Matan Rudner
Immigrant, former Lone Soldier, Progressive Zionist

We Are At War

This column originally appeared in the Texas Jewish Post.

On Friday night I ate a small Shabbat dinner with my roommate and played with my cat. My friend Moshe came over and we had some wine on the balcony overlooking the courtyard. We talked about our weeks, our worries. I was preparing for school to start and stressing about an exam. We talked things through and later I went to sleep. Plans for the next day: eating cereal, reading a book, maybe pretending to attempt to look at my dirty dishes.

I was awakened by the sound of sirens. Though I’ve heard them several times before, on my Kibbutz near Gaza and at my old job in south Jerusalem, they’re still a rarity in Jerusalem, where the presence of a third of a million Palestinians and some of Islam’s holiest sites have traditionally protected its residents from the rocket barrages from Hamas. To be honest, I was so confused that by the time I got out of bed, we heard the boom of the Iron Dome destroying the missile in the air above us and the siren stopped.

By this point, Israelis have been used to what we call “rounds of fighting” with Hamas in Gaza for almost twenty years. And though I was scared, I assumed I knew what was coming: a few days of fighting Hamas, rockets in the south, a few dead on both sides and condemnations from around the world. You, Israel’s supporters abroad, know this routine too. Post on Instagram, text your friends, wait it out.
And though we have only begun to understand the tragedy that has befallen us, it became clear quite quickly that this was something entirely different.

Over the following minutes and hours and days information came flooding in and with each notification our hearts broke and broke and broke and the most sinister of our nightmares became reality.

What we saw shocked the world. Entire families killed. Grandparents and parents and children stolen from their homes, the corpses of our loved ones violated, young women raped and slaughtered at a party.

Israel is a small country and with dread I waited for news from my loved ones. Baruch Hashem, whatever that is supposed to mean now, my family of friends are safe. But after six years here, my community has grown and they are among the fallen.

Two of my friends were at the party in the south where they murdered three hundred. One escaped with his life, driving his friends away from the terrorists who looked him in the eyes. Crying on an interview on TV, he said that, despite everyone telling him he is a hero, he does not want to be a hero, the price was too heavy to pay.

Another friend was at the party, she escaped with her life and I thank God she is safe and with her family, though her friends are among the missing. Moshe’s brother was supposed to get a ticket but decided otherwise. My best friend’s boyfriend doesn’t like concerts so he didn’t accept an invitation to go. Her brother’s adopted family on his Kibbutz were kidnapped by Hamas and have been taken into Gaza, may Hashem help them. Her aunt was rescued by the IDF from her home, Beeri, where at least Another friend’s younger sister is missing. Another friend’s relative on his Kibbutz was killed. Another friend in the army lost a member of his unit in battle and ten are wounded. My roommate’s friend was killed.

When I first made Aliyah a wonderful Kibbutz called Urim, located near the Gaza border, took me and my friends in and I lived there for a year and a half. We were given host families to support us throughout our time in the army and have remained close ever since. Friends on the Kibbutz invited me over for Shabbat dinner, but I couldn’t make the trek from Jerusalem given my exams. Three of my friends who made Aliyah with me were there and they, like the rest of that community, stayed locked in their shelters as terrorists invaded the region. They were rescued by the IDF after hours, and they, like my beloved host family, are evacuating the area. My host sister and her husband and seven month old daughter Gefen are, thank God, safe and staying with friends near Tel Aviv, which, though it has been bombarded by missiles, is still farther than their Kibbutz from the front.
Once the scale of the tragedy was understood, the country mobilized immediately. Hundreds of thousands of reservists were called out of their civilian lives and back into service. Among them are my friends, from Jerusalem and St. Louis and Chicago and Dallas and Philadelphia. Now, as you read this, they are in uniform protecting me and you and all of us. Had my progressive parents not taken me as a child to a therapist who prescribed me medication that would disqualify me from combat service, that’s where I would likely be too.

The full scale of this hell on earth is not yet known. Already it has been compared, without exaggeration, not to other rounds of fighting Hamas, but to 9/11, the Yom Kippur War, and the Holocaust. October 7, the 22 of Tishrei, was the bloodiest day in Jewish history since 1945. For the first real time in my life, we are at war.

