It’s war

It’s war

ON THE COVER: An Israeli soldier stands in the ruins of Kibbutz Kfar Aza, near the Israeli-Gaza border, on October 10, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)
ON THE COVER: An Israeli soldier stands in the ruins of Kibbutz Kfar Aza, near the Israeli-Gaza border, on October 10, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Many local people have strong ties to Israel. As the brutal invasion continued, many of them were in near-constant contact with their friends and families there.

We present a few of the very many stories that local people are telling.

We do so because we know that every person has a story, and every life matters. Everyone reacts differently to trauma and evil; we should listen as well to the stories of people who were not directly affected but have had their most basic assumptions about trust and safety and hope upended.

Here are a very few of the many stories coming out of Israel.

Hayley Nagelberg

Allison’s story

My husband and I woke up early Saturday morning to a two-word WhatsApp text from our daughter, Hayley, who is serving as an officer in the Israel Defense Forces. The text simply said, “We’re ok.”

Those two little words packed an enormous punch.  What had happened in Israel while we were sleeping in blissful ignorance?

Hayley made aliyah to serve in the IDF over four years ago. She lived on Kibbutz Urim in the south of Israel — just a few miles from Gaza — for over a year, and then she moved to Ramat Gan, near Tel Aviv. During Operation Guardian of the Walls in May 2021, we also woke up to her WhatsApp text with those two words, “I’m okay.” A rocket had landed a block from her home, shattering all the windows in her apartment, and killing one person outside. She made many trips to the bomb shelter during those perilous days, but thankfully she was not harmed.

I have seen the shell of this neighboring building, which took a direct hit from a Hamas rocket.  I have seen its proximity to where she lives. Had that rocket taken a slightly different path, had her building not had a safe room, had Iron Dome failed to intercept as many rockets as it did, I might be writing about a very different outcome. That operation was our first exposure, as parents of a Lone Soldier, to the indiscriminate rocket-fire that Israelis experience all too frequently.  With typical Israeli resilience, her friends helped her sweep up the glass and provided housing when she had none, and her landlord made sure that the glass was restored within a week. For most of Israel, life soon went back to normal.  But Israelis do not have the luxury of being complacent.

This past weekend, immediately after receiving Hayley’s text reassuring us that she was fine, we received another text from her about her host dad in Kibbutz Urim. He is a wonderful man who, together with his family, not only opened his heart and home to her and many other Lone Soldiers; he has invited me to dinner and kibbutz events whenever I’ve been in Israel. She texted, “He was shot in the hands by terrorists in Sderot and is on the way to the hospital — he says he is ok. Dozens of terrorists have infiltrated Israel from land and sky and have taken over kibbutzim, they stole cars and drove around shooting — he was on a bike and a car drove by and shot at him. There are lots of missing people right now.”

In horror, we realized that Israel was not “just” being bombarded with thousands of rockets heading toward civilian populations; Israel was facing terror on the ground on a massive scale. And our daughter was caught in this brutality, 6,000 miles away from us.

The last couple of days have felt like a year.

While we remain glued to the Red Alert sirens on our phones, and the dreadful news of mounting numbers of dead, wounded, and kidnapped, we wait anxiously for every status update: Where is she? Where is her boyfriend, who is a reservist? Where are her friends who have been called up for service? What are the army’s plans? What has the media not disclosed?

We are grateful that Hayley can generally contact us, when so many others cannot call home.  We are grateful for the loving friends and family surrounding her, checking in, preparing meals, helping with rides to her army base when the bus doesn’t show up; and all of this at a time when countless others are missing, alone, and frightened.  We are grateful for her safety when thousands are hurt or will never return to their families.

As a professional for Jewish National Fund-USA, I have so many friends and partners in Israel who are grieving, and my heart breaks for each and every one.  As a mom, I have a knot in my stomach that simply does not go away until the next time that I hear from my daughter.

Beyond my parental concern for Hayley, and my professional concern for my colleagues, I have learned something in recent days that I had not processed as we live in our own social media bubbles: Everyday Israelis are not necessarily feeling our love.

