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How a man I never met changed my life

It was the Second Intifada, my eldest was a baby, and we were deliberating visiting Israel - how could we, with all the terror attacks?!
Image by dror lahat from Pixabay

I seem to find new inspiration every time that I volunteer at the Pina Chama, the Soldiers’ Corner in Gush Etzion. Today, while I was working, I started to think about one of the two men for whom the center is named. Tzachi Sasson lived on Kibbutz Rosh Tzurim and was murdered on the bridge between Jerusalem and Gush Etzion while driving home to his family after work on February 11, 2001. He left behind two young children, his wife, and many other loved one.

I never knew Tzachi. But, he was instrumental in changing the course of my life.

You see, in February 2001, we were living in Potomac, Maryland with our 9-month-old baby. We had good jobs, a lovely home, a nice community and loving families. We were not yet thinking about making aliyah; but, we had bought plane tickets for Pesach 2001 to visit our friends in Neve Daniel, Rafi and Atzila. They had recently returned to Israel from serving the community in Potomac as part of the Torah Mitzion Kollel.

And as the Pesach date for our trip grew near, I got more and more scared about going. The Second Intifada was well under way and terror was a daily occurrence. Israel was at war, as the news in the States kept blaring. What crazy young family would consider flying into the war zone for a visit?

So, I made a decision. I decided that I would call Rafi and would gain reassurance from him that we really should be coming. He would allay my fears and tell me how important it was that we come and how wonderful a time we would have. He would tell me that we would be safe.

We didn’t have an international phone plan, so it was an undertaking to get in touch with Rafi. I spoke with my neighbor about going to her house in the early afternoon and calling from there. I remember racing over to her house after work and sitting at her kitchen table listening to the long, foreign rings.

Rafi answered.

“I guess you heard,” he said.

“No, we didn’t hear anything. What’s going on?”

“Oh, it’s on the cover of every newspaper. I figured that was why you were calling.”

And with a voice filled with grief, exhaustion, frustration and horror, Rafi explained that they had just come from the cemetery; that they had just buried his lifelong friend, Tzachi; that they were driving home on the very road Tzachi was just murdered on, the road they drove on every single day to get to Jerusalem.

I listened, in stunned silence. I had called him to check that the roads were alright; that we would be safe at their house; that we weren’t insane to bring our 9-month-old son to Israel.

I never told him why I was calling. I just listened to my broken friend on the phone, and I cried with him.

When we hung up and I told my neighbor the story, she said, “You know what this means, right?”

“Um,” I said. “That there is absolutely no way in the world that we are getting on that plane?”

And she just gave me that knowing half-smile and a deep look of understanding.

I knew what she was about to say.

“It means, of course, that there is absolutely no way in the world that you aren’t getting on that plane.”

I sighed, the sigh of every young mother wanting to protect her children; the sigh of every person who knows what the right thing to do is, even if they desperately want to do the opposite.

I knew we were going. Because, really, if I loved Israel and Israel was in pain, then I needed to be there. Who was I to decide that my 9-month-old was more worthy of protection than Rafi’s 9-month-old? Who was I to decide that my life meant more than Tzachi’s? Who was I to sit in my comfortable house in Potomac while war was waging in Israel, in a country that I loved and to people I cherished?

Who, really, was I?

We went on that trip.

We were cautious and scared; we didn’t do much traveling around or sightseeing. But we were in Israel. Our presence actually stunned many Israelis that we met, and their outpouring of gratitude was humbling. We ate, we laughed, we enjoyed, and we worried. We bought our son his first pair of shoes and laughed with the shoe salesman as the little guy pulled and pushed to try to get them off. We spoke with a salesman in downtown Jerusalem who described the economic terror he was facing in addition to the physical and psychological ones. We wiped our tears away, and he handed us a beautiful small drawing that is framed and still in our house today. We spent money in stores, we said hello to strangers, and we sang around Rafi and Atzila’s seder table.

And somehow, that young, scared couple ended up moving to Neve Daniel – three houses down from Rafi and Aztila. And, today, we are raising six sons in the Land of our people. In the Land where Tzachi lived, and died.

And somehow, today, I volunteer a few times a month at the soldier center named for Tzachi (and for Dr. Shmuel Gillis, a hematologist from Carmei Tzur killed on the road the week before Tzachi was).

Today, as I was serving cakes to the soldiers and giggling with my 9-year-old, I managed to take the time that we don’t always take to marvel at where life had led me. My own son, that baby that we brought on vacation in 2001, is serving in the IDF. His first pair of shoes were bought in Israel, as were his first pair of army boots. And I volunteer at the center named for the man who is partially responsible for our aliyah.

In the upcoming parsha, Lech Lecha, Hashem tells Avraham to leave everything he has ever known and to go to a new place; a place that was promised to him. It’s not an easy journey; it’s not one he originally planned to take or knew he needed to, or perhaps particularly wanted to. But that journey has made all the difference, and has led him, and us, to the Land of our People for our past, present and future.


About the Author
Romi Sussman is a teacher and writer. When she's not at her computer, she's juggling raising six boys ages 9-20 and conquering daily life as an Olah. She enjoys blogging here and on her personal blog at http://aineretzacheret.com.
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