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He saw beloved friends of ours, some shot all over their bodies, others burnt alive

  • Avram R'.s story

Whoever leaves the shelter dies, and whoever stays dies as well

First, to clarify, I live in the small town of Shuva. It’s 7 km from the border, second line in. Meaning, there are villages right next to the border – Alumim, Be’eri, Nahal Oz – then the farming fields of our moshav, then the homes.

At 06:30 a.m. we were jolted awake by the blaring of a rocket siren. Two months ago we moved into a new house, a nice caravan close to the synagogue, and the rocket siren is positioned on our roof. You’ll soon see that that’s more than a technical detail.

Luckily, when we moved into the new home we had put the girls’ bedroom in the bomb shelter. Only Pele, the little one (1.5 years old) slept in our room. We grabbed him from his bed and raced to the shelter. He woke up, and then his sister did too from the sound of me banging the windows and door shut.

I said to my wife, “Thank goodness the girls sleep in the shelter, and that we’re no longer sleeping in the Sukkah” [a temporary hut made of poles and branches used during the festival of Sukkot]. She replied, “It’s too bad we didn’t go to your parents’ place for the holiday” [of Simhat Torah, on October 7th]. We’d considered it, but we wanted to celebrate the holiday with our friends and the friends of our children.

Suddenly the neighbor arrived. "Listen, Asaf is going door to door and asking who has weapons"

All throughout the day, Liron repeated that it was such a shame we didn’t go, but I personally, surprising myself, said that I was glad we stayed. I couldn’t imagine our home, our friends, going through this, and us being far away. At that point, I wasn’t sure what exactly we were going through, but I felt strongly about it.

Just two days prior, on Thursday, Adi, a good friend of mine from Tel Aviv, came to visit, and I happily told her that my daughters had never heard a rocket siren. “The moment it starts up, we’re out of here”. But today was a holiday. And just when we understood that something more drastic was going on, and maybe, despite the holiday, we should leave, we were told that the roads were blocked and there was nowhere to go.

Liron’s phone did not stop ringing. We’re used to her parents being worried, even on Shabbat [a holy day when religious Jews don’t use phones], but this was extreme. They probably took down a senior Hamas official, I thought to myself. There was talk of it, that’s probably the reason for so many sirens. But we started to feel this was out of the ordinary…

Suddenly the neighbor arrived. "Listen, Asaf is going door to door and asking who has weapons. We fear there’s been an infiltration.”

No way there’s been an infiltration, I said confidently. We’re not on the border, there’s no way we were infiltrated.

A few minutes later she returned. “They’ve infiltrated Be’eri, Sderot, Yakhini, Ofakim…”

“Ofakim?! Are you sure?? That doesn’t seem possible.” We would soon find out that was the least impossibility we’d experience.

“I just met an officer who was in Be’eri” David updated us. “He says the entire town is bodies"

At that point, Liron had her phone out. We understood something else was going on, and we needed to be connected to the news, to the safety instructions, to the unimaginable and the horrific.

It was hard for me. We didn’t need both phones for ‘pikuach nefesh’ [meaning “life threat”: if there’s a threat to safety, Jews are permitted to use devices on Shabbat]. Later I found out that I was the only one not on my phone the entire holiday. The religious Jew in me was working overtime. I’m glad because it required a lot of strength and detachment from what was happening in order to operate in that reality.

When we realized there was a risk of infiltration and only a few weapons in the moshav, Liron sent a message to the head of the regional council to send reinforcements to the moshav. “How could it be that there’s no protection and the residents are locked inside their homes?”. He replied a few minutes later, “The army doesn’t have this under control. Let’s hope they get it together quickly”.

That didn’t happen.

During the day we all joined together, arranging food and water bottles for the soldiers. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

We found out that it’s impossible to lock a bomb shelter door from within. That led us to escape to another house, which was part of what revealed the horrors I’ll soon describe.

We decided to move to a house that wasn’t a caravan and join a few more families, for security and to keep the children busy, have them be together with their friends.

I don’t wish upon anybody in the world to be outside their home with children when a rocket siren is blaring, or even a threat of one going off (not to mention under the threat of kidnapping). It undermines your most basic responsibility instinct as a parent.

We made it.

When we got there, David, my friend, who lives there, wasn’t in. He joined a force of civilians who went to be on the lookout for infiltrators. He was also the one who occasionally uttered phrases we couldn’t believe we were hearing.

"All the stress and anxiety of what was happening made me yearn to sit down and study Torah"

We spent the day running to and from the bomb shelter. Luckily, we were together. And luckily due to Simhat Torah, we had a lot of sweets, snacks, and food for the kids. At some point, whenever we’d leave the shelter we started saying, “That’s another hakafah” [a celebratory dance in circles carrying the Torah that is performed multiple times on Simhat Torah]. We had so many such “hakafot”…

The entire day we heard insane booms, planes, helicopters, and also… machine guns. For six years I’ve been living in the villages surrounding the Gaza Strip and I’d never heard machine guns.

