October 8, 2019, combined with the wisdom of October 10, 2023. To know the future and to remember my past.

I pray tonight for the memories of Jana L and Kevin S, and for those murdered this past weekend, and for those dying in Donbas, and for all those lives soon to be lost because our world is so broken and shattered, just like you and me.

Rabbi Jeremy Borovitz is the director of Jewish life and learning at Hillel Deutschland. He is the son of Rabbi Neal Borovitz and Ann Appelbaum, formerly of Paramus. Four years ago he survived a terrorist attack by a far-right gunman on the Halle, Germany synagogue on Yom Kippur. He lives in Berlin with his wife, Rabbi Rebecca Blady, and their two children.

Chana and her friends’ stories

Chana’s story

It’s been hard to process all that’s been happening these past few days. As the tragic details of these devastating terrorist attacks in Israel pour in, many of us are walking around feeling anxious and in a fog, much like we did in the days post 9/11. I spent most of Monday checking up on my relatives and friends in Israel. 

My first call was to my parents, who live on a religious yishuv in northern Israel. I asked my father how he first heard the news. He said that on Simchat Torah, he davened next to his grandson, my nephew NZ, an IDF soldier who was home for the holiday. After their aliyot to the Torah, they went to my parents’ home for kiddush. My father took a short rest, while NZ went back to the Beit Knesset. When my father returned for musaf, the kehillah was saying Tehilim. My father asked his friend Yossi, “Where’s NZ?” Yossi said, “Morty, they took him to war.” “What?” my father replied. Yossi repeated, “Israel is at war.” My father looked around the shul. NZ and all the other men who are from 20 to 40 years old had left to serve. Four other nephews and many of my cousins also have been called up.

It helps to stay active rather than be swallowed by the news. My friend Ellen Finkelstein and I filled shopping bags at Target with toiletries and socks for soldiers. The prayer service at my shul, the Young Israel of Teaneck, was full. My family and I are attending rallies and writing letters to Congress and the International Red Cross. Lists of charities to contribute to have circulated, though there has been speculation that some are scams or even backed by Hamas. So make sure your charities are verified. It helps to know that we as Jews are united, we are one family, and we need to keep that mindset moving forward.

I am very grateful to my non-Jewish neighbors and friends who have reached out and asked how they can help or contribute. I would love to see many more people showing unconditional support for Israel and condemning this unspeakable terror.

Chana Stiefel, who lives in Teaneck, writes children’s books

Ofra’s story

I am feeling so grateful to the U.S. communities that are supporting us from such a distance. I can’t imagine the angst that is felt from being so far. We need the kind of unconditional love and support that one provides for loved ones — for family. Because we are your family in our homeland and we need your best now. Your best strength. Your best support, your best prayers.

Ofra Wind is a teacher who made aliyah from Teaneck to Rehovot on July 18, 2023

Debbie’s story

This is very reminiscent of 9/11. The surprise, the shock, horror, disbelief. Pictures of the missing captioned with those gut-wrenching words, “Have you seen..?” The eerie quiet.  And the unity!

Israel is unified, despite the protests and division of the past several months. 300,000 showed up for miluim [reserve duty]. Charedim are preparing food for soldiers and families in the south. At the end of the day, we are one. We will heal and rebuild out of the ashes and the pain. We’ve done it before. We’ll do it again. As we celebrate the birth of our new grandson born one day into this war, we celebrate the continuity of our people. Am yisrael chai!

Debbie also posted on her FB page (sharing with permission):

What can I say about living through a war, about running to a bomb shelter over and over instead of dancing with the Torah on the most joyous holiday of the year?

We have not physically experienced a fraction of what’s going on. The terror. The shooting. The kidnapping. The hostages. So many murdered in a single day.

So many wounded. So many missing. So many young beautiful soldiers…I just can’t.

To those who have sent messages here, on WhatsApp, email — thank you so much for checking on us. It is very very much appreciated.

Our family is safe, thank God, but we are in pain. Collective pain for each precious life lost, some of them neighbors and friends of friends. It’s all too much. The news is grim.

Yet just a few hours ago, we got some good news when we welcomed our newest Sabra grandchild, a beautiful baby boy born to Rena & Leor.

We will prevail.

May we continue to share good news in the coming days.

Debbie Rapps is a public relations consultant who made aliyah from Teaneck to Efrat 10 years ago.

Renee’s story

As Gilad Erdan, Israel’s ambassador to the U.N., said, “This is Israel’s 9/11.”

