Editor’s note: This article is a reprint of an Oct. 7 Facebook post.
“What the heck?!” I sat up in bed and looked at my husband. There was a siren blaring.
Instinctively, I reached for my phone – but it wasn’t on my night table. I checked under my pillow, where did I put it?
Then I remembered. It was Shabbat and Simchat Torah. We had gotten home late last night after a beautiful celebration with the Torah in the small Chabad synagogue down the road. “Rabbi Heber’s Chabad,” as we called it, was filled with Jews from all over: Israel, Morocco, the former Soviet Union, and a small sprinkling of English-speakers. That night, everyone danced the “hakafot” together in unity, celebrating the beautiful gift God gave to us.
Before heading home, we hugged and told each other we’d be back tomorrow for the day celebrations, when again we’d dance around with the Torah together.
On Shabbat and Simchat Torah we don’t use electric technology, and so when the air raid siren blared, my phone was in my drawer on airplane mode.
My husband and I leaped out of bed. “You get the girls, I’ll get the boys!” I said.
The kids were already awake, all but little Leah had climbed out of bed and began running towards our shelter. My husband grabbed Leah and, within seconds, we were in our bomb shelter, door closed shut.
We were caught completely off guard. The kids were confused.
“Why didn’t you tell us there would be a siren?” my son asked.
We didn’t know. We didn’t expect it. Maybe it was just a fluke? Maybe the Israeli army assassinated a Hamas terrorist and there was going to be a couple rockets in retaliation?
The siren went on for awhile. We heard lots of explosions. When it stopped, my husband stepped out to look at the clock. It was 6 a.m. The sun would be up soon, not a chance of the kids going back to sleep. We sat on the living room couch and said the morning prayer, Modeh Ani, thank you God for returning my soul to me.
We wondered if the sirens would stop soon and if we’d be able to go to the synagogue to celebrate Simchat Torah. Moments later, we were back in the bomb shelter. Sirens, explosions, on and on and on.
During a small break, we returned to the couch and listened to the sounds of war. Early on a Saturday morning, there was no other noise pollution, and so we heard everything for miles around. Sirens in the distance, explosions, military jets taking off, first responders whizzing by.
“Mom, I hear booms, we should go back to the shelter.”
I explained to my kids how to tell if a boom is close or far. If it’s a deep sound, it’s in the distance. The higher the pitch, the closer.
Sirens again, back to the shelter.
“Mom, that boom was very close.”
It was. But it was a thud, no crashing explosive sounds after. It couldn’t have hit a building. The sirens continued, and we stayed put.
On our bomb shelter windowsill are a pair of gas masks, sitting there since the Gulf War of 1991. They’re useless now, but staring at them sent a shiver down my spine.
My husband and I looked at each other. This was no ordinary operation going on. We had already lost count, but were sure that hundreds of rockets had been fired at Be’er Sheva in the past few hours.
It wasn’t just the air-raid sirens; there were nonstop first-responder sirens, too. Way more than we ever remembered hearing during any military operation.
Finally, at 10 a.m., another break. Our bomb shelter gets very stuffy, so we were relieved to step into the living room, where we had all the windows open.
“It smells like smoke.”
My daughter was right. It did. We went out our front door and saw a thick cloud of dark smoke rising behind our home.
Our neighbour walked out of his house, followed by his teenage daughter.
“It’s the park!” she shouted. “The park behind our house is on fire!”
A rocket must have made impact there. Probably the one my son pointed out. Just a few metres away from our home.
Our neighbour looked at us, and realized we probably hadn’t seen the news.
“It’s a balagan,” he said. “They kidnapped a soldier, they’re shooting in Ofakim. Hundreds of rockets. It’s a mess.”
I didn’t process what he was saying. Shooting in the city of Ofakim? Kidnapped a soldier? I probably wasn’t understanding him right.
My son found a piece of shrapnel on the street, right next to our parked car. We went back inside. It stunk of smoke. I closed the windows.
