What follows is an edited version of a letter I sent to colleagues at a large US-based tour company that I have been associated with since 2009. I have omitted the company’s name for privacy considerations.
Hello, my friends:
While I am sure you are all following the news from Israel, I thought I might give you a personal report from the home front.
The country is still in a state of shock following the most horrendous of massacres. 1,400 people, the majority Jewish civilians, were brutally murdered on October 7th — babies and children in front of their parents, families burnt to death in their homes, bodies mutilated, women raped (some after they had been already killed), and youth attending an outdoor music festival, gunned down at point blank range as they were trying to escape. And the terrorists “proudly” filmed these atrocities on the victims’ own phones. This is the largest number of Jews killed in a single day since the Holocaust. The people of this country are mourning the huge loss of life and are worried for the fate of the over 200 Israelis and other nationals who were taken captive by Hamas and for the soldiers who are on the front lines. They have still not finished identifying all the victims yet. Just recently, two more bodies were found–one was of a four- or five-year-old, who hid in his home’s attic. The house had been burned down. As a nation, we are heartbroken.
When people ask if we are okay, most say, answer, yes. But no one is okay. No one. I don’t think any of us have absorbed the enormity of what has taken place. The Friday before the attack I was at the beach. That was a century ago. Maybe more.
I first heard of the attack on Saturday, October 7th as I was getting ready to go to synagogue on the Jewish Holiday of Simchat Torah–the Joy of the Torah. My husband came home and told me to hurry as they were saying everything faster as there had been an attack in the South and missiles raining down on parts of the country. We knew very little at this point. While in synagogue, a siren sounded, warning us take shelter.
As most of you know, I am observant–I do not use the phone, watch TV or drive on Shabbat or holidays. As there were several tour groups in the country and it was an emergency situation, I decided I would break the rules (rules are meant to be broken) and spent the better part of the day on the phone with representatives of the company abroad and staff members on the ground here. It was sometime during the day that Daniella, one of our daughters called to say our son-in-law was called up (he is a reserves officer in an elite fighting unit) and that his wife, Michal (our youngest daughter) was driving him to his pickup point. Later that day, she showed up at our home with her two little girls, aged four and two. She is trying to hold it together–being there for her kids, while worried sick about her husband and watching the shocking images on the news. Some days are better than others. This is a tiny country–I don’t know one person who does not know someone who was injured, killed or missing. One of the first names released was a high-ranking officer who grew up in our neighborhood. He was 43, a father of six.
For the first few days, people did not really venture out. The only excursions were to supermarkets and initially many of the shelves were empty. (At this point, there is no food shortage, though we are forever stocking up on milk!) One night, the Homefront Command put everyone in a panic and told people they should stock up on water. My daughter and I ran out to the gas station and bought whatever we could find. They later said that it was just a general precaution. (We now have enough bottled water to supply a busload of tourists.) The streets in Jerusalem have been quiet–people talk in whispers. But as Jerusalem has not been directly hit (there were a few sirens, but not many), people are starting to venture out. During the first week, shops in a local mall were closed, except for the pharmacy. Today, most were open. All supermarkets are open. People are sitting in coffee shops, trying to support local businesses and hold onto a modicum of sanity. People are going to bookstores and stationary shops. They are buying endless supplies of arts and crafts items for kids at home (one of my stops today). Schools and kindergartens have been closed. though some began to open last week. Universities have pushed off the opening of the Fall semester till November.
The news is filled with story after story of people killed, civilians and soldiers alike. I keep seeing the faces of those murdered and of those kidnapped–young, gorgeous faces, babies and children, mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers. This had nothing to do with fighting for freedom–this was a brutal slaughter of innocent people.
The news is also filled with stories of bravery — how one soldier, for example, jumped in front of a grenade and saved six lives; of a Bedouin driver who rescued 25 lives by packing them into his vehicle that had room for eight. There is the story of a father, who received the call that his missing eight-year-old daughter was dead. He was actually relieved. He didn’t want to hear that she was among those in captivity in Gaza, where surely, she would have been cruelly abused. My son-in-law has a friend who was at the music festival. They belong to the same unit in the army. When the Hamas terrorists began shooting, he began to run, dodging bullets and jumping over fallen bodies. He ran for two days straight (thoughts of Forrest Gump). He survived and is today raising money for his unit. One of our tour guides’ nieces was at the festival. She was shot in the back and survived; her boyfriend was killed. The stories go on and on.
Everyone is on edge. We are told this will not end soon. Missiles and rockets are continuously being fired from Gaza and now from Lebanon. Our daughter, Daniella, and her husband live just outside of Tel Aviv. They live on the fourth floor with their 18-month-old daughter. When a siren sounds, often after bedtime, they stand in the stairwell with their baby in their arms, sharing the space with other parents and other bleary-eyed children and a 94-year-old Holocaust survivor. Our eldest daughter, Rikki, is trying to juggle working with abbreviated childcare, hoping a siren won’t sound when she is not by her kids’ sides.
