The Gates of Heaven and Hell look the same. In fact, they are the same. I know this because I walked through them recently.
The iron, 8-foot-high openings are in a non-descript, non-combat positioned IDF base in Israel called Shura. Most army bases have young men and women scurrying about, all with guns slung over their shoulders and sleeping barracks that make any Jewish sleepaway camp bunk look like the Ritz Carlton. Not Shura.
Shura is broken up into two sections: One where the ritual and religious needs of soldiers are addressed. Torah scrolls, prayer books, Tefillin and Talises are housed and distributed on Shura and any religious matters that arise in the IDF or in times of war, the rabbis of the army, which is its own brigade, handle. Those rabbis are stationed at Shura.
The second area of Shura is focused on caring for and preparing dead soldiers. That is a 365 day a year job. A soldier who dies by enemy fire, a heart attack, or a car accident all come through Shura. It is the central morgue of Israel.
Except, Shura has become what New York City and other places were during Covid. Overloaded with death by murder from the October 7th massacre. There are dozens of refrigerated trucks that house bodies and remnants of bodies on Shura. There is a loading dock where during times of peace, 1-2 stretchers are ready to take in cases that arise. Today, there are about 30-40 stretchers in the ready.
Hours after October 7th happened, scores of bodies began arriving at Shura. In the 75-year history of the country, nothing of this magnitude ever happened, nor was the country remotely prepared for an attack of this scale.
Teams of pathologists, rabbis and now, archeologists are painstakingly dealing with each body, and body part that used to house a sacred soul. They do so with care, grace, kindness and expediency.
The standard in Israel is to communicate an injury or death of a soldier to next of kin within 15 minutes. That is not a typo. Fifteen minutes. That is the fastest in the civilized world. The United States, which boasts a strong time of communication aims for 24 hours. Israel races against WhatsApp, to be the first to tell family before they find out from any other source.
My dear friend, Rabbi Felipe Goodman told his congregation a detail that gives much needed perspective. Felipe said, “When an American soldier in, let’s say, Iraq dies, it takes a day to notify family and a few days for funeral arrangements to happen and burial to take place. That is because transporting a body back to America takes time. In Israel that all happens within 24 hours. Not only because of the Jewish imperative to bury as soon as possible. But because Gaza City to Tel Aviv is a 90-minute drive. The country is tiny. Fighting in Lebanon or terror in Jerusalem is not a significant divide of time or distance.” Rabbi Goodman is right.
When we think of the heroes of Israel, especially during times of war, our minds conjure up images of people like the strong and burly, Ariel Sharon, who was wounded three different times in battles protecting Israel. We think of Yoni Netanyahu, the hairy chested, muscular soldier who sacrificed his life saving hostages in Entebbe. We think of the eye-patched Dayan who was fearless and daring. I no longer think of those characters.
The image of mighty women and men, holding powerful machine guns, decorated in flak-jackets and adorned with ribbons of honor have been replaced in my mind’s eye with simple, short, thick eyeglass wearing, nerdy looking men and women. They are mostly weaponless. They are manning the operations at Shura. These are some of the unsung heroes of this moment.
At Shura, I visited a room where families are given a last moment with their loved one. It is a solemn space draped with an Israeli flag, flowers and dim lighting. One Orthodox rabbi told me this room is as hallowed as the Holy of Holies in the Temple. He is right.
We saw from afar, the steel door that keeps the sacred rooms for ritual washing and identification of the dead. Behind the surgical masks covering faces of doctors and forensic specialists, were nameless folks doing the most holy tasks in a space as secure and private as the Mossad headquarters.
These same men and women, some religious and some secular, are the liaisons with bereaved families. They are handling with dignity, care, kindness and tenderness the remains of the fallen. These less brawny but equally heroic soldiers safeguard the respect due to those killed by terror or others fallen in battle. The solemnity with which they carry themselves along with the honor they afford families during their unbridled grief is unmatched.
I asked one of the rabbis that has been stationed in Shura since the night of the 7th when he was called up for reserve duty, how he is coping with the situation. It is a lot of trauma, blood and constant sadness.
He replied, “I am usually an emotional fellow. I cry at movies. I am sensitive. Somehow, I have put up a wall when doing the agonizing yet necessary work that has been called upon me here. But once every 10 days, before I go home and hug my wife and kids, the release valve is triggered, and the cries and screams come out. Then after a home visit, I steel up and prepare to walk back through the gates of hell.”
I replied to him, “You mean the Gates of Heaven. What you are doing for these families is paving a pathway for their loved ones to feel respected and exit this world with dignity. It is holy work. You are guiding them towards heaven.”
The rabbi said back to me, “We might be giving them heaven. We, the ones working here, are going through hell to give them the heaven they deserve.”
The rabbis and soldiers of Shura are heroes that deserve mention for their grace and heroism and leadership during this tragic time.
All knew the Israel-Hamas war would have ripple effects on the Jewish community, worldwide. I did not know that we would feel those ripples so significantly in Bergen County, where I live.
The local Solomon Schechter School, where both of my kids graduated from the 8th grade has been at the epicenter of this war. Four families at the school had relatives who were killed on the 7th of October. Other families have loved ones being held captive. The hurt and grief is close.
Israelis in the north and south of Israel have been forced to evacuate their homes and relocate since the war began. Some who have family in America sent their kids on a plane to be with family and continue their education abroad. I have met 17-year-old high school seniors and 6-year-old first-graders who are in the same boat, in America. The younger ones came with at least one parent. As one congregant reflected yesterday, it is a modern-day Kinder-transport, of sorts. A haunting yet beautiful image that evokes horror and hope.
The Solomon Schechter School of Bergen County has opened its doors to any student from Israel, free of cost. The language bridge offered coupled with many Israeli teachers will be a welcome environment in an unwished-for time. To date, 44 Israeli students have enrolled at Schechter. That is an increase of 10% of their student body.
I could not be prouder of the school our family supports and our children attended. I am also lifted by the generosity of our community which has helped support the school during this unplanned financial challenge. It reminds me of the closing chapter of the book, Brighton Beach Memoirs, where a Jewish family gets a visa out of Europe as the War is beginning. The large family will come and live in an already crammed Jerome house amongst cousins, in Brooklyn. No one cared. They were happy they got out and, as was written, people will share beds. What matters is they are safe.
A different kind of chapter is being written today where we are offering blessings and thanksgiving for those who are safe and able to find respite and a semblance of normalcy in schools and our community. We will figure out where they will fit in for class and how we will pay for it. What matters most is they are here, and they feel loved and welcome for as long as they choose to be with us.