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OpinionIsrael at War

Reflections of a father

Everyone has opened their houses to host people, whether family or complete strangers from the south, north or soldiers serving nearby. The outpouring of love, unity and responsibility for each other is overwhelming.

A convoy of military vehicles seen near the Israeli border with the Gaza Strip on Oct. 15, 2023. Photo by Oren Ben Hakoon/Flash90..
A convoy of military vehicles seen near the Israeli border with the Gaza Strip on Oct. 15, 2023. Photo by Oren Ben Hakoon/Flash90..
Dov Yarden
Dov Yarden
Dov Yarden is the chief operating officer of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate.)

It has been a week since the war started, and I feel the need to write. I am not a writer. I am not writing this for any specific audience. I don’t even know who I will send this to.

I am, however, a father, a husband and a citizen of Israel for more than 37 years, since the age of 18. I grew up here. I served in the army. I married and raised a family. I worked for 20 years in the high-tech industry and now 16 years in the pro-Israel advocacy arena.

I need to express what I, an ordinary citizen, am currently experiencing. What I write may just be the ramblings of a worried father or may assist others to better understand what is going on regarding the home front.

Rivka, my wife, and I have five wonderful children.

Our eldest, Yoeli, is 32 years old and has special needs. He lives in an assisted-living apartment in Jerusalem with five other men. His apartment does not have a mamad, a safe room. Most of his madrichim (“counselors”) have been called up to the front lines. He has been living with us this week, having a great time except for when I make him join me for my one-hour daily walk around Gilo. Boy, does he complain!

Next is our daughter Abigail (“Abby”). Married to Eitan, they have two gorgeous 9-month-old twin girls. They live on the fourth floor of an apartment building in Jerusalem. Their miklat/communal safe room is on the ground floor. When the air-raid sirens sound in Jerusalem to warn of incoming missiles, they have less than 90 seconds to grab the girls and run down four flights of stairs. We have asked (actually begged) them to come and stay with us, but they still prefer to be in their own home. Abby is an EMT and trainee ambulance driver for Magen David Adom (MDA) and prefers to remain in their neighborhood in case of an emergency.

Danieli and Avishai are our 21-year-old twins.

Danieli is doing hesder, a combination of yeshivah study and army service. He has completed two years in yeshivah and more than a year in the army. He is a combat medic serving in a combat engineering unit and an EMT at MDA while taking lessons to be an ambulance driver.

Six weeks ago, Avishai completed three years of army service as a combat medic in the Combat Intelligence Unit on the Gaza border. He was just accepted to the Wingate Institute to study sports education and was due to start next week. The academic year has now been postponed until at least Nov. 5. Avishai is also an EMT.

Our youngest, Shironi, is an 18-year-old powerhouse. She began as a first-aid giver at MDA at the age of 16. By the age of 17, she was certified to teach the first-aid course to youth and was also made a “Segel,” put in charge of assigning youth to ambulances.

At the beginning of the year, the head of the MDA blood bank called her up and asked if she could arrange a blood drive in her high school. Shironi’s response was: “Why just my school?” She knows the youth in Jerusalem, as she assigns them shifts, and so she will speak to them and arrange for a blood drive in all of the schools.

Eight months and 500 pints of blood later, Shironi was awarded one of Jerusalem’s top 10 youth influencers and received an award from the mayor. Last month, MDA also recognized her efforts and awarded her a certificate of excellence. She was the youngest to receive the award.

Shironi was due to do her Sherut Leumi (“national service”) in the Foreign Ministry. Over the past few months, she has seen a number of friends buried after being killed in terror attacks around the country.

After returning from a school trip to the concentration camps in Poland, and after suffering the losses that she has had, she decided to join the army instead.

When asked where she wanted to serve, she replied that she wanted to be the chief of staff. (They informed her that the position was already taken.) She then told them they didn’t understand. She gives orders; she doesn’t take them, so they had better make the necessary arrangements.

She is enlisting in a combat unit and has signed on to do an extended service—the same as men—instead of the shortened service that women can do. She is also training to try out for a commando unit.

Roadblocks in the Upper Galilee in northern Israel. Oct. 13, 2023. Photo by Ayal Margolini/Flash90.

‘There are no words’

Sorry for the long introduction, but I need to explain the background prior to getting into what happened this week.