Maybe in any large-scale traumatic event the same elements apply: you are overcome by hysteria, shock, and disbelief — and then, if you are fortunate enough to be able to, you take action.

I have many close family and friends in Israel, across the political and religious spectrum. But they share one thing: a solid commitment to and belief in Israel and its survival.

I got (and made) many calls when I learned of this unprecedented attack.

Some relatives were deployed, with their families getting few details. 

A mother I spoke to reported initial feelings of uncontrollable grief and anxiety. She was overwhelmed by the need to pull herself together and to be supportive to her children and to provide answers to her preteens, who are all on social media. (Give answers that stick closely to their questions, be straight but don’t give too many details, and assure them that they — the family and the country — will get through this.)

Some older cousins who have fought in previous wars were doing what they could to help out — preparing food for families whose relatives were called up; speaking with others who were frightened and needed some support—but even one who had fought previously said he could not yet bring himself to look at the list of people who have died or have been captured.

I have been hearing that despite anger that the government failed them people from the left and the right are pulling together.

Relatives who have participated in the ongoing protests in Israel told me that as soon as the attacks started, the Brothers in Arms movement — a major organizer of the recent protests in Israel — instructed everyone to come together to defend the country. They’ve done that themselves. Many have gone to the border with Gaza to help the kibbutz families who desperately need protection.

And one of my cousins texted to say that they are all so bolstered by Biden’s response. They think that he is so sane, and a grownup.

Renee Schlesinger of Cliffside Park is a psychoanalyst.

Igal Iloz, right, from Ofakim, shown here supporting a lone soldier from Greater MetroWest, was about to be deployed to Gaza in 2014. Igal was killed on Saturday.

Randi’s story

Randi Brokman of West Caldwell and her husband, Oron, are in Israel; they went to spend the holiday of Sukkot and visit with relatives and friends. On Oct. 10, Randi sent the following thoughts:

I am in Haifa together with most of our family, including nieces and nephews and their young families. We were supposed to be together only for Shabbat and Yom Tov but in this situation, we have stayed on (12 of us altogether) since there were sirens and missiles in Tel Aviv, Holon, and the area. The TV news is on all the time; the texting and stories are being shared as they come to light. They are so sad, frightening, and moving. We are hearing about the heroic actions of so many during this horrific situation. And of course the sharing of family members and friends who have lost loved ones. 

From Haifa we hear airplanes high above. The government has warned Hizbullah, and yesterday terrorists made a few attempts to come into Israel from the north. The reports were that they were eliminated, but residents in the northern area were advised to go into their secure rooms. Last night the government advised all residents to prepare for 72 hours without electricity, water, and food, so Oron and our family members did the supermarket run and found that toilet paper and water were sold out, along with dry goods. But we are the lucky ones. We don’t have to weigh the necessity of going out against the possibility of sirens signaling an attack, which others in Central and South Israel have to consider. 

Feelings and thoughts are racing. How could this happen? How was Tzahal so surprised on so many levels? What happened to the intelligence system that Tzahal is known for? We hear anger, understanding, attempts to raise morale and volunteerism. “Nazism” is a word being used on the news all the time, when in the past nothing could be equated with the Shoah. They are calling it Israel’s 9/11, comparing the loss as if the United States had lost 30,000 in that attack, but that does not truly describe the barbarity of the Hamas terrorists. Many speak of wiping out Hamas, others of flattening Gaza, to do what the United States did after Pearl Harbor. The hospitals have turned the covid wards into emergency wards for the wounded. Even now, at 11:15 a.m. on Oct. 10, helicopters are flying over Haifa, most likely bringing wounded to hospitals in the area. 

We hear talk about achdut — bringing the country together after political division for almost a year, demonstrations against actions of the government for 39 weeks. Israelis abroad are trying to return to Israel to find something they can do to help. Israeli volunteerism is evident. We went to give blood on Sunday, and people were being turned away because they could not handle the number of donors. People are organizing meals, clothing, gifts for people in the hospitals, and especially for the soldiers, and to bring necessities to central locations, mostly for soldiers. 

One picture stands out: The man organizing 200 volunteers to sort and pack donated items to be sent to the 300,000 soldiers called up in 48 hours was wearing the T-shirt of the reservists who were refusing to go to reserve duty because of the political attempts to change the democracy here in Israel. Now, everyone is directed to the main goals: to change the security status in the south, maintain security in the rest of the country, support the families of those who lost loved ones or were wounded, to deal with the hostages, and to wipe out Hamas. 

