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Witness to pain, purpose, perseverance

When Rabbi Elazar Muskin, our rabbi, announced that he was leading a mission to Israel, my husband and I decided to join. We had visited Israel many times, but wondered how the Israeli people were responding to October 7 and the war. I suspected the news that I devoured, which reflected renewed discord, wasn’t really telling that story. I was right.

The packed, emotionally charged, and exhausting four-day trip told a story of resilience and determination – not the stridency and divisions that appear in the news. The high points, the low points, and everything in between continually showed that Israelis, although in pain, are resolute. Despite the war, the losses, their internal differences, and the continuing trauma, they are dedicated and determined to persevere in the Jewish state and the Land of Israel. “Am Yisrael Chai!” is a constant refrain.

Straight from the airport we went to the Shura Military Base, home of the Israeli military rabbinate. The staff there revealed unbelievable dedication and a sense of higher purpose.

A young family man and military chaplain, Rabbi Bentzi Mann, described the horrific scene at Shura immediately after October 7th. This large facility had no room for all the body bags pouring in. Between the military dead and the slaughtered civilians, Shura lacked adequate storage. The army brought in refrigerator trucks, including Choco trucks, to store the bodies. Rabbi Mann can’t drink Choco anymore.

Rabbi Mann explained that the first task when a body arrives is identification. Some bodies have been so badly mutilated that it takes months to identify them. But the Shura staff spares no expense or effort.

To start the process, the staff puts an identification band with a unique ID number on the body or body part. A previous visitor started weeping when told about the ID number. He couldn’t believe that Jews are being identified by numbers, as they were in the Holocaust.

Rabbi Mann detailed the dramatic differences. In concentration camps, numbers replaced the names of living Jews. Most were murdered and received no burial. When Shura receives a body lacking an identity, a number is temporarily assigned in order to restore their name. Once identified, they are buried with dignity and honor.

Another earlier visitor had described Shura as the “Gates of Hell,” but Rabbi Mann disagreed. “Here the dead are considered kedoshim, holy ones,” he told us. Their bodies are treated with respect and sanctity. He felt Shura had become the Gates of Heaven.

He took us to a room with a bier for placing a casket. Families come to this room to have a few moments with their loved one before leaving for his/her funeral.

Rabbi Mann’s close friend’s younger brother was killed in the war, and his casket had rested on that bier. During their youth, the friend had taken care of his kid brother many times and had sung to him HaMalaach Hagoel (the Redeeming Angel), a verse traditional Jews sing before putting a child to sleep. His friend and Rabbi Mann sang it one last time when the brother’s casket lay on the bier.

With a breaking voice, Rabbi Mann asked us to sing HaMalaach in memory of his friend’s brother. We did. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room.

His work is emotionally difficult – immediately following October 7th, extraordinarily difficult. However, Rabbi Mann views it as holy and vital. Yes, there is anguish, but he and the others at Shura derive strength from a sense of mission and purpose.

The next day we visited the South, including Kibbutz Be’eri. Oren, our 30-year-old guide and the grandson of kibbutz founders, grew up in Be’eri and aches to rebuild. During the attack, he spent roughly 11 hours hiding in a safe room with his parents and fiancee. He told the story of several kibbutz members who perished.

The terrorists knew that residents hid in safe rooms. The butchers frequently would try to shoot through the safe room door or shoot off its handle, which essentially broke the mechanism and locked the residents in. Then the terrorists would pour flammable material on the floor, turn on the gas stove, and ignite a fire.

Burned home in Be’eri

Oren took us through several devastated homes scarred by hundreds of bullet holes and torched. We walked through the ruins, seeing the detritus of the families who had lived there.

One family – a father, mother, 12-year old daughter, and younger brother – hid in their safe room. The father held the safe room door shut – until he was shot. The bullets eventually hit all four, and bullet holes pock-marked the “safe” room’s walls. We heard the recording of the daughter’s calls to 101, the Israeli 911, begging repeatedly for help. Lightly wounded, she gave assessments of her family’s deteriorating conditions. She put on tourniquets, but her mother and brother bled to death. Somehow the father and daughter survived.

Oren told equally horrific stories about others as we walked through the devastated section of the kibbutz. While clearly enraged by the brutality on Oct. 7, he is also committed to rebuilding Be’eri. “We want to rebuild it stronger,” he said. The scorched homes were once beautiful. The undamaged homes are still beautiful.

Torched home in Be’eri

The others we met in the south, like Oren, conveyed profound pain. It would be shocking if they didn’t. More remarkable is their determination to rebuild. They focus on the future without forgetting or forgiving the past.

A mission devoted to Oct. 7 and its aftermath could not ignore the 253 hostages, over 100 of whom are still in captivity. In Jerusalem we heard from Rabbi Doron Perez, whose son was taken captive (and later determined to have been killed), and visited Hostage Square in Tel Aviv. After hearing from one hostage relative in the Tent of Prayer there, Rabbi Muskin pointed out that frequently hostage family members will approach a group on Hostage Square and just start talking to the visitors. The gentleman below, a hostage’s uncle, gave a brief, unplanned talk. All the hostage family members want their relatives freed, but none of the hostage relatives we spoke with demanded that Israel pay “any price” for their freedom.

Hostage relative speaking to us on Hostage Square in Tel Aviv

The emotional and geographic high points of the trip both took place during our two visits to the Shomron (Samaria). We ended our third day at a Nahal Charedi base close to Jenin. The reservists there were protecting Israelis from possible attacks from the surrounding Arab villages and cities.

That evening the soldiers were enjoying music and a barbecue, which we helped serve. After dinner, the soldiers started dancing joyfully, and our group enthusiastically joined – a cathartic change from the previous days’ heartache. The reservists knew they were going home the next day. They also appreciated the gifts our group brought for them to give to their kids.

To our surprise we recognized someone among the soldiers. Avi Landesman and his family live in Los Angeles. Like thousands of other Israelis living abroad, Avi, an Israeli by birth, returned to his homeland to serve when the war broke out.

The last day of the mission we visited Piduel, a small Jewish village and a high point in the Shomron. From it, I could see Arab villages, Tel Aviv, and the Mediterranean.

Tess, a Shomron resident, related her experience on Oct. 7. Her husband, a medic and a member of their village’s emergency response team, was called around 6:30 AM to assemble with other team members.

One by one, all 14 team members were mobilized by the army and left the community, leaving behind women, children, and older men. Although not normally scared, Tess was scared and trying to keep herself and her four kids calm. Fearing the Arabs surrounding them, they felt defenseless. Armed reservists eventually came to protect them.

Someone from our group asked if she had confidence in the IDF before Oct. 7. “Yes,” she said.

“Do you still have confidence?”

She paused, “I have confidence in the soldiers. Not so sure about the command…”

Regardless of the fear, the failures, the casualties, and the atrocities, she is absolutely committed to staying in her home and community – in the Shomron and in Israel, the eternal Jewish homeland.

And so was every other Israeli we spoke with. Am Yisrael Chai!

About the Author
Linda Abraham is a semi-retired Californian. Previously she founded and ran Accepted, the premier admissions consultancy. She also founded and served as the first president of the Association of International Graduate Admissions Consultants. With Judy Gruen, she co-authored MBA Admission for Smarties.