When There Are No Words – Am Yisrael Chai: Echoes of Yesterday, Hope for Tomorrow

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Sophia Franco 

 

In Kohelet, 7:2, Shlomo Hamelech explains that, “It is better to go to a house of mourning then to house of feasting, for that is the end of every man, and a living one should take it to heart.”  Isn’t it a shame that it takes a death, or many deaths, to wake us up and to remind us to reflect on our own lives? What do we stand for, and how can we do better? There are far too many houses of mourning to visit, far too many grieving mothers to comfort, and surely, far too many hearts broken to heal. Astoundingly still, I found faith than fear, more love than hate, and more determination than ever to eradicate our enemies, once and for all. To quote a grieving father who lost his teenage daughter in the carnage, “Hashem natan, v’hashem lakach,” Gd gave, and Gd took. 

The Wreckage 

On October 7th, 2023, in our homeland, on Simchat Torah and Shabbat, among the holiest of holy days, a day of celebration turned into a day of darkness. At 6:30am Hamas rockets and missiles rained down on Israel from Gaza. An unprecedented and inhumane invasion continued by land, sea, and air. The Supernova festival, held in the Negev Desert just three miles from the Gaza border was the first to be hit in an attack designed for maximum bloodshed. Terrorists entered by trucks, boats, motorcycles, and gliders. They did not head towards any army base, or battlefield. Instead, they chose to attack innocent teenagers dancing and celebrating unity and love.   

Approximately 260 souls were slaughtered and tortured, and more kidnapped, but the massacre did not end there. In the bloodiest attack in Israel’s history, terrorists savagely roamed the streets in towns, cities, and kibbutzim throughout the south of Israel. In what Time Magazine called “a 21st century pogrom,” they entered homes, one by one, and mercilessly raped, murdered, and burned whole families alive, attacking men, women, and children, from the smallest babies to the Holocaust survivors that found sweet refuge in Israel 70 years ago.  

 

On One Yishuv 

 

Neta Sitton is a graphic designer who worked at Community in the early 2000s. She has three young children, and is a prominent member of the “Kitat Konnenut,” a volunteer security team that guards her yishuv in a beautiful village in Israel, next to Raanana.  Between her 5am shifts, and the many funerals and shivas that overwhelmed the neighborhood this week, Neta found time to talk to me about that horrific day, and the feeling in Israel at this most delicate time.  

“That morning, alarms started sounding from all over the country. The last time I broke Shabbat was a very long time ago, when my sister-in-law was giving birth, but we knew this was serious. There was so much panic. I saw the military commander of our yishuv, Rav Shatz, at 7:30am and he asked me if I had my weapon. Of course, I did. The main war is in the South but we are not too far from Qualqilia, an Arab city in the edge of Samaria (the Shomron), so we are always prepared.   

More than half of our yishuv are members of the army, army reserves, or have sons and daughters in the army. We started seeing the news, and the feeling was like the Yom Kippur War. People went back to shul, but instead of dancing with the Torah, many left to fight, and do what they could to help. We were terrified. Like a horror movie unfolding, we didn’t know what to expect. The alerts from Pikud Haoref (the Homefront Command) started, and didn’t stop. Then we began to hear the news, but couldn’t know the horrors – they tied families together and burned them in their homes. They raped women, beheaded babies… all in the name of nothing; a religion that stands for hatred. A 22-year-old daughter of our neighbor was at the festival. I saw the horror on her father’s face after they desperately searched the area for signs of the living, but did not find her. There is a lot of noise but also a lot of silence.” 

 

The Loss 

A few days later, Aviya Genut, 22 years old, was found murdered by the monsters that call themselves Hamas. In the Torah, the word is mentioned often. It means “violence or corruption.” Neta continues, “This couple is amazing, they are so strong, ‘baali emunah,’ dedicated to Hashem. Their loss is unimaginable, yet they are grateful that they aren’t living the nightmare of the 200 families who’s loved ones are hostages in Gaza.” 