Everyone–on the phone and in person–asks one another: “where is your husband, your son, your daughter, your son-in-law, your grand children?” All my youngest daughter’s friends’ husbands have been called up. One of our Jerusalem guides, Nikky, has three sons and a son-in-law in the military reserves. We are talking about over 350,000 reserve soldiers. Men and women who were abroad have made their way back to Israel to join their units and to volunteer. The rate of soldiers turning up for duty is 150%. People may ask, why come back, why do you stay. The answer is simple: this is our home. We are not leaving.
The spirit of volunteerism has taken over the country. Scores of organizations have been set up to help both the residents from the South who have had to leave their homes and to provide soldiers with whatever they might need–from thermal underwear to lifts to their bases. My colleague, Amy, has been busy sending supplies to the lone soldier they adopted years ago. Our hotels are full—not with tourists, but with evacuees from the south and, as I am writing this, from the north of the country, as well. People are collecting clothes and toys for the displaced children; they are cooking food for those who have had to abandon their homes, for moms whose husbands have been called up, and for our soldiers. Another one of our guides, Shari, made 100 sushi rolls and brought it to one of the Jerusalem hospitals so the doctors and nurses who are working around the clock would have a treat. There are those providing free therapy and others offering babysitting services. My daughter, Michal, offered her apartment to someone from the south. My hairdresser advertised that he would offer free haircuts for soldiers and people whose homes–and lives–were destroyed by Hamas. A world-renowned Israeli chef has been cooking meals for soldiers on a massive scale. Israeli singers have been singing at ad hoc weddings that have been taking place at army bases. Others are singing for the injured in hospitals. People have been standing in line for up to six hours to donate blood. And most chilling of all, people have responded to calls to help dig graves–to volunteer to dig graves. While many of us are (and have been) critical of the current government, this wave of volunteerism, of people helping each other, is the Israel that I love.
Just before Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath, there was a knock at our door. Not expecting anyone, we answered warily. Two women presented us with flowers with a note: “For the mothers and wives of soldiers at the front, we wish you a Shabbat Shalom.”
Yes, this is the Israel that I love.
Right now my role is to support my daughters and help take care of my grandchildren. I am essentially doing what I can on the very literal home front where I am needed most. From dressing up in costumes, to arts and crafts to story time, I am waiting to see what projects I’ll be able to come up with over the next few days—guiding tourists is so much easier.
I have been living in Israel for forty years. I was here during the Gulf War when we had to don gas masks, get our babies in protective tents when Scud missiles were falling. I was here during the four years of the Second Intifada (and more people were killed in that one October day than during those four terrible years). I have been here when my son fought in Gaza and when my son-in-law fought there just a month before his wedding. I have been here during other missile and terrorist attacks—when visits were sometimes cancelled mid-tour. But this is different. This is totally different.
As a Holocaust educator, both in Yad Vashem and at Jewish Heritage sites in Poland, this war has left me thinking about my future narrative at these sites. It will be different, though I am not yet sure how that narrative will play out. While I have been moved by the outpouring of messages of concern (and I truly thank each and everyone of you), the one which touched me the most was from a Holocaust survivor whom I had once interviewed. “Thinking of you,” wrote this 90-plus year-old-woman who had survived numerous death camps and lost most of her family during the Holocaust. Unfathomable.
We, as a nation, have been moved beyond words by the support we have been given by President Biden and so many other leaders in the United States and around the world. When the President spoke, we actually stood up and applauded. We felt so proud to be Americans and are so thankful for the aid and endorsement he has given us. And were so moved by his visit here last week. We know public opinion will start to sway against us–it already has–as news and images of the civilians being killed in Gaza continue to be broadcast and published. The images of the lives lost following the attack at the hospital in Gaza were heart-rendering. But, it has been made clear that the missile that hit the courtyard of the building was a failed launch by the Islamic Jihad. As a nation, as a people, we mourn the loss of innocent lives. Israel has been repeatedly warning civilians in Gaza to head to the southern end of the Strip. Hamas has been telling them to stay where they are. They have even forced Palestinians to return to the area Israel has warned them to leave. The bombs we drop are targeted at Hamas leaders and terrorists and their infrastructure. But Hamas continues to use innocent civilians, men, women and children as human shields. They plant rocket launchers inside schools, mosques, and hospitals. The Palestinians of the Gaza Strip deserve something much better. And so do we.
Every morning when I awake, I am shattered to realize that this is not a passing nightmare. It is real. But I also know this too will pass. We are strong and we are determined. We shall persevere. And I look forward to the day when I shall greet tourists and visitors and show them once again the beauty this land and its people have to offer.
The prophet Isaiah offers a vision of universal peace:
They shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.
2,800 years later, his words resonate more than ever.
All the very best,
Shelley Kleiman Trachtenberg