I am startled awake. It is 2 a.m. on a Friday night and my 11-year-old son is standing over our bed, gulping air, stumbling over words. “I’m scared,” he says. “I don’t feel safe in my bed.” There’s a terrifying image that he can’t get out of his mind. Whenever he closes his eyes, he sees it again, in horrible detail. “I’m afraid something bad is going to happen to me,” he gasps. We try to reassure him. We have him bring a mattress so he can sleep on the floor of our room. I cuddle him and get him to talk about things that make him happy, and he monologues in the dark. We fall back asleep.
Over the next week he struggles with intrusive thoughts and fears that creep over him as night falls. He says when he lies in bed he can’t stop seeing an image of a man with a bloody face breaking into the window and crouching over him in the dark with a knife.
I tell him that it’s normal to have these fears. I teach him mindfulness and breathing techniques and introduce him to guided meditation podcasts on Spotify. I tell him that his brain is maturing and becoming aware of the dangers of living in this world, and this is his brain’s way of trying to get him to pay attention, to warn him. Fear is an important emotion, I tell him, it’s there to protect us. We just have to find a way to get our brains to understand that actually, we are safe.
You are safe, I tell him. The door is locked. Abba and I are here. And beyond our home there are so many layers of protection, I explain. There’s the police, and the army. And neighbors, and our community, and lots and lots of people who are keeping us safe. No one is going to break into your room and try to murder you.
He listens to the meditations. He practices box breathing. And he falls asleep.
Then comes the morning of Simchat Torah.
We hear booms over the hills of Bethlehem. They sound like rocket fire and Iron Dome interceptions, but with a frequency we’ve never heard before. We understand that something is happening, but what on earth? It’s never like this, I say to my husband. We all know the drill, don’t we? There’s usually a buildup of some sort. And it’s usually just a few booms when they’re shooting at Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and the sound of planes shortly thereafter, delivering an answer to the rocket fire. Where are the planes?
Snippets of news start trickling in over the course of the day, growing steadily more disturbing. Even so, nothing could prepare me for the headlines I see when I turn my phone on after Shabbat.
No one is going to break into your room and try to murder you.
How am I supposed to look my son in the eye and say this again?
Where was the army?
Where was the police?
Where was the government?
Where were all those layers of protection I was assuring my son were standing guard over him?
I’ve lived in Israel for 27 years and I’ve seen some s**t. I came of age during the Second Intifada. I watched the second Twin Tower collapse on live television. I dodged rockets in Haifa during the Second Lebanon War. I huddled in the corner of the kitchen in my safe-room-less home with my young children in 2012, and again in 2014. A few weeks ago, I witnessed a terrorist being shot after trying to attack some soldiers at a checkpoint.
But I’ve never felt so vulnerable. So betrayed. So gutted. So let down. Through all of it, I maintained a basic sense of confidence and faith in the army and in our leaders, a belief that we were strong and resilient, that we had the upper hand, that despite everything, we would prevail.
It feels like 9/11, the Yom Kippur War, and the beginning of the COVID lockdowns all thrown into one.
My son has been chattering away all day about the Arab-Israeli conflict with the naïve confidence of a child who has yet to discover the spiraling complexity of the situation. But it’s dark outside now, and he’s afraid of the images in his own head. My husband records himself saying reassuring things so my son can hear his soothing voice in the night without waking him. We tell my son not to look at the news. And he falls asleep.
I lie awake.