Gaza, July 28, 2014: An Israel Defence Forces soldier examines a newly revealed tunnel in the Gaza strip. (photo by IDF via Ashernet)
It’s been awhile since I’ve written. There’s a story I’ve been meaning to share but, unfortunately, circumstances have led me to write a different story entirely, about “the matzav.”
“The matzav” means, literally, “the situation,” but it’s used to refer euphemistically to a current bad security situation in Israel. You say it in a half whisper, the way our parents used to say, “cancer.”
“How’s business going now, with – the matzav?”
“We’re going up north for a few days because of – the matzav.”
“My mother-in-law has been with us for two weeks, thanks to – the matzav.”
It’s definitely not an easy time to be in Israel, though now, more than ever, there is no place I would rather be.
I didn’t grow up in a particularly Zionist household. Most of what I know about Judaism and Israel I learned in college. People used to say to me that being in Israel is like being with family, and making aliyah is like coming home. My family never shoved in front of me to get on buses or overcharged me for souvenirs, so I guess I just couldn’t relate.
I got a little taste of the family thing when I was visiting Israel 12 years ago on a mission during the Second Intifada, when tourism was at an all-time low. I went to the falafel stand in the Old City by the Cardo with my 10-month-old son. There were no other tourists to be found. The owner, who was usually just interested in taking orders and keeping the line moving, insisted on holding the baby while I ate. This was like my family – not always warm and fuzzy, but there for you in hard times.
These are hard times. There’s been a constant barrage of rockets in southern Israel for weeks, keeping the population within 15 seconds of a bomb shelter. As I wrote these words, four people were killed by a rocket fired from a playground in Gaza. This morning, a man on the radio was saying that he’s terrified to shower or even go to the bathroom for fear a siren will go off.
Another woman was asleep and didn’t hear a siren. She only heard the rocket hit her house. She is being treated in the hospital for wounds to the head, legs and knees, but no treatment will cure the fear you can hear in her voice, unable to speak in full sentences.
On the other side of the border, the suffering in indescribable and the media images haunting. I feel torn apart by my pain for the Palestinian losses on the one hand and the need for us to defend ourselves on the other. Then there’s the sadness for the soldiers who are trained to minimize civilian casualties, but who find themselves hurting innocent civilians, behind whom the cowardly terrorists hide.
Our “adopted” lone soldier Danna tells us stories of what her friends see who are serving in Gaza – hospitals and UN schools hiding weapons and terrorists; gunmen literally hiding behind families; terrorists shooting with a gun in one hand and a baby in the other.
As Golda Meir said to Anwar Sadat just before the peace talks with Egypt, “We can forgive you for killing our sons. But we will never forgive you for making us kill yours.”
Before the war started, I got a call one Friday afternoon.
“Hi, Emily. We’re thinking of cancelling the partnership minyan this week, but I just want to check with you, because I know you worked hard on your speech.”
“Oh, well, sure … but why?”
“We just thought it would be better for the whole community to pray together tonight because of, you know – the matzav.” (Pause) “Did you not here what happened?”
That’s how I heard about the three kidnapped soldiers.
You would think all three of them were from our kibbutz, the way people spoke of them and cried and prayed for them and organized around helping their families. The whole country was suddenly one big family. One big, sad family.
At school, the teachers held special meetings with their pupils to help them digest the news and share their feelings. They had a meeting in the evening to help parents with how to talk to their kids. All this despite the fact that the three boys were from a different part of the country and not at all connected to our school or our region, except that here everyone is connected. At these times, we’re all cousins, brothers, sons.
The news a few weeks later – that the boys were killed – hit hard. I was out for the day to Beit Shean with my son Abaye to get braces on his teeth. Abaye is very sensitive to “the matzav” and I try to keep him away from the news most of the time so we can share things with him in our own way, but there was no escape. The news was on in the dentist’s office, and staff and patients were openly crying. Afterwards, we went for ice cream and the ice cream shop was playing the tape over and over again. Everyone’s eyes were glued to the screen.
“You’re an ice cream shop!” I wanted to yell at them, but it wouldn’t have mattered. The whole country was in mourning.
Then the rockets started in the south. Everyone’s hearts turned to the families under fire. Our kibbutz Google group filled up with suggestions of where you could bring food and supplies, requests to run programs, and even invitations to drive down south into the fire to help entertain kids in bomb shelters. There were so many projects being run out of so many places that volunteers had to quickly set up a committee to manage them all.
Our area happens to be one of the safest parts of the country. We haven’t heard any sirens. We haven’t even unlocked our bomb shelters. So, everyone is opening their homes.
Several families have come to our kibbutz for a break, and our youth group organized a camp for a week with peers from a kibbutz in the south. I heard on the radio about a resort nearby that has opened its doors to another kibbutz (200 people!), feeding and housing them and running programs for the kids. And these are just a few tiny examples. Every community is doing something.
