Daniel B. Schwartz

Notes From the (Almost) Warzone

I’m a native born American.  I and my family made Aliyah to Rehovot seven years ago when I was 46 years old.  Americans are uniquely possessed of a confidence born of the security of never having to entertain even the possibility that a foreign invasive force could pose an existential threat to them.  I was never actively aware of that characteristic until this past Shmini Atzeret.  Because it was then, for the first time, that I became aware of the possibility at least, that my life and those most dear to me could face destruction at the hands of a foreign hostile invader.  It’s disorienting.  It’s enraging.  It’s terrifying.

I awoke on Shmini Atzeret at around 6:20 in the morning.  It’s when I usually get up on Shabbat or chagim.  Getting up at that hour gives me time to have a bite to eat with my wife and read some of the weekend newspaper before I head out to schul, which starts at 8:00.  That morning, my wife was at work at the local hospital where she’s a nurse in the cardiac ward.  My older son was on Kibbutz Meirav, where he works in the vineyard and tomato hothouse.  My daughter was in her home in Afula.  My youngest son was home with me.

As I was brushing my teeth, at around 6:30, I heard a boom in the distance.  I didn’t pay much attention to it.  About thirty seconds later the air raid siren went off.  Truthfully, my first reaction to the siren was to wonder why, on Yom Tov of all days, would the Pikud haOref, the Home Front Command, test the air raid siren?  A second later though, I realized that I need to get to the bomb shelter on my floor in ninety seconds.  The siren woke my son up and we went to the shelter with our neighbors.  We waited for the all clear signal and went home.  I started to make breakfast.  Five minutes later, the siren went off again, and we went back to the shelter.  For the next hour and a half, we were in and out of the shelter every five to ten minutes.

Eventually, there was something of a lull in the rockets flying towards Rehovot.  My son and I quickly got dressed and left for schul; he went to Rehovot’s wonderful Berman Shul, one of two Anglo shuls in the city, and I went to the Beit Knesset haGadol which is nearer to our house, where I was slated to be chazzan for Musaf.  It usually takes me about five minutes to walk to schul.  This time, it took me nearly fifteen.  There was a siren while I was on the way.  I ran into a nearby building and waited in the stairwell for the all clear.

Shmini Atzeret/Simchat Torah at the Beit Knesset haGadol is usually a joyous event, admixed with a serious respect for modern Israeli history.  It’s a very open and tolerant schul.  Jews from all walks of Israeli society come.  Students from the nearby Chareidi yeshiva come and dance Hakafot with long haired bohemians.  Everyone gets along in that sanctuary.  As Rehovot’s first schul, built in 1906, during Yizkor, Theodore Herzl, Chaim Weizman (who lived in Rehovot), all the chief rabbis of Rehovot, as well as the Broide family who built the synagogue, are remembered with Kel Maleh prayers.  Between Hakafot, giving aliyot to nearly two hundred men at four separate Torah readings, the extended Yizkor and Mussaf, davening usually takes four to five hours.  This year though, there was none of that. About thirty five men and a handful of women braved the rockets to come.  Davening lasted a little over two hours, including a few trips downstairs to the shelter.  I’ve been a semi-professional chazzan for over thirty five years.  Geshem is my favorite tefillah to lead after Neilah on Yom Kippur.   It is the last major davening of the Chagei Tishrei, and it calls for a cantorial tour de force.  This year, I led it and Mussaf in seven minutes.

That morning was another first for me.  For the first time in at least forty years, I was mechaleil Shabbat.  From the time I entered the bomb shelter the second time, I was never without my iPhone.  My wife called me to make sure I and our son were safe, my mother called me from her apartmenet in Jerusalem.  During Kriat haTorah in schul, cousins in a neighboring town called to check up on us.  I whatsapped with my older children.  None of us were in imminent danger (Thank G-d).  But we all felt an overwhelming need to know that our family and loved ones were out of harm’s way.  And we had a palpable need to know what was happening to Israel.  I had a physical need to hear and see the news as it unfolded.  This was a surprise attack.  We were all completely unprepared for what was done to us.  Later in the day, when I returned to schul for Mincha, I leaned that I was not alone.  Everyone was up on the latest news and rumors.  After the chag I was told that prominent Israeli rabbis, from both the Ne’emani Torah vaAvodah and Dati Leumi communities, had ruled that everyone must always have access to information for the length of the war, including Shabbat.  So perhaps I can still be considered a Shomer Shabbat?

Sometime in the afternoon, my older son called and told me that he received a “tzav 8,” an order to report for reserve duty.  He was already on his way from Kibbutz Meirav, on Mt. Gilboa, to Afula where army transports were bringing soldiers to bases where they received their equipment.  By Sunday afternoon, he was stationed somewhere near Kiryat Shmoneh.  His unit is slated to be a line of defense in the event of a Hezbollah incursion from Lebanon.  Thus far, he’s been complaining that he’s bored.  I keep telling him to shut up and stay bored.

