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Are you safe? Well, everything’s relative.

This is war. Flag and memorial candles, Dizengoff Square. [Photo: Nili Bresler]
A couple of weeks ago my cousin sent me an email with a simple question: Are you safe? 

I didn’t know what to answer. That’s partly because the answer is not so simple and partly because I am still wary of tempting the evil eye. I am still my grandma’s granddaughter and I live in a country steeped in every flavor of ‘evil eye’ tradition: Ashkenazi ken-uh-ho-ruh; Sephardic ayin hara, Muslim al-‘ayn …  So let me just say tfoo, tfoo, tfoo before I go any further.

Short answer: This is a war and no one is safe.

Longer answer: Safety – like everything in life –  is relative, and I do feel relatively safe. I feel lucky and I feel thankful. I feel safe, for now.

Here in the center of Israel, we feel much safer than the people in the south of Israel and along the northern border. The people in the south and far north are under constant fire. I check in daily with my friends on ‘my kibbutz’ where I volunteered years ago and where I feel a deep connection. People who can work inside have set up office inside their safe rooms. The brave men and women outside tending the fields and milking the cows are wearing helmets and ceramic vests to work. Since Oct 7th, the country has been full of volunteers who have gone down to those kibbutzim to help with the farmwork. Hundreds of thousands of people from kibbutzim and towns close to the Gaza border have all been evacuated. The wonderful volunteer organization I belong to, NATAN Worldwide Disaster Relief, is providing medical services for many of these evacuees. Read more here: https://natanrelief.org/operations/israel-under-attack-2023

Here in the center of the country things are much easier. We have all settled into a routine of war. There are rockets fired daily at the center of the country. So I can’t possibly say, “Yes, I am safe.” But I feel okay here. I do my best to stay as safe as possible. Like most older buildings in Israel, my building has no safe room or public bomb shelter within reach.  When a siren goes off, my neighbors and I walk downstairs calmly to sit in the stairwell and wait for the all-clear. We follow civil defense instructions. I live on the top floor of my building. That’s usually great – I love the view and cross ventilation. But when the sirens go off, the top floor is the worst place to be. So I walk downstairs with my neighbors and wait it out. We are not panicked. We’ve been through this many times before. It seems to us that most of the rocket attacks are at night. Many of us consider 9 pm the witching hour, though I’m not sure statistics back that up. But based on the number of times I’ve seen my neighbors in various stages of undress, I can say there are more rockets at night than during the day. When we meet up during the day, we make feeble jokes like, “Oh, I didn’t recognize you without your bathrobe.”

I don’t want to sound melodramatic, but let me say that following instructions has saved many lives here in Israel. The wonderful Iron Dome system can not get every single rocket if there’s a barrage. And even when it does, falling shrapnel does its damage. A family I know was inside the safe room when part of a rocket hit their building and destroyed their apartment. They are safe. Not long ago, a rocket blew the roof off a house in my town. Thankfully, no one was inside. They followed instructions and they are safe.

So, Are you safe?  We are lucky, tfoo, tfoo, tfoo, to be safe for now.

All of this is happening while we, and many of you around the world,  are still in mourning and traumatized by what happened on Oct. 7th. People are trying to get back to work. It’s hard since most kids are still out of school and many companies are operating with a vastly reduced workforce: 360,000 army reservists have been called up. That includes most of my students – engineers who are former combat or intelligence unit soldiers, most of them under 35.

I’ve set up my own personal routine, in order to avoid sitting home stewing as I did during the first 10 days after the attack.  Me being me, I don’t sleep much. That’s not new. But at least now I’m in good company. Nobody in Israel is sleeping much these days – between the sirens and worry about soldiers, hostages, evacuees – basically, everyone who’s been displaced, traumatized and all those innocent people in danger. And now we have new worries to add our list: As antisemitic threats grow around the world, all of us with friends and family abroad are worried about all of you. Oy. Last week we changed our clocks and people joked, “Oh great, now we have an extra hour to be up before dawn with nothing to do”. Sleepless in Tel Aviv.