While our own news feeds may feel to us like wall-to-wall coverage of the unfolding events, these sentiments of support do not always make their way to our brothers and sisters in Israel.  It is our job to call and email and text and post; and not just right now while the situation is so raw, but throughout the coming days and months.

Life in Israel is not going back to normal anytime soon.  It is our responsibility to let Israelis know that they are not alone. We are all Am Yisrael.

Allison Nagelberg of East Brunswick works for the Jewish National Fund-USA.

Alex’s story

Starting on Saturday morning, “my phone was just blowing up,” Alexander Smukler of Montclair said. His friends in Israel, from both inside and outside the Russian community there, were texting about the attacks, the deaths, and the disappearances of active-duty soldiers and reservists as they responded to the assault.

Within a few days, some of those soldiers were dead. 

Alex tells the story of his old friend Haim Ben Yakov, the director of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress.

“I was talking to him,” Alex said. “I was just talking to him.

“His son had just left the house. And now he’s dead.”

Alexander Smukler of Montclair, a businessman and art collector, analyzes the war in Ukraine for us.

Abby’s story

I couldn’t help but recall the shock and devastation of another conflict for which Israel was ill-prepared. I had arrived at the kibbutz in the Jezreel Valley where I was to spend a year as a volunteer and ulpan student just days before the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War. 

Israelis paid a tragically high price for that surprise attack, but it was only when we arrived at the ulpan on Day 5 and found the teachers crying because the son of the school’s director had been killed on the Golan Heights that the enormity of what was happening felt real. And it was not until much later that the full toll of that war and the reality of the threat of defeat became known. 

Fifty years later, everywhere, in Israel and outside, the horrors — of a nature we would have said were unimaginable — were and are playing out in real time on computer screens and TVs and in the frantic and incredulous messages sent via electronic devices.

The first messages I received from friends and families simply told of their shock that such a thing could even happen, and their assurances that they themselves were “safe, but not OK.” Their trust in their country’s vaunted security and its military prowess as strong enough to prevent a major terrorist incursion — let alone one on the scale that was becoming apparent — had been suddenly and brutally shattered, and they were seeing and hearing and feeling the brutal results of that broken trust.

Just hours after the news broke, my friend Miriam — actually my “sister” from my adoptive kibbutz family of five decades ago and a Tel Avivian who has been in the thick of the protest movement all year — said she and her family were “OK, but very worried about the horrible situation and about the people that are supposed to lead us.”

“Wish us luck,” she concluded. “We need it.”

My daughter and Israeli son-in-law live here, but most of his family are in Israel. We are grateful that they are all unharmed, but in his mother’s message to me, the anguish was palpable. “You can’t imagine how painful is the situation,” she wrote. “So much terror and pain. We could never think of something this terrible happening in Israel. We all have broken hearts.”

Tiki, another friend of almost 50 years’ duration, by early on Saturday had messaged, “It’s devastating and on Shabbat, at the end of Sukkot.” By the time she wrote again a few hours later, the desperation and anger came through. “What happens is a real nightmare. Never, since I was born here, Jewish settlements are invaded and people killed in Israel. 

“My heart is heavy,” Tiki continued, but said, referring to the massive rift in Israeli society of the past many months, “people are now united to face this war together.”

But by Monday, the full enormity of what was happening — and the fury that it was happening — came through. “I love my country and the way people are organizing and helping each other,” Tiki wrote. “However, the biggest pogrom the people experienced is more and more painful” as it became clear that “the state, ministers disappeared, nobody came to talk or rescue. This silence is clear to me since Netanyahu’s speech [with] no press questions.” 

Tiki had been a centrist who gradually had come to support those fighting for democracy in Israel. Now her position was clear: “Nobody can explain how all this was possible,” Tiki wrote. “Trust is lost in our leaders. We have a dictator who holds all his government for his service, to protect him. All the Likud party kept silent….” And in the end, she said, “after bombastic threats to the Hamas and our neighbors, ‘Now we are united,’ says the villain who tore us apart for years and more the last nine months. I believe in the existence of a Jewish democratic state, but we have to be really worthy of it.”

In my latest communication from Tiki, early Tuesday morning, while she continued to decry the failures of the country’s leaders, she did acknowledge that now “is not time for such criticism. We need all the help and support from the world, and I feel thankful to Biden and European leaders’ support.”