Elad Genut, Aviya’s father, searches for words. “In the first few days there was so much chaos, and no information. But in all that mess, the goodness of our people was discovered. Everyone wants to help, to do, to be here. It has been, and will be, a long war. The haters of us, and this land, are not a country, or a nation, they are simply pure evil. The cruelty of the other side is non-proportional; they are monsters who fought with children celebrating peace and love. Our daughter adored everyone and brought joy into everything she did. She was idealistic and unafraid, and defended this country, and our people, and we will do the same. As we go from one funeral to the next, the people standing shoulder to shoulder; all the differences, all the fighting from last week, gone in a moment. Today our nation is like one man with one heart, feeling ‘achdut,’ togetherness. We need to help each other, love each other, and be as one community. Our hearts are broken, but our spirit is strong.” 

A week before, on Yom Kippur, there was terrible infighting in Israel. To allow a mechitzah in Dizingoff Square, in Tel Aviv, or not? Brother against brother, division prevailing. So, while we were busy on a path of civil implosion, our enemies were focused on our destruction. “In a moment, everything flips,” Elad explains. During this attack, interestingly enough, or not interesting at all, is the fact that Hamas terrorists did not care what color our kippot were. They did not care if their victims were religious, or not; tattooed, or not; right wing, or left wing. We’ve learned this lesson before, haven’t we? Hitler, y’mach sh’mo, taught us a thing or two about being brothers… and yet, here we are.  

 

The Response 

In Israel, every free hand is either fighting, or cooking for the soldiers, and vowing to do whatever is in their power to eradicate this enemy once and for all. Restaurant owners are turning their kitchens kosher in order to serve any soldier a free meal. Real estate agents are begging for families in the South to enter their empty apartments for free. Teenagers are tying tzitzit for the soldiers, who wear them proudly, whether religious or not.  Girls are baking for families of the wounded, sitting in hospital waiting rooms. Police officers feed bottles to babies who no longer have parents. Mothers and grandmothers distribute Shabbat food, challah and games for children. Grooms trade in wedding suits for machine guns. Thousands of men, young and old, spent all night digging graves for their brothers to be brought to proper burials.  

Here, in America, almost immediately, sleeves were rolled up, funds raised, supplies procured, flights, buses, meals, and lodging arranged. Stores in Jewish neighborhoods around the world dispensed every possible resource that could be sent in duffel bags on cargo planes to the Holy Land. So many men and women work in warehouses hours on end, packing, shipping, and manifesting every item in every box. As of this printing, over 400 pallets of merchandise have been sent from our community members to our homeland. Prominent business leaders work non-stop on logistics, raising millions of dollars, and using every connection they can think of to help their fellow Jew.  

Prayer and Tehillim chats by the hundreds have popped up on every Gd-fearing Jew’s phone, urging each of us to storm the heavens. Yes, this terrible smartphone – full of so much misinformation, lashon hara, and ayin hara, can also bring about miracles. It can bring our rabbis voices into our homes and cars to guide us, teach us, and inspire us. It can even remind us to say “Shema Yisrael” at 1pm every day, (8pm in Israel), and a bomb sent by Hamas to Israel can accidentally explode – in Gaza – at precisely that same moment. Miracles. 

 

Rabbi Max Sutton’s Synagogue in Jerusalem 

Rabbi Max Sutton, Rosh Beit Din in Israel, and Rabbi of Congregation Bet Midrash Aram Soba, grew up in Brooklyn, but moved to Israel 40 years ago with his wife Adele (nee Salem). He was leading his congregation in synagogue when the sirens began to wail. He recalls, “We were startled, but sirens are common in Israel, so we did not panic. We were an hour into the services at that time, and we already had about 200 men and women in the shul. Thank Gd, not too many children were there yet.  Here, we have 60 seconds to get to safety. We calmly walked down to the bomb shelter and waited.  

