By Rabbi Barry Kornblau
These words describe the OU Mission Shabbat at the hesder yeshiva in S’derot, 2 kilometers from the Gaza border, where the students learn Torah and serve in the IDF.
Bomb shelters are everywhere. Buildings, schools, playgrounds, and bus stops are made of thick, reinforced concrete to protect residents against the relentless Kassam missiles that Hamas has been firing at them for years. Most are painted colorfully, their playful, artistic creativity contrasting starkly with the deadly seriousness of their purpose.
Artillery explosions and plumes rising above Gaza to the southwest, some extraordinarily loud, continued every few minutes throughout the night until exactly 8:00 a.m. Shabbat morning, when the latest cease-fire took effect. The silence was overwhelming, but also tense, since every soldier and citizen here is fully aware that it allows Hamas to replenish its supplies and reorganize its fighters, raising future costs in “blood and treasure” to Israel when Hamas inevitably resumes its firing and tunnel-digging.
Hundreds of young uniformed soldiers of various skin tones, ethnicities, and countries of origin, coming and going from the front, joined hundreds of yeshiva students to celebrate—and I mean, WOW, CELEBRATE!—Shabbat. In the middle of Kabbalat Shabbat, they hoisted soldiers recently engaged to be married onto their shoulders, dancing and bellowing out joyous wedding songs. Their backpacks, weapons, and sleeping mats transformed the yeshiva grounds into a makeshift military encampment. The sounds of their singing “Shalom Aleichem, Mal’achei HaShalom” resounded throughout the yeshiva courtyard as they snaked in enormous lines to receive their Shabbat dinner. Active-duty soldiers singing about angels of peace! Which nation is like Your people, Hashem?
The dancing and powerful singing went on and on, during services, meals, Havdalah, and beyond. Hundreds of voices giving thanks for life, praising and beseeching Hashem to protect His people and land, and expressing faith in the eternal destiny of our people, returned to our homeland after millennia and generations of longing.
The rosh yeshiva, the amazing R’ Dovid Fendel (originally from West Hempstead, NY), led the festivities. One of the themes he touched upon was from the week’s Torah reading, which includes laws pertaining to accidental killing. These laws, he noted, are founded upon the centrality and sanctity of each human life and the corresponding obligation to preserve and safeguard it. He specifically referenced that value in the context of the lives of Gazan residents—as if soft-hearted IDF soldiers and yeshiva students, nurtured on Jewish Torah values, need such reminders!
S’derot’s mayor, Alon Davidi, addressed us and the assembled crowd at Shabbat dinner. He described the Kassam rocket shells that decorate the city offices, each of which is inscribed with “Al Quds” (Arabic for Jerusalem). Hamas wants Jerusalem and to obliterate the Jewish presence here; in their mind, S’derot is just a little obstacle in their way. He is a man of vision, working to build 3,000 more housing units in the area to strengthen Israel’s border region.
HaRav Shmuel Eliyahu, prominent Religious Zionist rosh yeshiva of Tsfat and son of the former Rishon l’Tzion, was present as well to strengthen the troops and added tremendous spirit and words of Torah. One of his speeches mentioned that decades ago, the Golan region (northeast Israel, bordering Syria), was as tense as S’derot—a “little Jerusalem”—is now. Addressing the yeshiva students as they concluded Shabbat with an hour of powerful singing, he told how concentrating on learning Torah under such distracting circumstances was of course difficult, but also how such Torah has heightened spiritual power due to Hashem’s closeness to Jewish military encampments: “Hashem ‘walks’ in the midst of your encampment,” the Torah teaches us.
OU Mission participant Rabbi S. Binyomin Ginsberg, dean of Torah Academy in Minneapolis and former columnist for the Yated Ne’eman, and I had Shabbat lunch with one of S’derot’s rabbis, Yaniv Chasan, his wife Rivka, and their eight beautiful children. They told us how one night, a missile landed outside their home, destroying a neighbor’s car. Their son, just past bar mitzvah age, showed us his destroyed siddur with shrapnel still inside and his tefillin box, also disfigured by shrapnel. (He had left them overnight in that car.)
R’ Yaniv related that in 2006 he and Rivka stood in their home in Gush Katif (Gaza), in disbelief that IDF soldiers would force them from their homes. That evacuation led, in his view (shared by most Israelis), directly to the current battle against Hamas; instead of building wholesome lives of productive goodness, Hamas and its many supporters remain intent upon destroying and uprooting Jews from the entire land of Israel.
Rivka told us that many neighborhood women are too terrified to leave their homes, not only anxious for their own lives, but also because they do not want to face the possibility of having to decide which of their children to pull to safety in the 15 seconds they have between hearing a “Red Alert” and the landing of a Kassam missile.
Their children listened with obvious astonishment as I explained why our OU group had come, how so many others were turned away due to lack of space, and how many thousands and millions of Jews and other Americans are with them, wishing them well. I told them about a boy celebrating his bar mitzvah this Shabbat in Philadelphia, who told his rabbi—another member of our group—that he should skip the bar mitzvah in order to spend this Shabbat with the residents of S’derot and the other Israelis and soldiers on our trip. Their incredulous eyes and replies told me that this group can say, at least in part, “(OU) Mission accomplished!” ϖ