Then there are the troops fighting in Gaza.
Soldiers were sent to the border to defend our country from rocket attacks. Prime Minister Netanyahu tried to stave off a ground incursion, but the rockets kept falling and, it seems, there was work that could only be done on the ground.
When the army finally went in, they discovered a complex underground tunnel network that Hamas had built to infiltrate Israel. It seems they were planning a massive operation for the upcoming Rosh Hashanah – hundreds of terrorists were scheduled to appear from nowhere in kibbutzim and villages across the south, dressed in Israeli uniforms, for a mega terrorist attack. It’s chilling to think about what they might have done.
Several of the fatalities of this war, including the three kidnapped boys, have resulted from terrorists coming through these tunnels. They lead from private homes in Gaza right into Israeli neighborhoods, one ending directly beneath the dining hall of a kibbutz. It was reported that children on the kibbutz had been complaining they could hear someone digging under them, but adults hadn’t taken them seriously, because how could that possibly be?
So, now we are at war in Gaza until we get rid of the tunnels, of which 30 have been discovered so far, and many destroyed. Meanwhile, the number of fallen and wounded soldiers continues to rise, as well as, of course, the massive toll on both terrorist and innocent Gazans.
But I wanted to tell you about the efforts to support our troops.
Being the army of the Jewish people, the aid started with, of course, food. Fresh meals, cakes and treats – you name them. A renowned chef opened shop to provide gourmet cuisine for the soldiers.
At one point, we got the message that it’s enough food, and now could we please send personal hygiene products (soaps, deodorants, etc.) and “fresh towels with the scent of home”? In addition, children sent so many letters of love and support that the soldiers use them to wallpaper their tanks and living spaces. At the camp for Adin, my nine-year-old son, they changed the program this week so that every day was a different activity to support the soldiers – making gifts, preparing food and raising money.
And, of course, it’s difficult for soldiers to communicate with their families, so the radio has taken to running extra programs in which they can send personal messages.
“Hi Mom, Dad and, of course, my girlfriend Tal. I’m here to protect you and I’m fine, so you can sleep without worrying. I love you.”
And I’m sure Mom, Dad, Tal and half the country are crying with me.
Among the first losses of the war, we heard about the falling of two lone soldiers – people like our “adopted” daughter, who moved to Israel voluntarily to protect our country, who are here with no family. It made me sad to think these people would be buried alone, but what could anyone do? Their whole family is overseas.
A photo of one of these fallen boys, Sean Carmeli from Texas, appeared on the news in a Maccabee-Haifa soccer T-shirt. They were his favorite team. The team apparently shared my concern and made an appeal for people to attend his funeral. Twenty thousand people showed up!
You could call it a social media ploy, but I don’t think so. The next day, there was a funeral for the other lone soldier, Max Steinberg from California. I was afraid his funeral would pale in comparison to Sean’s, seeing as he wasn’t a major sports fan. But my fear was baseless. Thirty thousand people were in attendance. Those who were interviewed about why they came simply said that he made the ultimate sacrifice for them when he didn’t need to, and it was the least they could do.
Max’s family had never been to Israel before. I thought about my own mother, who did not want us to make aliyah, and who would never forgive me if, God forbid, anything happened to any of my kids. Max’s parents and siblings were overwhelmed by the turnout.
His mother Evie told the mourners, “We now know why Max fell in love with Israel. It was all because of its people. He was embraced with open arms and treated like family,” she said, “and, for that, we are eternally grateful.”
When his sister began, “We come from a very small family,” I held my breath expecting to hear her anger or sadness at having lost her brother. Instead, she continued, “But that seemed to quickly change after meeting people in Israel, who made it feel like one big family.”
This morning, I was out walking in the forest around the kibbutz when a new song came on the radio by Ariel Horowitz, son of one of Israel’s greatest singers, Naomi Shemer. The song is about the lone soldier Sean Carmeli. The writer had attended the funeral and was deeply moved. The chorus goes something like this:
20,000 people and you’re at the front.
20,00 people are behind you, Sean.
Marching in silence with flowers,
Two sisters and 20,000 brothers.
Sgt. Nissim Sean Carmeli and Sgt. Max Steinberg, and all our fallen soldiers will never be forgotten, because we don’t forget family.
Emily Singer is a teacher, social worker and freelance writer. Singer and her husband, Ross, were rebbetzin and rabbi of Vancouver’s Shaarey Tefilah congregation until 2004. The Singers spent two years in Jerusalem and then moved to Baltimore, Md., where Ross was rabbi at Congregation Beth Tfiloh and Emily taught Judaic studies at Beth Tfiloh High School, until they moved to Israel in 2010. They have four children, and live on Kibbutz Maale Gilboa.