Morning Menu: Rescue Remedy and coffee. [photo: Nili Bresler}
So, I get up early, take a few drops of Rescue Remedy, make my beloved French Press coffee and work on the computer for a couple hours. Then I go out for a walk in town* and do some errands. *No walking in the park for now. The peaceful view along the river would be very welcome right now, but there’s no place to take cover if a siren goes off. So I stick to walking in town, within reach of underground parking lots or buildings you can duck into if needed.  Then back home. Often, I have one or two lessons mid-morning for the individual students who haven’t been called up. All group courses have been canceled till further notice, but people who aren’t serving in reserves want to keep busy, so the 1:1 students opt to continue their lessons. It’s a much-needed distraction.

I spend most afternoons in town – I stop in to check on family, sometimes swapping my stairwell for theirs, as we sit together when a siren goes off. Then I go off to my late afternoon shift standing with the hostage families. I say standing and not sitting, since that’s what we do – we stand in a line, facing the street – actually facing the central HQ of the Israeli army, holding up posters with faces of the kidnapped. We stand like that for an hour or two at a time. Sometimes we march silently, single file, carrying the signs and gather to stand in a huge assembly, holding up the signs for a group photo. My family members still don’t believe that I am capable of standing still for 2 hours. Standing still for more than 5 minutes is a new skill for me. But it is doable when you are surrounded by one hundred people doing the same. It’s a kind of meditation. We were yellow ribbons: #bringthemhomenow. We are given posters to hold, each time with a different hostage. We say their names and ages to ourselves. Sometimes their family members ‘walk the line’ and come up to speak with us. Hugs and tearful determination. They will come back. New friends are made. Stories exchanged. Where was your person? Everyone has somebody in this story. I have a former student and a fellow peace activist. And all of the children. As my friend Lynn said, “They are all our children.”  The daily vigil is a kind of communal therapy.

The author at the daily vigil. I’m here. Where is my student, Avinatan?

Are you safe? Well, physically yes, so far, but… All of us are traumatized and every one of us is trying to deal with it however we can. For some people, like me, it means spending time supporting the families of our kidnapped people in Gaza. For many, many others it means active volunteering – providing medical care, informal schooling or trauma intervention, packing cartons of food, clothes, supplies for soldiers, and for the evacuees. I’m not much good for packing cartons with my still-healing broken wrist. So I do what I can. Holding up a cardboard sign is easy. And my PT is progressing, slowly but surely, so I know that one of these days I’ll be able to be more useful.

Peaceniks, like me, are frantically worried about innocent Gazan families, despite what you might have heard about our thirst for revenge. It’s not about revenge. It’s about survival. So it leaves me conflicted – we need HAMAS to be gone – FOREVER. But many of us wish we did not have to bomb Gaza to get this done. While still grieving for the 1,400 Israelis killed on Oct. 7th, and worried sick over the 240 taken hostage, we are now feeling the pain of even more losses. As of today, we’ve lost over 20 of our beloved children, combat soldiers fighting and dying as the ground invasion progresses. I know it’s weird for people outside of Israel to hear a verified peacenik call combat soldiers ‘beloved children’. But for us in Israel, that’s the fact. We all served, and now our children and grandchildren are serving. We love them. We wish they did not have to go to war. But we must survive.

Are you safe?  As I said, everything’s relative.

About the Author
Nili Bresler is an active member of Israel's pro-democracy movement. She is a business communications coach with experience in management at multinational technology companies. Prior to her career in high-tech, Nili was a news correspondent for the AP. Nili holds a degree in International Relations from NYU. In her spare time, she manages communications for the nonprofit, NATAN Worldwide Disaster Relief. Nili made aliya in 1970 and lives happily in Ramat Gan.
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