The sirens are familiar. I’ve heard them before. But this time, it was humblingly different.
It took almost a week of bombardments until the inevitable hit home last night. Earlier in the day I installed the Red Alert app on my phone, to mechanically program myself to be nominally cognizant of what most of Israel has been facing on an ongoing basis. It seemed we were the only ones within rocket range whose lives hadn’t been nervously disrupted. As the day wore on, the application’s non-intrusive digital ring-like tone began to represent a faded, distant reminder of what everyone else was going through. A reminder, but not much more.
That’s not to say, though, that we’ve been complacent. The residents of Ariel and the municipality hosted busloads of residents from southern Israel over the course of the weekend. Whether it was quiet time poolside or tailor made performances, volunteers came out of the woodwork to share some of our tranquility with those who needed it most.
My sister, who lives in Givat Shmuel, was on her way back home after spending Shabbat in Ariel. She brought her 5 month old baby with her for the weekend, partially to get away from the rockets in the Greater Tel Aviv region, partially because it was difficult at home without her husband, who was off to reserve duty in preparation for a ground offensive into the Gaza Strip. She debated whether to return or stick around, caught in relentless ambiguity over choosing home or hospitality as the preferred environment for her daughter.
In the meantime, my brother-in-law was waiting for his ride to pull up so that he could hop in and head our way. At the impressionable age of 11, the sirens in Jerusalem were too much for him. He was having trouble sleeping at night, and he decided to rest and relax with his nieces and nephews (a couple of whom are roughly his age). Family and some peace of mind were all that he needed.
The kids were either in bed or on their way there when I stepped out to visit a house of mourning. My friend’s neighbor passed away. His time had come and his wife and son were mourning his loss, just the way it should be. We were sitting around a table, listening to the rabbi who came to share a few words, when the convenient rhythm of life was pierced by the monotone air raid siren.
We all exchanged looks of disbelief. Denial was quickly replaced by disorientation, a search for the nearest rocket-proof shelter, and the instinctive need to check on our families. Those who lived within running distance took off in a flash, to gather and protect their loved ones. I was less fortunate. The four minute drive back home was too long, and Homefront Command instructs us not to be in cars during air raids. I was really only a couple of blocks away, but not close enough for me to be able to provide the kids with an added sense of comfort.
I heard a faint echo from years back, when my IDF service took me to active duty Lebanon. Air raid sirens were part of an almost daily routine, but life was different back then. As a group of soldiers, we were well positioned to respond. They shot at Israel, we fired back. More than the simplicity of the equation, there was a clarity of roles and responsibilities. We were stationed there to “defend Israel’s civilian population”, and we knew precisely how to conduct ourselves and what tools were at our disposal. Dangerous as it may have been, life was simpler when you don’t have children. Defending the State of Israel is very different than comforting your family.
I was also reminded of my wedding day, when we and many of our guests arrived with gas masks. It was March, 2003, and Saddam Hussein was threatening a second Gulf War and another round of Scud missiles to be fired at Israel as of midnight, a few hours after the ceremony. Looking back, Saddam’s trash-talking amounted to no more than a lot of hassle and some entertaining wedding photos featuring family members comically dancing with awkwardly seasonal headgear. In some ways much has since changed, and yet so much has remained the same.
Our first air raid siren during the current conflict was a wakeup call for me. The sounds that have been familiar to my generation and those that preceded us are now familiar to our children. What do we teach them? How do we prepare them? As with all of my peers, I am blessed with curious, inquisitive and sophisticated children. Mastering the drills of where to go for cover is elementary. Their questions are questions of strategy, national ethics, faith and purpose. “Why war?” “What does peace look like?” And of course, “What will happen if…”.
My wife and I are still working on our messaging. We know that, beyond the verbal explanations, it’s primarily our presence of mind, heart and soul that will set the tone in the home, without or without sirens ringing in the background. All things considered, it is clear to us that this wakeup call is an opportunity. As we seek to provide our children with stability and perspective, we are driven to dig deeper, calibrate our moral compasses and discover even more about who we are and what we hope Israel will be.