There was no lessening of the fear and distress. “I am terrified more than ever. Right now we are preparing for 72 hours supply…. We live moment to moment.” 

Tiki continued to take pride that “all the demonstrators’ groups are organizing food and warm clothes, basic needs for people in the south and army, as there is not enough food and daily supply for them.” 

In the end, she could only say, “I hope this war will fix something that broke in our hearts and faith. I hope that our grandchildren will heal from this trauma,” and, she told me, “Now we need all your prayers and support.”

Abby Meth Cantor of West Caldwell is the New Jersey Jewish News’ former managing editor.

Renee’s story

As Gilad Erdan, Israel’s ambassador to the U.N., said, “This is Israel’s 9/11.”

Maybe in any large-scale traumatic event the same elements apply: you are overcome by hysteria, shock, and disbelief — and then, if you are fortunate enough to be able to, you take action.

I have many close family and friends in Israel, across the political and religious spectrum. But they share one thing: a solid commitment to and belief in Israel and its survival.

I got (and made) many calls when I learned of this unprecedented attack.

Some relatives were deployed, with their families getting few details. 

A mother I spoke to reported initial feelings of uncontrollable grief and anxiety. She was overwhelmed by the need to pull herself together and to be supportive to her children and to provide answers to her preteens, who are all on social media. (Give answers that stick closely to their questions, be straight but don’t give too many details, and assure them that they — the family and the country — will get through this.)

Some older cousins who have fought in previous wars were doing what they could to help out — preparing food for families whose relatives were called up; speaking with others who were frightened and needed some support—but even one who had fought previously said he could not yet bring himself to look at the list of people who have died or have been captured.

I have been hearing that despite anger that the government failed them people from the left and the right are pulling together.

Relatives who have participated in the ongoing protests in Israel told me that as soon as the attacks started, the Brothers in Arms movement — a major organizer of the recent protests in Israel — instructed everyone to come together to defend the country. They’ve done that themselves. Many have gone to the border with Gaza to help the kibbutz families who desperately need protection.

And one of my cousins texted to say that they are all so bolstered by Biden’s response. They think that he is so sane, and a grownup.

Renee Schlesinger of Cliffside Park is a psychoanalyst.

Rabbi Jeremy Borovitz

Jeremy’s story

I took this picture in the evening of October 9, 2019. Four years ago today. 

I wish I could go back and ask this version of myself what inspired me to do so. Instead. I’ll have to rely on my phone to be my memory.

It was the end of what I thought was the worst day in my life. I was broken, and traumatized, and sad.

Four years ago today, I became broken. And on February 24, 2022, with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, I was shattered. And on Simchat Torah 2023, as our security consultant knocked on our door on Shabbat afternoon to let us know what was going on, I disintegrated bit by bit.

The world seems to be falling, and I don’t know how to save it. The world is full of monsters, and I promise my daughters I will always protect them, and at best I am lying to myself. The world is full of monsters, and I want to turn on the lights, but I can’t find the switch.

Four years and one day ago, there was still much hope. But time and death and destruction have whittled it down to a whisper of a past I can barely hear. And each time I emerge from the pit I see new horrors, and the world becomes dark again.

I never wanted to watch the video of the monster who tried to kill me four years ago. I didn’t want to see videos of Bucha, nor of Kfar Aza. The terrors in my mind are enough for a lifetime.

I don’t want to see it, but I also don’t want to fall into the complacency of looking away. Because while these are my tragedies, others happen in Las Vegas, or Tehran, or Christ Church. Others happen everywhere, and every day. And sometimes the monsters look the same, and sometimes they look like me.

Rabbi Eric Wisnia z”l, a dear friend of my father, used to say: Prayer may not change things, but prayer can change people, and people can change things. So tonight I pray for a time machine, which can give me the hope of October 8, 2019, combined with the wisdom of October 10, 2023. To know the future and to remember my past.

I pray tonight for the memories of Jana L and Kevin S, and for those murdered this past weekend, and for those dying in Donbas, and for all those lives soon to be lost because our world is so broken and shattered, just like you and me.

