Monday, October 23, 2023

Messages From the Front Lines

“Dear friend,” Esti wrote, “we are in an inferno that is difficult to explain. In a nightmare we never dreamed

was possible. I have no doubt that we will win, just as I have no doubt that this war will leave a deep scar on the people of Israel. We need friends like you!

“The people of Israel are alive and well forever.

עם ישראל חי! (The people of Israel live!)”

A principal of the Naval School in Acre, Esti lives in Kibbutz Sa’ar along the Mediterranean coast just about seven kilometers (four miles) from the Lebanese border. Like many of her compatriots, she lives in a region targeted by Hezbollah missiles. The Israeli government has relocated residents from much of the northern territory as a precaution should conflict with Lebanon-based Hezbollah develop into a second front, full-scale battle even as it wages war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Perhaps the harshest, most devastating attack by Hamas against the settlements adjacent to Gaza occurred in Kibbutz Be’eri, where Shani, a social worker, and her family live.

“Thank you from the bottom of my heart. Me and my family are safe. We lost about 100 close friends from our kibbutz and our hearts are crushed. We hold in our hearts hope to rebuild our homes and pray to the world to help us achieve a sense of security. Many of our friends, children, women and the elderly are being held captive by Hamas, we are praying for their speedy release.”

Esti and Shani are two of the 86 women I have met since 2010 as part of the three-decades-old Shalom Yisrael of Westchester program that forges relationships between Israelis and Americans. Since 2010, extraordinary women—first responders, social workers, educators—all living in the shadow of Israel’s enemies have benefitted from the program. (Before 2010, wounded male Israeli veterans were guests of the program.)

Esti was one of six Shalom Yisrael participants earlier this year; Shani was among eight who visited in 2013. 

For this American Jew, expressing solidarity with Israel by attending rallies, donating money to relief organizations, communicating with legislators, and praying for a positive resolution to the crisis is a mostly vanilla exercise lacking a personal touch. Like many, I am engulfed in a suffocating malaise, a depression that sours every other activity despite my intellectual understanding that life must go on even in the face of disaster of incomprehensible barbarism, as it did for Holocaust survivors. 

My sister, who was in Israel during the Six Day War in 1967, says she is having bouts of PTSD. I avoid watching any video associated with October 7. I cannot comprehend how anyone can torture themselves by constant viewing episodes of the attack.  

Yet, I am one of the lucky ones. I have a means of making personal connections. I have sent emails to our 86 Shalom Yisrael guests, though about a third of the addresses no longer appear operational. Israel is a country with citizens who feel isolated, surrounded as they are by tens of millions of Moslems from countries that would like nothing less than its destruction. 

The simple act of sending an email of support and concern can be comforting and reassuring that they are not alone. Slowly, responses are trickling in.

“Thank you for your concern for us,” Malka wrote back. “We live in Acre. And with us now it’s quiet. Say hello to everyone.”

“Dear Murray, thank you for your deep concern. I will ask the other girls if they got your e-mail; if not I will send it over to them. Yes, we feel the same—we are still in a shock. As if the Shoah is here again. We have never experienced such an atrocity. No doubt we have experienced a great tragedy and we are very worried because we don’t know what lies ahead. What might happen to all the soldiers who are preparing themselves for a counter attack? What is Hezbollah planning? This is very frightening, to say the least. I hope Israel as a state and we as Israelis will survive. Again, thanks for your nice letter and deep concern.

“All the best,” Ruthie. Ruthie teaches English in the north.

Alegra also lives in the north, in Nahariya, along the coast. 

“Thank you so much dear friend. We are all here in a collective trauma in Israel by the cruel attack and the loss of so many people. Hope that the north side won’t get in a war also, but we are getting ready for this.

“I will send your letter to my friends and I appreciate your and Shalom Yisrael attention to us in these difficult days.

“Hope for better days.”

Shalhevet’s family lives in Kibbutz Zikim, just north of Gaza.

“Dear Murray, I have no words to express how we feel these days. We left the kibbutz at Saturday night, and now we are at Ma’ale Hachamisha (west of Jerusalem) with other families from Zikim and Nativ Ha’asara. Fortunately the terrorists didn’t get into our kibbutz. 

“Hoping for better days.” 

A retired elementary school principal from Nahariya, Aliza sent a poem in Hebrew “so everyone will see our feelings in Israel especially about the kidnappings:”

My baby boy,

How are you ?

What is your name in Gaza?

Does someone pick you up sometimes?

Do you swing your small body?

And a pacifier? Do you have one?

Do they know that you only fall asleep on your stomach and love warm porridge?

Do they understand that you can already be given crushed fruit?

And what about a clean diaper?

And a bath? Is the water nice?

And maybe a mobile above the crib? And a little fluffy teddy bear?

Do they cover you at night? So you wouldn't be cold? And what about a hat over the ears?

Have you seen the sky lately?

And the sun?

And maybe you have already lost your first tooth?

Can you sleep at night? Perhaps dreaming rosy dreams?

Do you smile there sometimes?

My baby boy,

Is there anyone looking you in the eyes? Comforting you?

Explains that soon mom will come?