By Rabbi Avi Weiss
Special to the Jewish Week
Sivan sits in her living room, worried whether her wedding will take place or not. Living in Sderot, she had decided to play it safe and hold the celebration in Ashdod, a few kilometers to the north. Sderot has been under constant attack from Hamas terrorist rockets for years. Ashdod seemed a safer bet. With the war against Hamas unfolding and rockets hitting that coastal city, Sivan was concerned that the army would close her wedding hall, as it was an unfortified building vulnerable to terrorist rocket attack.
Thursday, January 1, the sixth day of the war. We have come to Sderot as part of an attempt to lend support to the beleaguered communities in southern Israel. Sderot looks like a bizarre still life photo. There's hardly anyone moving in the streets; the city is eerily quiet. Those Sderot residents who had not left the town over the past eight years have not fled now but are hunkered down in their homes seeking to be close to their protected rooms and shelters.
Sivan's father joins us as we talk with his daughter. Yihiyei tov, it will be good, he says. Sivan smiles nervously. We form a circle around her and begin dancing to the traditional wedding song, "Od Yishama." Od, still, against all odds, there will soon be heard the voice of joy and gladness, of bride and groom.
Sderot is a city that has been traumatized. And, yet, as war rages, and Kassams rain down, its citizens still believe. We meet families who have moved to the city to give hope to its residents; volunteers who have come to shelters to play with the children, and students and teachers at the Sderot hesder yeshiva that is running at full tilt. A new Beit Midrash study hall has just been completed, dorms are being built, classes are going on, the buzz of Torah is everywhere. In the face of danger, there is resolve.
From Sderot, we go to visit our soldiers. Someone in our group has protexia, high-up connections, and so we are able to go into off-limit areas. There are tanks and other types of military vehicles everywhere.
We see soldiers preparing for the ground assault. Quite a few are wearing the white, cone-like Rav Nachman (of Bratslav) head-coverings. It seems as if we have happened upon a Rav Nachman brigade. As it turns out, it's one Rav Nachman devotee who has distributed the headgear and some of the soldiers are happy to put them on. Pulling up nearby is a car loaded with civilians. They've come to distribute food and candies. An army rabbi is also here, trying to lend support.
But it's the soldiers who are the most important element in this picture. Some are sitting on top of a large tank munching on their lunch, while others are cleaning the tank from the bottom up. Years back, I would have been thinking, what are we waiting for? Let's just go in and finish them off. But with age, one can't help but feel the weight of war. Looking into the eyes of these young men, soldiers who are defending Israel, defending all of the Jewish people, and for that matter, all of the free world, one can't help but wonder, who amongst them will not be coming back.
We stop in a small restaurant to grab a bite. As we try to catch our breath, the woman behind the counter calls out, "Tzevah adom," the alert that a rocket is heading our way. When that happens, there are 15 seconds to find shelter. We run with everyone else into the closest shelter. Everyone is calm. Everyone feels a sense of togetherness. It's part of life in this part of Israel. We return to our table as the manager announces to the customers, "Thank God we are all OK. Please, everyone, enjoy an espresso coffee on the house."
Traveling to Ashdod, we find our way to the home of the Shitrit family. Irit Shitrit, a 39 year-old mother of four, was in her car on the way home from the gym one night last week when she heard the tzeva adom. She knew she was not safe. She jumped from the car and ran to a bus shelter. The shelter sustained a direct hit and Irit was killed instantly. Sitting close to Irit's husband as he sat shiva, we whispered, "We're from New York. We have no words to comfort you, but please know that Jews and people of goodwill sit here with you and in their small way, are crying with you."
He hardly spoke except to reach out and touch our hands, and with extraordinarily sad eyes said simply, "todah rabbah." In the adjacent room sat Irit's daughters and mother. Pain racked Irit's mother as she mourned by speaking incessantly. In a traumatic daze, she expressed grief through inaudible words, words one could not hear, but words so obviously wracked with pain.
We leave from the Shitrit home in Ashdod to the wedding of Natan and Avital Sharansky's youngest daughter, Chana. It all seems surreal. In the midst of the angst, of Sivan not knowing if her wedding would take place in Ashdod, of soldiers preparing for battle, of running for cover as a tzeva adom blared, of the Shitrit family's pain, Chana stands serenely beneath the chupah with her groom. It seems as if this wedding, in some measure, is a response to the travail. Never despair, we will make it.
Avital was once asked whether she ever got in touch with Natan's tormentors. She said, "not directly." But with her wonderful sense of humor she added, I just send them invitations to our childrens weddings.
After Shabbat, the ground assault began. Saying the hamavdil prayer, which separates Shabbat from the weekdays, we recite the text that describes the Jewish people as being like the sand and stars. Those images jump from the page. Sand represents our collectivity, as it is difficult to separate one grain from another. But the stars are individualistic, each unique, each indispensable.
We recite a prayer for our soldiers along with havdalah. May Israel be victorious. May each star return home in health, in life.
Diary of a visit to Southern Israel: Simchas And A Shiva Call
Rabbi Avi Weiss is Founder and President of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, Senior Rabbi at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, and National President of AMCHA - the Coalition for Jewish Concerns.