My in-laws and a friend from England came to us for the holiday of Simchat Torah, which fell over Shabbat. Our three youngest—Danieli, Avishai and Shironi—were at home, which doesn’t happen often due to their army/MDA commitments. Friday night, I had the joyous pleasure of dancing in synagogue with my boys. Their grandparents watched and enjoyed lots of nachas. We had a wonderful family dinner with singing, divrei Torah and delicious food.

On Shabbat morning, I went to shul. And then all hell broke loose.

Air-raid sirens kept going off. We kept on taking cover in shul, but there was no safe room. Avishai came to inform me that Danieli, Shironi and Shironi’s friend, Talia, also an EMT, received emergency calls from MDA to come immediately to MDA.

Prayer services are cut short. The kiddush is canceled. Singing and dancing with the Torah is deferred. I “run” home with my 86-year-old father-in-law, who walks extremely slowly with the help of a cane.

Danieli returns home. He had assisted MDA in setting up a blood-donation station at their Headquarters. Shironi and Talia had jumped into an ambulance. Danieli has been ordered immediately back to his army base.

As I prepared to drive him (on Shabbat) to the meeting point, he was asked to pick up another soldier who was not answering his phone. We drove to Bayit Vegan. The soldier was not home, he was in shul. We drove to the shul to find him, and on the way passed another soldier who had been ordered to report to the pickup point. I took all three of them to the pickup point. With a hug and the Priestly Blessing, I said goodbye to Danieli.

There are no words. Only tears.

He called later that day to say that he had arrived at his base. He said that he is doing this for his nieces, for us, for his family and for all of Am Yisrael, the “people of Israel.” He has to turn his phone over to his commander, and so we won’t be able to talk. He is calling to say “goodbye.” How is a father meant to respond when he has tears running down his face?

There are no words.

An IDF artillery unit fires into the Gaza Strip, Oct. 15, 2023. Photo by Oren Ben Hakoon/Flash90.

Danieli is now down south. His unit assisted in clearing out and securing one of the yishuvim—the settlements next to Gaza. He is now at a staging area near Gaza training, learning and reviewing their mission that is likely to begin in the next 24 hours.

Avishai spent five days badgering the army to call him up for reserve duty. He called all of his commanders up and down the chain of command. They told him to be patient and that he would be called up in the next round when they needed to swap out the current forces.

“I just want to be with Danieli and go into Gaza with him.”

There are no words. Only tears.

Over the past few days, we had a number of conversations. Should he just go to his base and see what happens? There is a group of medics getting together to go down and volunteer. Should he join them?

What is a father meant to answer? I love having him at home, knowing that he is safe. Why on earth should I voluntarily send him to war? On the other hand, he spent three years of his life training for this. He knows the border area as well as anyone. He is a Zionist, an Israeli, and he loves his country.

The bottom line? I made aliyah at the age of 18 from Sydney, Australia. It was a one-way ticket. I left my home and family for what I believed in. And that is what I told him. We all must make decisions in life in which there are no guaranteed outcomes. The choice is his, and I will understand, love and support him in whatever he decides.

Yesterday, his wish came true. He was called up. Once again, with a never-ending hug and the Priestly Blessing, we said goodbye.

There are no words. Only tears.

Arriving at Bakum (the army mobilization base), he told them that he only wanted to go down south to Gaza and not up north to Lebanon.

This morning, he called to say that they called out a list of names and were told that if their name was called to get on the bus. His name was called, he had to get on the bus, and the bus was going north. Prior to departing, they read through the list of names again to ensure that everyone was on the bus. They called out his name, and both he and another boy announced their presence. They then checked their army personnel numbers and told my Avishai to get off the bus.

At Bakum, he met up with four other boys who did the medics course with him. After getting off the bus, they all put on tefillin and davened Shacharit, the morning prayer service. Ten minutes later, they were all instructed to go home. He was processed and entered into the system as a reservist. He was given a uniform and a medical checkup, and they X-rayed his teeth. For the non-Israelis reading this, the meaning of this is that the army has a way of identifying our children if, G-d forbid, the worst happens to them. As I type this, Avishai is on his way home and remains on standby for further orders.

There are no words. Only tears.

Since Shabbat morning, Shironi helped set up and operate the blood-drive station in the Malha arena in Jerusalem. They have been collecting blood from approximately 1,000 people a day. People have been lining up for up to six hours in order to donate. She has been volunteering from 9 a.m. until midnight every day since that day.

Music Festival Site
The site of ​​the music festival and party five days after hundreds of Israelis were killed and kidnapped by Hamas terrorists who infiltrated Israel through the border with the Gaza Strip, Oct. 12, 2023. Photo by Chaim Goldberg/Flash90.