Over the next three hours, we went up and down about six or seven times, responding to over ten different sirens, some doubling over its predecessor. We live in Jerusalem, so we’ve experienced this before, but never to this extent. Generally, the IDF reacts right away, but things were not functioning as usual. It got intense, and yes, I was stressed, feeling the responsibility of my congregation. Outside, I had to maintain composure. There were decisions to be made, but we continued to pray and read the Torah, and when the sirens sounded, we covered the Torah with a tallit, and brought it down with us. We heard from the security guards that there was a major breach from the South and that terrorists had entered the country, but in our wildest dreams we could never imagine what was actually happening.” 

There is a skylight arched dome at the top of Rabbi Sutton’s shul. Plenty of sunlight comes through on a normal day, but this day was far from normal. Rabbi Sutton continues, “When I saw the debris left on the dome, I knew that missiles headed for us were definitely intercepted by the Iron Dome. Finally, we decided that everyone should leave, carefully, walking alongside the buildings in case a need for shelter would arise.  We canceled Minha, the afternoon prayer, because I didn’t want to take responsibility for people to come back until I knew what was really happening.” 

 

The Days That Followed 

The next few days were a blur for the Rabbi and his family. They were stuck, not in fear, but in pain, thinking about what happened to thousands of people, their lives changed forever. How many widows and orphans were there? How many parents looking for their missing children? How many being held hostage by animals who will torture and kill in the name of their backwards faith? We worried for the soldiers. Mrs. Adele Sutton observed, “When we came out of the bomb shelter on Sunday at 3pm, we looked out to the view from our porch.  

Black smoke rose from three different areas in the mountains around Har Nof. I internalized the severity of the situation and prayed that Hashem watch over Am Yisrael everywhere. My 20-year-old son was working in Brooklyn the last few months, and came home to Israel for the holiday. When asked if he was going to go back to New York, he said, ‘I’m not going anywhere! I am in Hashem’s living room, why would I go back to New York?’ Our souls are connected to this land here in Israel. It is everything for us. We are where we belong.” 

Rabbi Sutton continues, “We cherish being here. There is a deep love and spiritual contentment in being in Hashem’s home, and it is a part of who we are. The love we have for Yerushalayim is as intense as our love for Shabbat and equally fulfilling. Never did I get on a plane to leave Israel without an inner yearning to remain, even when going to NY for happy family occasions. It is important for all our community members to know that America is not what it once was. Unfortunately, anti-Semitism is rampant throughout the country. Although it is still a wonderful and benevolent country, it is not home. Israel possesses the history of our forefathers embedded in the soil of the land.  My family and I have been here for forty years. We’ve seen the Lebanese war, Sadaam Hussein and the scuds of the Gulf War in the nineties, the Intifada, and the bombing of buses. However, this was by far the most tragic attack we ever witnessed. But I know and believe that Am Israel will ultimately prevail. There is a tremendous amount of love here today; everyone is trying to do their part.” 

 

Two Lone Soldiers 

During Passover 2019, Rachel and Ricky Novick’s oldest son Binyamin was enjoying his gap year in Israel. Unexpectedly, while there, he decided to sign up for the army. “Mommy,” he said, “we finally have our land after 2,000 years. How can I not be a part of defending it?” A young man or woman who joins the IDF, with no family in Israel to support him or her is called a lone soldier. This is difficult for a parent to accept, but most understand and appreciate that those who make choices like this aspire to do something truly meaningful with their lives. It’s hard to refuse them.  

 

Rachel explains, “Is it scary, yes! But is it beautiful? Also, yes.” Binyamin, a mild-mannered young man joined Batallion188 in the IDF as a tank missile loader. Motivated by his Jewish identity, faith and resilient upbringing, he endured weeks living inside a tank, eating only canned food and barely being able to stretch out or sleep. As it was during Covid, he was barely allowed time off, spending 40 days at a time in the desert, in very rough conditions, living in pitched tents, often with mud up to his knees. This, all to prepare for weeks like these.  