In the immediate aftermath I developed a routine- weeping, eating, frantically texting and calling my loved ones, reading the news over and over, racing back and forth to the shelter downstairs with my roommate and my wailing cat Baruch and neighbors I had never met before. Two Australian tourists staying in the building look concerned, and a neighbor says to them “Welcome to Israel.” I began rewatching Ugly Betty to distract myself and have been receiving a deluge of calls and texts from friends and acquaintances with whom I haven’t spoken in years. Their support, and the support of the whole Dallas Jewish community, strengthens us. I will be grateful to you for the rest of my life.

Today, Monday, the third day of the war, I saw a post on my friend’s Instagram story that said a Lone Soldier, someone who doesn’t have their parents in the country at the time of their service, was killed and that people should attend his funeral to ensure there was a Minyan.

As a former Lone Soldier myself and as a tour guide who on better days tells solemn stories of funerals just like this one to respectful tourists, I felt it was my obligation to go.

I put on my dark velvet Kippa from my cousin’s Bar Mitzvah, put my pepper spray in my pocket, and a necklace with a scroll of the Shema around my neck.

I left my home and witnessed a Jerusalem at war. Almost everything was closed, as if it were Shabbat, on a Monday. Policemen and young female soldiers with guns everywhere, clouds in the sky, near silence on the usually boisterous light rail. German and Korean tourists look shocked and somewhat guilty for unwittingly witnessing a nation grieve so much.

The old man sitting next to me on the train asks me how to exit out of an ad on his phone, I help him and he returns to playing solitaire. A young American calls someone, presumably his mother, to update them on his dentist appointment.
We reach Har Herzl, the last stop on the line, and the entire train empties. Usually the entrance to the cemetery, memorial and museum (decked out with a sign “Welcome to the Herzl Center – 75 Years of the State of Israel!”) is full of school groups and army units and tourists all heading to different sections of the complex to learn about our past. Today, we all move together to the same section, the newest one.

Just like at the funeral of Michael Levin z”l who died in the Second Lebanon War, hundreds and hundreds were there. Just like Michael’s mother at his funeral, I assumed that there were many being buried at the same time given the horrors of the war. Just like his mother at his funeral, I was moved to tears when informed that no, actually, the Lone Soldier’s funeral was the only one happening today.
Two friends I hadn’t spoken to in months were there, and we found our way to each other. We waited in silence for the ceremony to start. First, instructions given by an officer of what to do in case of a siren during the funeral. Later, I catch a glimpse of the mayor who has arrived. Finally, the coffin wrapped with an Israeli flag is brought in, carried on the backs of still living soldiers.

His name was Netanel Young, of blessed memory. He was twenty years old and made Aliyah from England. An officer from his brigade, Golani, spoke. Then his brother and sister and mother and father. They spoke of a young man who loved Israel from a young age and whose dream was to serve in the IDF. He loved his four nieces and his friends and his people. He played Settlers of Catan, he was a DJ.
As his sister was speaking, the sirens went off. There wasn’t time to get to a shelter so, as the officer instructed, everyone got on the ground, put their arms over their heads, and waited for the sirens to stop. My friends are crying around me on the ground and I recite to myself the Adon Olam: With my spirit, my body, God is with me, I shall not fear.

We heard the booms in the distance and soon the sirens stopped. The funeral resumes, the mourners say Kaddish, and another soldier is buried in Israel. Nearly a thousand other funerals will take place in the coming days.

On the way home, as the Home Front Command instructed, my roommate and I bought food and water and other provisions we think we might need. Protein shakes, cat food, challah, Trix cereal, extra water.

Immigrants here are often told that, when they hear their first siren and experience their first war, they truly become Israeli. Like others, I used to feel, alongside the horror and fear, a small sense of pride when I went through these things. If they are happening, I thought, at least I am here to share in it.