Gestures of support and connection are very important to the government and people of Israel. And here I will speak of the Greater MetroWest federation and its partner communities in Israel. As a past staff member with the responsibility of building connections between our community in New Jersey and the federation partner communities in Israel — Ofakim/Merchavim/Arad, Kibbutz Erez, Rishon L’Tzion, Raanana, and Horfeish — I have been in contact with my Peoplehood friends from our southern communities. These have been dark, dark days, especially for them and all Am Yisrael. Too much savagery, death, fear, devastation, and loss. We are all broken in one way or another. Everyone knows someone who has been killed or someone who has lost a loved one. Our Greater MetroWest community has not escaped from this. Our Peoplehood and Police Living Bridge Projects have lost dear friends during this attack, dedicated activists with a vision to strengthen their local communities and the greater Jewish world. 

We are all filled with grief. Igal Iloz, a big man, a dear man we called the Gentle Giant, who had a big heart, was killed on Saturday. He lived in Ofakim and was a master sergeant in the Southern District, but he was above all a beloved member of his community, of the Police Living Bridge delegation, and of the Ofakim/Merchavim Peoplehood Project. He will forever be in
our hearts. 

In answer to the question everyone is asking: We are safe, but we are not OK; Am Yisrael is not okay, and it will be a long time until we are. 

Randi Brokman and her husband, Oron, are members of Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell. She is also the director of Community Outreach and Client Care at Homewatch CareGivers of South Orange. 

Abby’s story

I couldn’t help but recall the shock and devastation of another conflict for which Israel was ill-prepared. I had arrived at the kibbutz in the Jezreel Valley where I was to spend a year as a volunteer and ulpan student just days before the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War. 

Israelis paid a tragically high price for that surprise attack, but it was only when we arrived at the ulpan on Day 5 and found the teachers crying because the son of the school’s director had been killed on the Golan Heights that the enormity of what was happening felt real. And it was not until much later that the full toll of that war and the reality of the threat of defeat became known. 

Fifty years later, everywhere, in Israel and outside, the horrors — of a nature we would have said were unimaginable — were and are playing out in real time on computer screens and TVs and in the frantic and incredulous messages sent via electronic devices.

The first messages I received from friends and families simply told of their shock that such a thing could even happen, and their assurances that they themselves were “safe, but not OK.” Their trust in their country’s vaunted security and its military prowess as strong enough to prevent a major terrorist incursion — let alone one on the scale that was becoming apparent — had been suddenly and brutally shattered, and they were seeing and hearing and feeling the brutal results of that broken trust.

Just hours after the news broke, my friend Miriam — actually my “sister” from my adoptive kibbutz family of five decades ago and a Tel Avivian who has been in the thick of the protest movement all year — said she and her family were “OK, but very worried about the horrible situation and about the people that are supposed to lead us.”

“Wish us luck,” she concluded. “We need it.”

My daughter and Israeli son-in-law live here, but most of his family are in Israel. We are grateful that they are all unharmed, but in his mother’s message to me, the anguish was palpable. “You can’t imagine how painful is the situation,” she wrote. “So much terror and pain. We could never think of something this terrible happening in Israel. We all have broken hearts.”

Tiki, another friend of almost 50 years’ duration, by early on Saturday had messaged, “It’s devastating and on Shabbat, at the end of Sukkot.” By the time she wrote again a few hours later, the desperation and anger came through. “What happens is a real nightmare. Never, since I was born here, Jewish settlements are invaded and people killed in Israel. 

“My heart is heavy,” Tiki continued, but said, referring to the massive rift in Israeli society of the past many months, “people are now united to face this war together.”

But by Monday, the full enormity of what was happening — and the fury that it was happening — came through. “I love my country and the way people are organizing and helping each other,” Tiki wrote. “However, the biggest pogrom the people experienced is more and more painful” as it became clear that “the state, ministers disappeared, nobody came to talk or rescue. This silence is clear to me since Netanyahu’s speech [with] no press questions.” 

Tiki had been a centrist who gradually had come to support those fighting for democracy in Israel. Now her position was clear: “Nobody can explain how all this was possible,” Tiki wrote. “Trust is lost in our leaders. We have a dictator who holds all his government for his service, to protect him. All the Likud party kept silent….” And in the end, she said, “after bombastic threats to the Hamas and our neighbors, ‘Now we are united,’ says the villain who tore us apart for years and more the last nine months. I believe in the existence of a Jewish democratic state, but we have to be really worthy of it.”