On Monday night, after returning home from MDA, she broke down. The tears were unending. She wanted to wake up from this nightmare. She wanted the nightmare to stop. Why couldn’t we turn the clock back and prevent this from happening? Where is G-d? She had seen the videos of the atrocities Hamas inflicted on innocent civilians— men, women, children and babies. She saw the videos of what happened to the hostages. She was the first one to tell us that the reported numbers of murdered people are far less than reality. Her friend’s brother was at the Nova music festival and was originally reported missing for two days until he was found to be alive. He went to the party with 50 friends. He came back with three.

There are no words. Only tears.

Which brings me to the incredible morale that is taking place in Israel.

Last week, we were fighting over whether we could dance in the street in Tel Aviv on Simchat Torah. Today, we are united.

Speaking/WhatsApping Danieli intermittently, we hear and understand his and our soldier’s willingness to do whatever is necessary to wipe out Hamas. The pictures and videos that are going viral of our children singing and dancing on their army bases are true reflections of their morale. They understand the importance of the moment and will give everything for their country.

There is no limit as to the amount of food, underwear, army supplies and protective gear that has been collected to give to soldiers. A special unit in the army has been set up to receive and distribute the goods.

Everyone has opened their houses to host people, whether it is family or complete strangers from the south, north or soldiers serving nearby. The outpouring of love, unity and responsibility for each other is overwhelming.

There are no words. Only tears.

By now, we have all seen the horrific pictures and videos of the terror attacks that took place. I am unable to put into words my feelings and emotions. It is, in all honesty, too traumatic.

There are no words. Only tears.

We have suffered unbelievable losses. In the past 30-plus years, I have been to the funerals of far too many friends and neighbors killed in terror attacks. I cry every time an Israeli is even injured by terrorists. More than 1,400 murdered is simply incomprehensible. I cannot wrap my head around it.

There are no words. Only tears.

The ground incursion in Gaza will not be easy and not without cost. But we have no choice. We do not have another country. We have full faith in G-d and in our army. The government has many tough decisions ahead of them—not just regarding Gaza, but also neutralizing Hezbollah and Iran before it’s too late.

There is not a family in Israel that does not know someone who has been killed.

There is Rivka’s second cousin, Col. Yonatan Steinberg, commander of the 933rd Nahal Brigade. There is Danieli and Avishai’s classmate, Cpl. Ofir Testa, 21, a soldier in the 7th Armored Brigade. Many in Avishai’s Unit 414, who he served with until six weeks ago and who were on the Gaza border last weekend, were killed.

One of Shironi’s medics father, Arthur Markovichi, who was guarding the music festival in the south, was found killed yesterday. Shironi, all of 18, was appointed the point person to coordinate between the family and the Jerusalem municipality regarding all forms of assistance. She is currently at his funeral.

May G-d avenge their murders.

Our family is due to move to Ashkelon in three months. This war has only strengthened our resolve to join our brothers and sisters in defending our country.

What is a father and husband to do? I have been pushing off writing this because it is too difficult to even contemplate, let alone attempt to put something coherent in words.

I don’t know. I don’t have an answer. I have spent my life raising and protecting my family. What now? I am unable to do anything. These events are beyond my control. All I can do is offer hugs. My name is Dov. It is Hebrew for “bear.”

When Shironi is having nightmares, I give her a bear hug.

When I take my sons to the army meeting point, I give them a bear hug.

When we light Shabbat candles, and throughout the endless ups and downs, I give my wife a bear hug.

I wish my father was still alive. I could use a hug now.

And through it all, there are no words. Only tears.

This Shabbat, we are lighting an additional Shabbat candle in memory, in hope, in prayer, in thanksgiving, in solidarity and in the pursuance of lasting peace. We are also lighting a yahrzeit (“memorial candle”) in memory of our murdered brothers and sisters.

Our hearts and prayers go out to all the families who have lost loved ones; to the families of those who do not know the fate of those missing or taken hostage; and to all the injured. May G-d grant a full and speedy recovery to our injured, and comfort those who have lost loved ones.

There is also not a family in Israel that does not have a member of family in the army. Walking along our street, neighbors greet each other with a hug and inquire about their sons and daughters somewhere out there protecting us.

May G-d protect all of our brave soldiers and security personnel and return them home safely.

And when they do, I will be here to hug them as tightly as I can.

With blessings of peace from Jerusalem, Am Yisrael Chai!

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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