Suddenly it’s personal

Suddenly it’s personal

I was a boy of 7 on Oct. 6, 1973. I still remember early that morning, walking with my father to synagogue. It was Yom Kippur. He had promised me that I could break my fast shortly after arriving, but now that was about to change.

We stopped en route so that he could tell me that war had broken out in Israel and the situation was dire indeed. He asked me to show God added devotion by fasting a few hours longer in deference to the mortal struggle then facing my fellow Jews. I was upset, I was starving, but I did as he asked. I broke my fast after midday.

That Yom Kippur was my first memory of an Israeli war. We feverishly watched the news over the next few days until Israel finally began to turn the tide and push its enemies back.

There were moments of elation as well. I remember being in a Chabad sleepaway camp in Homestead, Fla., on July 4, 1976, American’s bicentennial, when an excited head counselor began screaming over the loudspeaker that Israel had pulled off a daring rescue of Jewish hostages in some far-off place called Entebbe, in the heart of Africa.

Fast forward to November 1982. I was a student at Chabad High School in Los Angeles. I traveled on a Friday, at the height of Israel’s war in Lebanon, to attend the arrival of Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin at the Century Plaza hotel before Shabbat so that I could show my solidarity with the beleaguered leader. I still remember Begin arriving in his dark limousine, looking ashen-faced, having just heard the terrible news that tens of soldiers had died in an explosion when a building collapsed in Lebanon. Tragically, even more bad news awaited him; his wife Aliza would die a few days later, while he was still in Los Angeles.

There were other pressing moments in Israel’s history that I remember well. None, however, come near the current crisis, which has touched deeper than previous occurrences. This time, my wife Deborah and I have a daughter in the Israeli army and her base is just a few kilometers outside Gaza. As much as it grieves me to do so, in keeping with a request from Tzahal (the Israel Defense Forces), I will not publish her name.

She was standing at a ceremony on Thursday morning when Hamas’ murderous rockets began to fall near her base. Everyone was ordered to a bunker. They watched as Israel’s ingenious Iron Dome went to work. Tragically, it was not enough to stop a rocket from hitting Kiryat Malachi and murdering three people, including a pregnant woman. My daughter heard the nearby explosion.

The base was evacuated and my daughter moved to the relative safety of Jerusalem on Thursday night. Here at home, we breathed a sigh of relief. Then, before Shabbat began, we were informed that she and a skeletal crew were ordered to return to the base on Saturday night for guard duty. She would have to remain there for a few days thereafter. That Shabbat, I was a scholar-in-residence in Palm Beach, Fla., and during one of my speeches, I asked the congregation to pray with me for her safety and the safety of all of Israel’s soldiers. Never before had the prayer for Tzahal meant so much to me, or had I felt it so deeply.

Over the next few days, when I called my daughter on the base, our phone conversations often were interrupted by blaring sirens telling her to rush to safety in a nearby bunker. I was amazed at her courage and sense of normalcy. This was her new life, and she would get used to it without panic.

Over the last quarter-century, I have given countless lectures on Israel’s safety, security, and right to defend itself, and have written many columns on the subject. Yet it is different now. It has gone from the abstract to the very real.

Parents who have children in the military during a war try not to think about it. You tell yourself the chances, God forbid, of anything happening are too negligible to warrant worrying about. Yet you are forever aware that you and your child are in God’s hands. You turn to Him for comfort and safety. Your daughter is an adult. She made the decision to serve. You honor and respect it even if it leaves a pit in your stomach at all times.

When my daughter first made aliyah, she was a student at Hebrew University. After a year, she called me and told me she was enlisting. “I can’t be a student when I have not served. Everyone here has. I have a responsibility to protect the country, just like they did.”

“Okay,” I argued, “but don’t interrupt your degree. It doesn’t make sense. You should first finish and then serve.”

She was adamant. Studying could wait. Protecting Israel could not. It was her responsibility as a Jew to defend her people.

My first reaction should have been, “I can’t be more proud of you for wanting to defend the Jewish people,” which is how I feel now and what I constantly tell her. So why did those words not come out of my mouth at the time? Was it because of a subconscious fear of moments like these, where my baby girl would be on a base with rockets falling nearby, and I would be thousands of miles away, unable to protect her?

She is not a girl any more. She is a grown woman. Unlike me, she has donned the uniform of the Jewish people, to help ensure that we who have suffered eternal oppression are granted a birth of freedom and protection through the courage of its fighting men and women.

The father is just a man. But the daughter? She is a hero.