Only when I reached my parents at night, and it was quiet, I realized how sweet the silence was, and how much I’d missed it.

“Everything’s burnt, they’re burning everything”. That’s what my friend said when he came back from patrols to take a phone charger. “They’re burning houses, they’re burning everything. All of Be’eri is on fire, and all of Alumim. All of it is up in smoke.”

I stepped out for the first time that day. The entire horizon was covered in smoke. Everything smelled of burning.

Afterward, a neighbor who has family in Kfar Aza told us that people are barricading themselves in the bomb shelters, so the terrorists are simply burning the houses down with them inside. Whoever leaves the shelter dies, and whoever stays dies as well.

We spent the entire day in and out of the shelter. Because of Simhat Torah, and to try and make things better, once we were all squeezed into the shelter and made sure everyone was there, we started singing “sisu ve-simchu, be-simchat torah” [songs sung on Simhat Torah]. It was fun and surrealistically horrific.

The entire day all I thought about was that we were in a nightmare for which my daughters would pay a heavy price on their mental health for many years to come…

I was glad that I was without my phone. We did our best to be available for our children. Play with them, love them, tell them stories, and give them a sense of safety.

I know we managed it; we were good. We’re good parents. I hope…

“You’re not leaving me", Liron told me when they asked for volunteers. “I can’t handle it alone"

These situations always raise the hardest questions, regarding relationships, parenthood, and family.

During the day I understood how much I love the Torah. All the stress and anxiety of what was happening made me yearn to sit down and study Torah. Like a child needing something to hold on to.

Needing a hug…

“I just met an officer who was in Be’eri,” David updated us. “He says the entire town is bodies. Hundreds of bodies in the streets.”

“The State of Israel will never be the same,” he added. That sentence keeps reverberating in my mind…

Everything was demolished. That’s what I felt. But everything wasn’t important right now. What mattered was my family. That the children eat, that they don’t fight, that they have a good time.

So we held a Tehillim [Psalms] club, which they love. We started with “Psalm of Gratitude”. Being grateful that we were together, alive. With friends, with family, getting through it as best we can.

The entrance to the moshav became a meeting point. We established a first aid center for the wounded, organized equipment, and collected provisions for soldiers.

We were asked who could come with a car and transfer the wounded to Soroka [Medical Center]. David went with an officer. He says he didn’t say a word the entire drive, he was in such trauma that he couldn’t speak. He said that were taking weapons from wounded soldiers and giving them to civilians. It felt like the War of Independence.

No weapons, no equipment, no manpower…

“You’re not leaving me,” Liron told me when they asked for volunteers. “I can’t handle it alone.” I understood. Friends came and went, carrying, moving, driving, and I had a need to help, to take part in it. We are at war. But my family needed me and that was most important.

All day, I thought about our kids, about their trauma, and how the only important thing right now is to help them minimize the damage they’ll have to deal with…

All day, information flooded in about the horrors, the massacre, the helplessness.

"When the Shabbat was out, the only thing I cared about was whether it was possible to leave this area"

During the day, thoughts creep in that in the State of Israel, the one surrounded by enemies, we have a government where most of the politicians lack army experience, and maybe even more ministers have a criminal record than an army record…

But then more thoughts creep in, that this isn’t the time for such thoughts, they aren’t helping. Not now. My family needs me…

“Who can host a family from Be’eri?” the Whatsapp asks on Motsai Shabbat [Saturday evening, after the holy day], and a few minutes later David brings two, Shalom and Haim.

Shalom was a big guy, strong, exhausted, and traumatized. And Haim, a 16-year-old, head bowed and defeated. His face said it all, he looked like a ghost… They recounted how in the morning they woke up to the sirens. On their way to the bomb shelter, Shalom looked out the window and saw two pickup trucks with dozens of terrorists. “I think we had 15 of them in the house. I held fast the door of the bomb shelter (the one that can’t lock from inside) for over 10 hours. I still can’t feel my hand. They shot at the door and said we’re dead…”

He recounted how they demolished the entire house, broke beds and appliances, and destroyed everything.

I wanted to hug them, to help them, to do something… so I made them coffee and gave them a back rub.

When the Shabbat was out, the only thing I cared about was whether it was possible to leave this area because the threat of infiltration was still evident. There still weren’t any forces in the moshav, and terrorists were still hiding around, which basically meant staying here at the friends’ house, having all the kids sleep in the shelter, and spending another night in this surreal reality.

I told Liron we were leaving. She said she doesn’t want to die…

We decided to go, and that was the right decision, thank G-d (if He can be blessed after a day like this…). The entire ride we heard news; a brother of a friend who was killed, more people we know… dozens of messages from concerned friends. It was heartwarming, even though I wanted to tell everyone that despite it all, we had a good Shabbat, we were with friends, and games for the kids, we sang for Simhat Torah and talked about how much we love and celebrate the Torah.

There’s lots more to share, so many horrific moments, events, and anecdotes, but right now I just want to sleep. And cry. And hug my family….

Avram R.