Since Saturday morning I’ve been calling my loved ones and friends, I’ve been reading the lists of the dead and wounded and missing and praying that I won’t recognize any names. I’ve hugged my friends tightly before saying goodbye, not knowing what tomorrow will bring. I have been initiated into Israeli trauma and I wish I could take it all back, wish that I could have remained Israeli but on the outside of Israeliness, never fully understanding war for the relative peace in my time. I pray this is the closest I will ever get.

There is so much we do not yet know.

We do not know how this happened, how our mighty military and intelligence services allowed such a thing to occur. In the initial shock we have no idea what the future looks like. What will become of our people, how will we change? As with the pandemic and with the ongoing attempted judicial coup, this war has left us all in the dark.

And there are things that we do know.

We know that the People of Israel have been cursed, since our birth, to be a nation of professional fighters and mourners. Despite its unprecedented nature, this attack put everyone into motion. The system of volunteers and charities sprang into action, thousands flooded the blood banks to donate, all of us have offered our homes to refugees from the south. Well known Hebrew songs of war return with a new relevance, eulogies and burials are yet again commonplace.

We know that this government, which has spent its entire ten month tenure destroying Israel from the inside, pitting citizen against citizen, Jew against Arab, religious against secular, has weakened us. They let this happen on their watch, too focused on grabbing power.

We know that this Prime Minister, who has led the Jewish people kicking and screaming into the abyss to ensure his political survival, will have to answer to all of us. When the time comes, we will take to the streets and to the ballot boxes. He will yet answer for his crimes.

We know that we are not alone. I’ve gotten used to saying that Israel stands on its own, that we are responsible for our own defense. Then the Iron Dome, paid for by American taxpayers, stopped seven rockets in my path. Then President Biden ordered massive aircraft carriers to our shores, and we wept in gratitude for Uncle Sam. Like many others, I’ve been exasperated at AIPAC for their lack of response to the urgent political crisis in Israel. Today, they literally saved my life.

We know who our friends are and who will suffer our rage. I found out through social media which friends are keeping us in their thoughts and prayers and I found out which former friends, among them at least four fellow Greenhill graduates, posted messages of support for the kidnappings and murders. We will never forgive, we will never forget.

We know that Hamas is indiscriminate in its hatred, that rockets and bullets have killed Palestinian citizens of Israel in the south and the center of the country. We know that a rocket fired by Hamas damaged a Mosque outside of Jerusalem.

We know that those with the most to lose will be the millions of innocent Gazans trapped by Hamas in a strip it turned into a base of terror. They, like every human being between the river and the sea, deserve freedom. Their cause has been forever intertwined, by their leaders’ own doing, with these acts of evil, by this barbarity of biblical proportions. Today they are ensnared by a mourning Jewish people, with tears in its eyes and vengeance in its heart. I ache and pray for them too.

We know that we are commanded by God to do everything in our power to prevent the loss of civilian life in Gaza, including our own civilians held captive there. Food and water, the only aid that cannot be weaponized and is essential for human life, must be restored to Gaza and it’s nearly two million inhabitants immediately.
We know that Simchat Torah, the holiday of our joy, has been blackened. Another holy day stolen from us, another date on the calendar to be forever associated with the memory of our slaughtered.

We know that we will never give up, never surrender. I know, in the words of national hero Yoni Netanyahu of blessed memory that, “I would rather live here with the ongoing fighting than be a part of a wandering Jewish people, because I have zero intention of telling my grandchildren of a Jewish state that existed in our time as a short, passing episode in a millennia of wandering Jews.”

We know what we must do. We must act now to demand the immediate release of all of the hostages, the roughly 150 Jewish men, women, and children who are, at this very moment, in the hands of beasts. We must support our soldiers on the front and give whatever we can to their efforts. We must support the new orphans, the mourning parents, the families left with no caretaker at home as the thousands are called to duty.

It is to them that we now commit all of ourselves in this struggle. The people of Israel, the eternal nation, will live on. The Simchat Torah War has begun. We are forever changed.

About the Author
Matan made Aliyah from Dallas, Texas and served as a Lone Soldier in the IDF. He is a tour guide and lives in Jerusalem with his cat, Baruch.
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