Sirens ring in the start of Shabbat in Israel– every week in fact. Living in Israel, you find Judaism and Jewish heritage infused into daily life here. Whether it’s the way approaching Jewish holidays find their way onto everything from food packaging to billboards; or how everyone who greets you on a Friday will say ‘Shabbat shalom;’ or how everywhere you go in Israel you find places that have been significant to our people from time immemorial. And if you live near one of the more religious cities you will benefit from an audio reminder that Shabbat is about to start in the form of a special siren. This week was no different until it was. Until there was another siren.

A view of the communities of Gush Etzion.

Shabbat in Gush Etzion started like it does every other week; with the exception that I had been scrambling to find Shabbat hospitality for people from southern Israel, who have been under intensified rocket fire, until shortly before Shabbat. And the exception that we left a radio on, tuned to a special ‘Shabbat station’– a silent program that would crackle to life only when there was urgent information to convey. Information I ‘knew’ I wouldn’t need, but my news-in-serious-situations addiction convinced me to leave it on. With Operation Pillar of Defense in full-swing, bringing an increasing number of our sons and daughters close to the action in Gaza as they are called up to their IDF units, Shabbat was certainly different, but only for the worry in our hearts.

We lit candles. The men went to synagogue. My three year-old went to a neighbor. Peace and tranquility reigned in the house as we thought about the challah we needed to place on the warmer, the hummus we needed to arrange with a drizzle of olive oil and a dash of zaatar, and the final touches to the beautiful Shabbat table. Then we heard the siren. It was wrong. We had already heard the siren. It comes before we light the candles, every week. In fact, we had already heard it, I was sure. And this one was different. While the Shabbat siren is a solid tone without variation, this one had an up-and-down sound. My son and daughter and I froze. We looked at each other. ‘What is that?’ we dumbly asked each other, knowing full well what it was, but not being able to wrap our brains around it at first.

I immediately ran to the open window hoping to find a neighbor who would say, Don’t worry, they’re testing the system (on Shabbat? Maybe not…) or tell us that it was actually a far-away siren that was being carried by the wind… Neither happened because there were no neighbors out and about; and at a time when there are always people. Then I knew. My kids and I scrambled into the safe room in our house which doubles as my husband’s office. It was then that I remembered that the special safe-room window shutter needed to be fixed as it was sealed in the open position; and had been since we built the house eight years before.

We waited away from the faulty window until we heard a distant boom, then we waited a few more minutes, then, when we couldn’t wait another second, we ran to our neighbor’s house where my three year old daughter was. We scooped her up and hugged her. She was fine, of course, but ominous sirens and rockets hitting tend to make you want to hold your children so tight that they want you to let go. We stayed at our neighbor’s house while we all collected ourselves, and tried to make sense of it. Twenty-four hours later, we’re still trying.

View of a spot on the Mediterranean coast that’s just miles from Gaza,
as seen from Neve Daniel in Gush Etzion. It’s a small country.

As Shabbat proceeded we found ourselves jumpy. An air-conditioner could sound like the beginning note of a siren. Something dropped could sound like a Kassam landing. We thought about the youth group contingent that came to the safety of Gush Etzion for Shabbat from Ashkelon, for a break from the insanity that’s become their daily life, only to have to rush into a safe room just as Shabbat was starting. We thought about the moment described to us of the people at synagogue in the middle of prayers, hearing that siren. The moment of hesitation as everyone looked at each other, then everyone clearing out of the sanctuary, entering the safe rooms, putting children first since there was not enough space for everyone. And we thought about the people at risk throughout Shabbat who were hearing the Code Red sirens that we knew about since they were all announced on our special Shabbat radio.

No one wants war. War is the pits. But that fear that we experienced, along with the very real danger, is something that a million Israelis living in the region near Gaza have been facing and dealing with for years, and should never have to deal with. Now we got a taste of that fear. Jerusalem got a taste of that fear. Tel Aviv got a taste of that fear. It doesn’t taste good. As Operation Pillar of Defense continues with thousands of reservists called up, and battles being fought conventionally, as well as the battle for public opinion in the social media sphere, let’s hope and pray that our brave soldiers are successful in their important mission and stay safe throughout.

Finally, I want to share something my sister in Ramat Beit Shemesh wrote tonight:

All photos by Laura Ben-David

“The most emotional and poignant moment of the entire Shabbat was watching a family say farewell to their brother/son who was going off to fight. I can’t describe to you how it felt to see the mother want one more hug and kiss, for the young soldier to wipe his younger brother’s tears, and to see him wave from the car, as four soldiers drove off on Shabbat, all wearing their kippot. So if you are having trouble imagining what things are like here, just bring that picture up in your mind and I imagine that your prayers will be a lot stronger.”

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