 

Ronny, Binyamin’s younger brother, soon followed suit. Enduring months of hard-core training culminating in a three-day test of intense physical and mental challenges, he was accepted to an elite paratrooper unit called Sayeret Tzanhanim, where he is deployed now, on the front lines. Rachel continues, “Of course I am terrified, but I am also very proud. I am the mom of two lone soldiers. They say a lone soldier is never alone because their unit becomes a brotherhood to them, and I know that it’s true. 

 

“The other soldiers and their families treat Ronny like a brother. There is real unity, friendship, and a responsibility to one another I’ve never before encountered. Similarly, this ‘achdut’ is what we are seeing now, all around the world. While the IDF fights in Israel, behind the front lines, Jews from all walks of life are waging another battle – a spiritual one. Crossing party lines, crossing religious boundaries, rallying and coming together to do hesed, they are getting much needed supplies to our people and our soldiers. They are praying and doing mitzvot for the hatzlacha (success) of the soldiers. Our unity is our greatest strength, but also, our greatest vulnerability. Because we are ‘one people’ we feel for one another like we are one family. Their pain is our pain, their suffering is our suffering, and their losses are our losses.” 

 

The Endless Battle 

 

In one of the heartbreaking eulogies spoken at Aviya Genut’s levaya, a friend quoted Bini Landau’s song, Journey. “It is not in our power to understand what we can’t understand, but what is in our power, we must try to fix. We have never been asked to do more than that, but we are always required to do the right thing.” More Jews have entered Israel, then have left since the start of the war. Like brave firefighters running towards a blaze, about 165,000 Israelis have returned to Israel to defend the homeland we’ve been fighting for forever.  

As of today (October 18th), at least 1,400 have been murdered and 2,600 injured by Hamas, but the true horrors are yet to be told. Roughly 200 hostages, including 14 American citizens, still remain in the filthy hands of people who rape, murder, and terrorize for no reason other than pure hatred. They are not interested in a two-state solution, they are not interested in living side by side in peace. They are only interested in slaughtering Israelis, wiping Israel off the map, and eliminating all Jews from the planet. 

While President Biden, NY Mayor Eric Adams, and so many other world leaders have given their full support, the fact that our top universities allow their student body to host pro-terror rallies on campus is atrocious, mind-blowing, and bone-chilling. To quote Douglas Murray, a British author, “To be a Jew is to have a sense of history, to have a sense of memory. We have been here many times before, too many times to count. The objective of Hamas is to kill civilians, innocent people. The objective of civilized democracy is to kill as few civilians as possible. It cannot be said enough that Israel uses the IDF to protect its citizenry, while Hamas uses its citizenry to protect Hamas.”  

 

Golda Meir correctly stated, “We have nowhere else to go.” While we enjoy our lives here in America, make no mistake. If we are not safe in Israel, we are not safe here. Hamas’s goal is to have us run in fear – but we will never do that. Have you seen our soldiers sing, “Am Yisrael Chai”?  When we are one, together, we are all powerful. We must keep spreading light in the darkness.  

Ana Hashem hoshea na. Ana Hashem hatzlicha na. Gd help us, Gd save us.  Say it. Mean it. But most importantly, believe it.  

 

Author’s Note: While I am aware that Hashem is watching over all that I do, this hashgacha pratit often comes in a “Gd wink” that I cannot miss. Thank you, to everyone who shared their stories for this article. When I began, I had no idea what I could possibly say, but each of you spoke about “achdut” and the words flowed. When Rabbi Max’s wife Adele Sutton saw the final work, she was taken aback. On the morning after the attack, Mrs. Sutton happened to be on a chat where the photo of Aviya Genut, a”h, popped up as missing. She began praying for her even as I was writing this, with no knowledge that she would be side by side with her, telling the tale of a horrific moment in time, and the unity of our nation. Please email me anytime, sophiafranco@me.com