Yom Tov ended, and Israel began going about the task of creating a semblance of normal routine.  I’ve been going to my office in Jerusalem.  But since the courts are not fully operational, my cases have all been postponed.  Malls, restaurants, and most shops are closed.  Schools have been closed.  While hoarding isn’t happening, people are buying more groceries than normal, putting an additional strain on what is always a difficult re-supplying and re-opening of the grocery stores after the Chagim.  And yet, we push on.

Since the start of the war, I’ve been riding something of a mental/emotional roller coaster.  I know that Israel will win this war.  I have confidence in the institutions of the state.  I hope that we will obliterate Hamas once and for all.  And I dare pray that as a result of doing that, perhaps the geopolitical paradigm will meaningfully shift.  Peace in our time?  But I also know that achieving that goal of victory will be costly.  We, mainly Israel but Klal Yisrael as a whole, will lose many of our best and brightest on the battlefield.  The traumas that were inflicted and that are to come, will never fully heal.  Kinot will come to be written about what I believe should be termed  “Nakba 5784” (I hate the term “pogrom” to describe what happened)  We may never stop mourning our losses from this war.

At the same time though, there is some measure of comfort knowing that I am neither alone nor at all unique in my feelings.  Everyone feels the same dissonant combination of confidence and dread.  From the first day I arrived here, Israel embraced me.  Never, not even once, has a native born Israeli ever shunted my opinion or feelings aside, disregarding them  simply because I’m an oleh.  Quite the contrary, I have been made to feel a natural part of Israeli society in every way.  Judges, professional colleagues, storekeepers, everyone has always related to me as if I belong here, as one of them.  If anything, the emotional upheaval wrought by the war has intensified my feelings of belongingness.  בתוך  עמי אני יושב (I dwell amongst my people).  It’s comforting.  It’s encouraging.  I can’t imagine being anywhere else.

Six days in, the war has affected my religious outlook.  Faith is altered.  Since the start of the war I can’t read Parshat haAkeidah (the binding of Isaac) each morning after Birchot haShachar (the preliminary morning blessings), without tearing up a little.  After all, it was I who brought my family, including my oldest son, to Israel, where he is now “tied” to a mountain somewhere near Lebanon waiting for something to happen.  Will another lamb in the bush appear to be offered up?  Will I have Abraham’s merit and see my boy walk down from that mountain uninjured and safe? We can’t know for sure.  The Torah does not explain why G-d chose to test Abraham in this way.  And I am as bewildered as he must have been.  What does G-d want from me?  Does He really need my anxiety?  But unlike our patriarach, I’m not at all willing to make such a sacrifice for Him.  I’d rather G-d didn’t test anyone at all.  The great Danish philsopher, Soren Abaye Kierkegaard, interpretted the Akeida as being about the “leap to faith.”  My legs aren’t so strong.  I can’t jump so far or so high.  But then, there is Pirke Avot.  איזהו גיבור, הכובש את יצרו (Who is brave, he who overcomes his inclination).  It’s not merely about avoiding the urge to sin.  It’s far more than that.  I now see it as a polemic against succumbing to despair and descending into nihilism.  It would be so easy for people to give up and give in to the feeling of helplessness.  But the sages demand that we not do that.  We are bidden to be heroes, “giborim,” against our own inclination to give up, to rise above it, and to thrive despite the adversity.  Doing so is a matter of individual and national survival.  Taking the two in tandem, where am I?  I know what I must do; be brave, be strong even if I’ve never felt more scared.  But I have no clue as to the big plan that’s in play.  Unlike Abrhaham, whom the Midrashic exegesis declares always knew that his test would resolve favorably, I’m bewildered in the fog of war.

As I write these few musings, the war is ongoing.  I hear booms in the distance and jets from the Air Force base nearby fly overhead.  My Red Alert app rings on an ongoing basis telling of attacks upon Israel from the sky.  And as such, there is no conclusion yet to my experience of it, and how I will ultimately process what’s happened and what might unfold.  I have no expectations, just a modicum of hope.  Hope that this chaos ends soon.  Hope that it ends well for Israel.  Hope that it ends well for me and those dear to me.  Hope that this never happens again.  But hope can disappear with the advent of disappointment.  So I’ll strive to achieve confidence; Confidence that I will see my boy come down from that mountain unharmed and safe.  But will I?

אין לי ארץ אחרת גם אם אדמתי בוערת

About the Author
Daniel Schwarz, an attorney with offices in Jerusalem, Efrat and Rehovot, made Aliyah from Rockland County, New York in 2016. He's also an avocational chazzan.
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