Rabbi Jeremy Borovitz is the director of Jewish life and learning at Hillel Deutschland. He is the son of Rabbi Neal Borovitz and Ann Appelbaum, formerly of Paramus. Four years ago he survived a terrorist attack by a far-right gunman on the Halle, Germany synagogue on Yom Kippur. He lives in Berlin with his wife, Rabbi Rebecca Blady, and their two children.

Michael’s story

I am rendered speechless — b’lee meelim —  by the events of the past week that have unfolded in Israel.  By the horrific stories, pictures, videos, and first-hand accounts of barbaric events that are beyond words and beyond comprehension. 

Our thoughts and hearts are with all of Israel and especially with those who have lost a loved one or whose family members or friend(s) have been wounded or are still missing.  I cannot express the anguish and sorrow that I feel, as we all must, regardless of our own personal relationship with the complicated political situation in the
Middle East.

I studied in Israel, served in the IDF, and was married in Israel. Many of my closest friends to this day live in Israel. I have a large family — as does my wife — and many of them live in Israel. Indeed, at this moment my nephew is on the front lines near Gaza, searching, door to door, for terrorists who may be lying low, ready to attack again. My phone has been buzzing nonstop, filled with WhatsApp messages from abroad. Our hearts are broken as one after another tells a story about a family member, neighbor, or friend. 

I have experienced firsthand several wars and operations when Israel was under attack.  I have never seen anything like the past 96 hours — children executed before their parents’ eyes, babies beheaded, young people shot down in their prime while dancing. 

It is at times like these that community is most important.  We want to feel embraced, supported, loved, and heard by one another.  We seek comfort in the familiar as we try and work through our feelings of the tragic and unfamiliar. Being surrounded by friends and community can have a healing effect and play an important first step in addressing the individual and collective pain we continue to experience.  

May the memories of all who perished be for a blessing and may we continue to support one another in times of joy and sorrow. 

Michael Schmidt, LCSW, grew up in the United States, lived in Israel, and now serves as the CEO/Executive Director of the Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey in Essex County.


Linoy’s story

I am 22 years old. I am Israeli. I am from Moshav Noga, 10 minutes from Sderot, next to the Gaza security fence. I attended Shaar HaNegev school. 

My world, the world I left two weeks ago, no longer exists.

I came to New Jersey to celebrate Sukkot. My plan was to return home at the end of October and begin my training as a teacher for special needs children. Those plans are now a distant dream.

One of my teachers is dead, the Head of Council of Shaar HaNegev is dead, students from my school celebrating at a rave concert are dead. I am in New Jersey. My mother, father, sister, brother, and grandmother are in our bomb shelter for the past two days. I am in New Jersey, safe but wanting to be with my family.

These now famous images, which Linoy saw on social media, show a young mother and her child as they are taken captive, juxtaposed with a similar scene in Nazi Europe.

My whole life was in the Gaza border. School friends, family, hanging out at the Green Pub, sitting on the bench in Sderot. I also said I was going to raise my kids there, and I saw it as the perfect place to grow old. 

Now I cannot understand how I can go back and step on the land Hamas has turned into a killing field. Hamas burned houses with babies, kidnapped Holocaust survivors, raped our girls, our daughters. 

Panic attacks that I never had before have come to me. I feel guilty that I am here, and my mom and family are there. At any moment our front door could open and they could be shot, by pure evil, the way so many have died. 

How can I continue from here? Another friend is missing, there is another video of evil parading a raped corpse. 

How can I sleep? 

I could never imagine, even in nightmares, that this evil could happen in my land. 

Linoy is an alumna of the Open Hearts, Open Homes program, which brings Israeli children living in dangerous areas a worry-free trip to northern New Jersey. She came back to celebrate Sukkot with her host family.

An anonymous story

It looked like it would be a wonderful holiday weekend. 

We had been invited to the first Shmini Atzeret meal, on Friday night, at the home of good friends who are like family, and to the second holiday meal, Shabbat lunch, at the home of cousins who are also good friends.

And Friday night was wonderful. Our friends are thoughtful and funny and we always enjoy spending time with them. They had visiting relatives who had recently returned from a trip to Israel to spend time with family and we heard about the variety of activities — hikes, museum visits, shows — they had enjoyed.