In my latest communication from Tiki, early Tuesday morning, while she continued to decry the failures of the country’s leaders, she did acknowledge that now “is not time for such criticism. We need all the help and support from the world, and I feel thankful to Biden and European leaders’ support.”

There was no lessening of the fear and distress. “I am terrified more than ever. Right now we are preparing for 72 hours supply…. We live moment to moment.” 

Tiki continued to take pride that “all the demonstrators’ groups are organizing food and warm clothes, basic needs for people in the south and army, as there is not enough food and daily supply for them.” 

In the end, she could only say, “I hope this war will fix something that broke in our hearts and faith. I hope that our grandchildren will heal from this trauma,” and, she told me, “Now we need all your prayers and support.”

Abby Meth Cantor of West Caldwell is the New Jersey Jewish News’ former managing editor.


Linoy’s story

I am 22 years old. I am Israeli. I am from Moshav Noga, 10 minutes from Sderot, next to the Gaza security fence. I attended Shaar HaNegev school. 

My world, the world I left two weeks ago, no longer exists.

I came to New Jersey to celebrate Sukkot. My plan was to return home at the end of October and begin my training as a teacher for special needs children. Those plans are now a distant dream.

One of my teachers is dead, the Head of Council of Shaar HaNegev is dead, students from my school celebrating at a rave concert are dead. I am in New Jersey. My mother, father, sister, brother, and grandmother are in our bomb shelter for the past two days. I am in New Jersey, safe but wanting to be with my family.

These now famous images, which Linoy saw on social media, show a young mother and hurt child as they are taken captive, juxtaposed with a similar scene in Nazi Europe.

My whole life was in the Gaza border. School friends, family, hanging out at the Green Pub, sitting on the bench in Sderot. I also said I was going to raise my kids there, and I saw it as the perfect place to grow old. 

Now I cannot understand how I can go back and step on the land Hamas has turned into a killing field. Hamas burned houses with babies, kidnapped Holocaust survivors, raped our girls, our daughters. 

Panic attacks that I never had before have come to me. I feel guilty that I am here, and my mom and family are there. At any moment our front door could open and they could be shot, by pure evil, the way so many have died. 

How can I continue from here? Another friend is missing, there is another video of evil parading a raped corpse. 

How can I sleep? 

I could never imagine, even in nightmares, that this evil could happen in my land. 

Linoy is an alumna of the Open Hearts, Open Homes program, which brings Israeli children living in dangerous areas a worry-free trip to northern New Jersey. She came back to celebrate Sukkot with her host family.

Michael’s story

I am rendered speechless — b’lee meelim —  by the events of the past week that have unfolded in Israel.  By the horrific stories, pictures, videos, and first-hand accounts of barbaric events that are beyond words and beyond comprehension. 

Our thoughts and hearts are with all of Israel and especially with those who have lost a loved one or whose family members or friend(s) have been wounded or are still missing.  I cannot express the anguish and sorrow that I feel, as we all must, regardless of our own personal relationship with the complicated political situation in the
Middle East.

I studied in Israel, served in the IDF, and was married in Israel. Many of my closest friends to this day live in Israel. I have a large family — as does my wife — and many of them live in Israel. Indeed, at this moment my nephew is on the front lines near Gaza, searching, door to door, for terrorists who may be lying low, ready to attack again. My phone has been buzzing nonstop, filled with WhatsApp messages from abroad. Our hearts are broken as one after another tells a story about a family member, neighbor, or friend. 

I have experienced firsthand several wars and operations when Israel was under attack.  I have never seen anything like the past 96 hours — children executed before their parents’ eyes, babies beheaded, young people shot down in their prime while dancing. 

It is at times like these that community is most important.  We want to feel embraced, supported, loved, and heard by one another.  We seek comfort in the familiar as we try and work through our feelings of the tragic and unfamiliar. Being surrounded by friends and community can have a healing effect and play an important first step in addressing the individual and collective pain we continue to experience.  

May the memories of all who perished be for a blessing and may we continue to support one another in times of joy and sorrow. 

Michael Schmidt, LCSW, grew up in the United States, lived in Israel, and now serves as the CEO/Executive Director of the Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey in Essex County.

An anonymous story

It looked like it would be a wonderful holiday weekend. 