More air-raid sirens. More explosions. Nonstop first-responders. Some sounded different – maybe military ambulances or fire trucks? Maybe there was another big fire and they were all rushing to put it out? I couldn’t imagine why else there would be so many. Just in case, I locked the doors.
More sirens, back to the shelter. We spent most of the morning in that stuffy room. It’s also our laundry room and dairy kitchenette. There were a few dishes in the sink, I washed them, tidied up a little.
We realized there was no going to synagogue today, and began prayers at home. By this time, the sirens were further spread apart, and we were
able to spend most of our time in the living room.
It was Simchat Torah. How would we do the hakafot dancing without a Torah? Without a community come together in joy?
My kids ran towards the bookshelf.
“Look! It’s Torah Ohr! Lekutei Torah! We can dance with these!”
My husband found a mini set of the five Torah books, my oldest daughter a Tanach – the complete Bible set in one.
The Simchat Torah dance goes around the bima, the table on which the Torah is read. First the congregants repeat lines from the prayer book after each other, sharing l’chaims in between, and then begin the dancing.
We gathered around our dining room table.
“L’chaim to the safety of the IDF and all of Israel!”
My husband read the first line, my kids and I repeated.
“Atah horaisah l’dat.…”
Around the table we went, my husband and I, and the kids, each taking a line, some around the table, some in the bomb shelter.
Then we began the hakafot and danced around and around the table, holding up our Torah books. My littlest had chosen a giant Torah Ohr that was almost half her size. I couldn’t help but lift her up and dance around as she giggled away.
We paused in between hakafot, and I told the children a story: After the Holocaust, a few survivors returned to Vilna, in Lithuania. On Simchat Torah, they gathered in the grand
Vilna synagogue, but all the Torah scrolls were gone. There was one child. The survivors picked him up over
their shoulders and danced around with him, “This is our Torah! This is our future!”
We finished hakafot around our table, and ate a Simchat Torah lunch.
In the distance, we heard children singing: “Anachnu maaminim b’nei maaminim!” “We are believers, children of believers! We have no one to lean on but our Father in Heaven!” We sang along.
The sounds of war were loud. Too loud. Jets, explosions – that we knew. But why were there so many first-responders?
My husband stepped outside. Maybe there was another fire? The kids followed him.
A neighbour was pacing back and forth in the street, staring at his phone. My husband asked him why all the sirens.
“The sirens are nothing. Nothing. 80 dead. 800 injured. Who knows how many kidnapped. We are at war! You don’t want to know what you will see when you turn your phone on.”
My son ran back inside: “It’s a war! It’s a war! We need to lock the doors so they don’t come and shoot us.”
I felt like vomiting.
Be’er Sheva has the closest hospital to most Gaza border communities. The nonstop first-responder sirens were ambulances. Hundreds of ambulances carrying patients to the hospital.
“Kids, let’s say Psalms. The best we can do right now is pray for the people who were injured or kidnapped, and for the IDF soldiers to be successful.”
We said Psalms. My kids kept asking when we can check our phones. We were inside and safe; I felt we could wait until Shabbat was over. I wanted to wait. I didn’t want to see.
But Shabbat and Simchat Torah came to an end, and I saw.
I still have not processed.
More than 300 dead [at the time of original writing]. Well over a thousand injured. At least 52 kidnapped.
A mass door-to-door slaughter of Jews. In 2023.
I will not process this. It cannot be real.
Three kids are sleeping in our bomb shelter. My oldest refuses. She’s in her own bed, in a much-needed sleep.
I’m still hoping this is some messed-up nightmare and I’ll wake up soon to a good world, with the same amount of Jews alive as there was before Simchat Torah began.
Bruria Efune lives in Be’er Sheva with her husband Mendy and four children. She is co-founder of Ohr Chabad, building a new community in Israel. Born in Vancouver, she is the daughter of Rabbi Tzvi and Nomi Freeman.