When I went to shul on Shabbat morning, I was feeling a bit more somber. We say Yizkor on Shmini Atzeret, and as I often do on Yizkor days, I was thinking about my mother, whom we lost a few years ago.

But before Yizkor, it became clear that this would not be a typical Shmini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. The rabbi mentioned that there had been an attack in Israel and that there were now about 100 new victims to be remembered during the memorial prayer.

Since many in our Orthodox community do not use technology on Shabbat and holidays, we learned details slowly. The officers and security guards posted outside our shul and other local shuls shared information. We heard about neighbors’ very creative children who are in Israel and wanted to reassure their parents they were okay. Since most holidays are observed for only one day in Israel but for two days outside of Israel, and there is a seven-hour time difference, when the holiday ended in Israel, it was the middle of the day on Saturday in New Jersey and the holiday here was not scheduled to end until Sunday night. That’s another day and a half. 

The young adults did not want their parents to have to use technology on Shabbat so they sent an Uber eats order to their parents’ home, with a note letting the family know some details about what was happening and that they were ok. 

By Sunday morning, some of the details of the horrific terrorist attacks made it into print newspapers. We saw a few pictures and read about the carefully coordinated, brutal attacks. About the barrage of rockets, the large-scale invasion, and the many home invasions. About the savage terrorists who went door to door looking for civilians to murder and/or capture. And about the many men, women, and children who were sprayed with bullets on the street, at a party, in their cars, in their homes. And we read terrifying details about hostages.

I thought about the people in the south, the ordinary people who were just living their lives, and about how terrified they must be. I thought about my brother and his family, who don’t live in the south but were scheduled to travel to the United States in a few weeks for a family simcha. My nephew is in the middle of his army service and had been granted time off from the army months ago so he could be there. And I realized they probably would not be coming. It seemed very unlikely that my nephew would be able to leave his unit now.

And I thought about my many cousins and friends who live in Israel. I thought about their sons, many of whom had finished their army service — some recently, some years ago — and would now likely be called up. I thought about the young soldiers who devote years to defending their country before going to college or getting jobs — ordinary teens and young adults who were just living their lives and will now find themselves in a war zone. And I thought about the older soldiers — the ones who will have to say goodbye to wives and children when they are called up to defend their country from unfathomable attacks.

On Sunday night, after Havdalah, I ran to check my messages. There was a WhatsApp message from my brother waiting. He let us know that they were all physically okay but that the situation in the south was absolutely horrific. My nephew, who had been on leave for the holiday, had been called back to his base in the middle of the day on Saturday and had traveled on Shabbat to get there. My niece’s husband had been called up for reserve duty later that evening.

I checked in with my cousins. Their sons had been called up. Some were stationed in the north, others in the south, but they had all been called up.

I have a close-knit group of friends in Israel. We have a WhatsApp chat, and I’m the only member of the group living in the United States. The chat is often filled with ordinary conversations — personal news, fun ideas for chol hamoed activities, details about get-togethers. I was in Israel this summer, and we all spent a wonderful evening together, after coordinating the plan on the chat. Last week, the chat was filled with details of the outings my friends’ families had enjoyed over the holiday, everything from escape rooms to hikes to family sports games, even rappelling off the walls of Jerusalem’s old city. 

But beginning on Saturday night Israel time, the posts had a very different tone. Everyone with older kids had at least one son or son-in-law who had been called up.

Another friend told us that his son had already experienced some serious warfare and had already lost friends. Other friends talked about many relatives who had been called up, about relatives who live in the south and had barricaded themselves in their home, about a neighbor who had lost a son, about a colleague who had lost a brother-in-law.

We are 6,000 miles away from the terror, from the war, but sometimes it feels like we are very close. I can’t stop thinking about the staggering number of missing, about how each of the hostages — the grandparents, the toddlers, the parents, the young adults — is faring. And I find myself constantly thinking about our friends and relatives who are bravely defending their country and about what their families must be going through. And I am thinking about the many soldiers in harm’s way and the many families who are anxiously waiting for them to come home safely.

This story was written by a woman who lives in Teaneck. 


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