Photo Credit: Gili Yaari /FLASH90
A dedicated section for temporary burial for those who were murdered by Hamas terrorists in their massacre in Southern Israel is seen in Yarkonim cemetary on Sunday in Petah Tikva, Israel.

War is a special time to be in Israel. It seems in so many ways like a different universe from the way things were just a little over a week ago. I don’t need to inform my readers of the awful events that we have seen and the very real threats we still face. I live less than five miles from the largest Air Force base in the North, and the incessant sound of planes coming and going is scary but also music to my ears, as I appreciate how much the IDF is doing to protect us. I also don’t need to make you aware of the incredible coming together that most (see below) of the country is experiencing, in contrast to the terrible hatred and arguments that were tearing us apart till so recently. The outpouring of chesed and aid from all parts of the Jewish world, both within Israel and coming in from abroad, and the great increase in tefillah and Torah in solidarity with the soldiers, makes one proud to be part of this timeless people.

For all of us, life will never be quite the same after this trauma. Of course, we all hope that Mashiach will come soon. (It is hard to see how some of the current issues, particularly the terrible nightmare of the many hostages, will be resolved any other way.) As my father-in-law, a”h, would say, “We need Mashiach – badly!”

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If, however, Mashiach’s arrival will not be as imminent as we hope. almost all of us look forward to the time, hopefully not too far in the distance, when life will go back to some approximation of the way things were before Simchat Torah. Tremendous efforts are being made to help the many survivors of the attacks rebuild their lives and, eventually, their homes and communities. However, for over 1,400 families (so far), life will never be the same; their loved ones will never come back. It is mind-boggling: 1,400 families sitting shiva, each with their own world of pain to deal with.

Over the last two days, my wife and I were inspired to try to visit a few of these shiva homes. Our first stop, in Givat Ela, was at the home of Major Ilai Zisser, Hy”d. As an officer and member of the elite Sayeret Matkal brigade, some high-ranking officers and a celebrity were present, in addition to many others, to comfort his parents, siblings and friends. We heard of his heroism in fighting the accursed Hamas, as well as appreciation for what a wonderful and modest person he was, beloved by all who knew him. We received thanks and a hug for coming and tried to tell them that he was the son of all of us; we are all mourning for our son and brother.

Next stop was at the home of Bar Shechter, Hy”d, who worked as a DJ at the music festival in Be’eri. We met his sweet wife and eleven-month-old son, who must be wondering by now why Dad has been away so long. She said that Bar had managed to escape and drive away but stopped at a police barrier that turned out to be Hamas in disguise, complete with Hebrew signs. That turned out to be his last stop.

We then went to the home of Maya Fodor, Hy”d, who went to celebrate at the music festival with her friends. A beautiful girl inside and out, she was known for being selfless and helpful and making the world around her brighter. Her grandmother from Tel Aviv could not get over her sadness and shock and the excruciating pain that it was to hear of Maya’s fate since she was missing – they didn’t know if she was alive or dead or captured and could only imagine how those monsters might have treated a pretty girl.

The home of Staff Sergeant Omer Bitan, Hy”d, was more traditional – the siddurim were there from Maariv earlier that evening. Omer had recently finished his basic three-year service and was on his first tour of duty in Miluim (Reserve Corp) in the base outside Gaza. Present was the Army rav, a wonderful Jew whose son is now waiting to enter Gaza in a combat unit, who told Bitan’s mother what a sweet person the son she lost was and how much he was relied on and appreciated by his comrades. His father Shimon was trying to accept that it was a great zechus that his son died by Kiddush Hashem, but asked “Why did it have to be so soon? Could he not have been allowed to accomplish some more things before leaving us?” We cried together for his pain and loss; he was so grateful for our visit.

The second day went similarly in the Haifa region. This time, however, I was asked by the rabbinical organization Tzohar to represent them. They are trying to arrange for a rav to visit every shiva home in the country, a gargantuan task that I was pleased to help with. We visited the home of Michal Reumi, Hy”d, in Nesher, whose talented and stoic mother felt less connection to Judaism but was happy for the solidarity with her daughter who wanted nothing more than to relax and enjoy the chag with her friends in her own way. The father of Corporal Amir Ayal, Hy”d, was gracious and welcoming, very proud of his son, and very unsure how life would go on without him. He described the week that it took to absolutely identify his body among the many corpses at the overrun army base as torture for him and his wife. Daniella Portnoko’s, Hy”d, mother missed her terribly and was appreciative that so many had come to be with her, but knew that the difficult mourning would commence next week when she would be left alone with her memories and an empty house. At the home of Itai Bonjo, Hy”d, we engaged in a discussion of who says Kaddish – the father, whose parents are Baruch Hashem alive and well, or his big brother, who felt terrible that he could not protect him.

It opened up for us eight worlds of pain, each of which was such a terrible tragedy in its own right. And then one thinks that this was not even one percent of the over fourteen hundred (and counting) shiva homes, and one is overcome with grief and despair.

Lastly, I must, unfortunately, report that despite all the talk about the unity that is being demonstrated at the moment, just beneath the surface, the same animosities are still cooking. All Israelis, and especially these families, are seething at the colossal intelligence and planning failure that allowed for a disaster of such magnitude to occur. There will be investigations, demands for resignations, and angry protests. One libelous and nasty narrative being developed (that I heard more than once and, of course, did not respond to) was that this was the fault of Ben Gvir and Smotrich, and by extension Netanyahu, because they had put up provocative sukkahs in Arab areas in Samaria, and then moved the bulk of the forces there to protect the settlers, leaving a woefully understaffed force in the Gaza area. One mother was so upset by (another) visit from a religious stranger that she physically threw me out of the house and slammed the door. I have no complaints against a grieving mother who had an emotional outburst.

Hopefully, this slanderous narrative is only being adopted by the most extreme on the left, who have never for a moment stopped attacking Netanyahu and the government, demanding that they resign now as they are unfit to prosecute the war that is “his fault.” Most of the country has come together; there are signs all over saying “United, we will win.”  But I cannot help of thinking of the Torah portion we read last week and the Generation of the Dispersion. Even when there is great unity, it must be built on more than one shared objective in order to be truly lasting and transformative. A lot of work still needs to be done to repair the rifts between us.

One thing is for certain. This war has changed things forever. No longer will many stoically accept what they feel is harmful to the country and their families – they will demand that the dangers, as they see them, be dealt with immediately. I deeply believe that although the secular/left may have precipitated much of the strong animosity on display over the last few months, the religious/right has much soul-searching to do, as I have written several times recently. Bottom line – unless all sides in Israel learn to appreciate each other more and demand less for themselves, we are in danger of undoing the one good thing that this war has brought about – an increased sense of unity.

May HaKadosh Baruch Hu give our soldiers strength and courage, and protect them from harm; may He bring the captives back to their families speedily. May He bring a refuah shelaima to the many injured, and consolation to all the bereaved families. May He spread His protective wings over and have mercy on all of us.

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Rabbi Yehuda L Oppenheimer, former Rav at several congregations in the United States, lives in Israel and is an educator, writer, and licensed tour guide. He eagerly looks forward to showing you our wonderful land on your next visit. He blogs at libibamizrach.blogspot.com and can be reached at [email protected] or voice/WhatsApp at 053-624-1802.