We had been invited to the first Shmini Atzeret meal, on Friday night, at the home of good friends who are like family, and to the second holiday meal, Shabbat lunch, at the home of cousins who are also good friends.

And Friday night was wonderful. Our friends are thoughtful and funny and we always enjoy spending time with them. They had visiting relatives who had recently returned from a trip to Israel to spend time with family and we heard about the variety of activities — hikes, museum visits, shows — they had enjoyed.

When I went to shul on Shabbat morning, I was feeling a bit more somber. We say Yizkor on Shmini Atzeret, and as I often do on Yizkor days, I was thinking about my mother, whom we lost a few years ago.

But before Yizkor, it became clear that this would not be a typical Shmini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. The rabbi mentioned that there had been an attack in Israel and that there were now about 100 new victims to be remembered during the memorial prayer.

Since many in our Orthodox community do not use technology on Shabbat and holidays, we learned details slowly. The officers and security guards posted outside our shul and other local shuls shared information. We heard about neighbors’ very creative children who are in Israel and wanted to reassure their parents they were okay. Since most holidays are observed for only one day in Israel but for two days outside of Israel, and there is a seven-hour time difference, when the holiday ended in Israel, it was the middle of the day on Saturday in New Jersey and the holiday here was not scheduled to end until Sunday night. That’s another day and a half. 

The young adults did not want their parents to have to use technology on Shabbat so they sent an Uber eats order to their parents’ home, with a note letting the family know some details about what was happening and that they were ok. 

By Sunday morning, some of the details of the horrific terrorist attacks made it into print newspapers. We saw a few pictures and read about the carefully coordinated, brutal attacks. About the barrage of rockets, the large-scale invasion, and the many home invasions. About the savage terrorists who went door to door looking for civilians to murder and/or capture. And about the many men, women, and children who were sprayed with bullets on the street, at a party, in their cars, in their homes. And we read terrifying details about hostages.

I thought about the people in the south, the ordinary people who were just living their lives, and about how terrified they must be. I thought about my brother and his family, who don’t live in the south but were scheduled to travel to the United States in a few weeks for a family simcha. My nephew is in the middle of his army service and had been granted time off from the army months ago so he could be there. And I realized they probably would not be coming. It seemed very unlikely that my nephew would be able to leave his unit now.

And I thought about my many cousins and friends who live in Israel. I thought about their sons, many of whom had finished their army service — some recently, some years ago — and would now likely be called up. I thought about the young soldiers who devote years to defending their country before going to college or getting jobs — ordinary teens and young adults who were just living their lives and will now find themselves in a war zone. And I thought about the older soldiers — the ones who will have to say goodbye to wives and children when they are called up to defend their country from unfathomable attacks.

On Sunday night, after Havdalah, I ran to check my messages. There was a WhatsApp message from my brother waiting. He let us know that they were all physically okay but that the situation in the south was absolutely horrific. My nephew, who had been on leave for the holiday, had been called back to his base in the middle of the day on Saturday and had traveled on Shabbat to get there. My niece’s husband had been called up for reserve duty later that evening.

I checked in with my cousins. Their sons had been called up. Some were stationed in the north, others in the south, but they had all been called up.

I have a close-knit group of friends in Israel. We have a WhatsApp chat, and I’m the only member of the group living in the United States. The chat is often filled with ordinary conversations — personal news, fun ideas for chol hamoed activities, details about get-togethers. I was in Israel this summer, and we all spent a wonderful evening together, after coordinating the plan on the chat. Last week, the chat was filled with details of the outings my friends’ families had enjoyed over the holiday, everything from escape rooms to hikes to family sports games, even rappelling off the walls of Jerusalem’s old city. 

But beginning on Saturday night Israel time, the posts had a very different tone. Everyone with older kids had at least one son or son-in-law who had been called up.

Another friend told us that his son had already experienced some serious warfare and had already lost friends. Other friends talked about many relatives who had been called up, about relatives who live in the south and had barricaded themselves in their home, about a neighbor who had lost a son, about a colleague who had lost a brother-in-law.

We are 6,000 miles away from the terror, from the war, but sometimes it feels like we are very close. I can’t stop thinking about the staggering number of missing, about how each of the hostages — the grandparents, the toddlers, the parents, the young adults — is faring. And I find myself constantly thinking about our friends and relatives who are bravely defending their country and about what their families must be going through. And I am thinking about the many soldiers in harm’s way and the many families who are anxiously waiting for them to come home safely.

This story was written by a woman who lives in Teaneck. 


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