Placing a new bomb shelter in Ashkelon
Placing a new bomb shelter in AshkelonYossi Zeliger, IFCJ

My friend Sylvie visited Israel once a year. On one occasion that we had coffee together she revealed her dream of serving as a volunteer in the IDF.

“What would an elderly grandmother, a foreigner like you, what would you do in the IDF? You never served in any military capacity, you don’t even live in Israel.”

“Well, maybe I could sort ammunition, and if they would give me a chair I could sit and prepare boxes of bullets for distribution to IDF soldiers.” She answered.

Sylvie didn’t visit this year, we didn’t have coffee together in my new sukkah, but I had plenty of visitors over the chag. On Friday afternoon, I said good-bye to my beautiful little sukkah before lighting candles. I chanted the parting text, tears in my eyes. Will I be here next year to have my children and grandchildren help me put up my sukkah? Will I merit to sit in my sukkah again?

Memories of my husband who loved every chag, and spent so much time and energy fulfilling every mitzva attached to each chag tailed me as I exited the sukkah. Shmini Atzeret-Simchat Torah, the final day of the week-long holiday also holds fond memories. Memories of Williamsburg, where I was born and raised, and Sukkot and Simchat Torah, the happiest chagim of the year.

I was at home in Bet Shemesh, together with my daughter-in-law, when the piercing sound of the first Red Alert siren announced an incoming rocket attack on Shabbat morning, a sound that penetrated loudly through two hearing aids, and had my daughter-in-law running to close the steel shutters on the window of the safe room. It’s the first time in 63 years that I am living in an apartment with a safe room. Since my husband and I left America at the end of October 1960, we survived some eight wars, plus several defensive military operations. Each war has left a mark on my heart, a mark on my mind, and on my conscience.

But this war, Iron Swords, is different. It is Israel’s 9/11: over 3,000 rockets, over 1,300 dead, over 3,500 wounded, over 100 civilians and soldiers taken hostage, and the barbaric, ISIS-level war crimes against civilians – babies, children, women, and the elderly – because they were Jews. Babies were beheaded, women raped, whole families were shot to death, their homes burned to ashes -- the atrocities are of Holocaust proportions!

The Six-Day War was our first war in Israel. My husband and I were rookies; we had no idea what to expect. It wasn’t a surprise war like the horrific Yom Kippur War that followed six years later, or like this new horrendous shocking war. We had three weeks to prepare for the Six Day War, yet we had no idea what to prepare. When my neighbor’s sons and grandsons were called up to serve, I held my two-year-old son’s hand as I watched my neighbor’s children and grandchildren bid farewell to their mother and grandmother, each one seeking a blessing as he left the apartment to join his army unit; each one receiving a blessing that Hashem watch over them and that they return home safely. I stood there praying that my son would never have to serve; that Israel would be at peace, with no enemies, when my son turned 18.

When the sirens sounded on June 5th 1967, I was home alone with my two-year-old son. My four-year-old daughter was in kindergarten. I descended to the building’s bomb shelter underneath our apartment, adjacent to a large open field where a platoon of soldiers, their camouflaged cannons uncovered, waited for orders to open fire. I sat holding onto the edge of my chair each time I heard the soldiers’ countdown in the field, holding tightly as the cannon balls exploded over our heads on their way to liberate the Old City of Jerusalem. The Six Day War started in a terrifying manner for a young American mother who never experienced war, an American who read and watched movies of other people’s wars, yet merited to witness miraculous victory, to hear General Motta Gur’s announcement, “Har Habayit b’yadeinu”, the Temple Mount is in our hands, and to participate with Am Yisrael in the joy filled return of all the holy sites, and cities, after 19 years of Jordanian occupation.

Twenty-five years later, during the Gulf War, my husband and I sat in a shelter with our grandchildren. Experienced at war, this time we donned our gas masks, sat with children in their “bardasim,” (protective head coverings), and with an infant who was placed in a plastic-covered unit. I could not believe we were taking shelter again when the siren sounded to warn us of Scud missiles raining down on Israel.

Over thirty years since the Gulf War, and exactly fifty years since the horrific Yom Kippur War, and in between too many wars and armed engagements, the blast of the Red Alert siren a few days ago sent me running into the safe room; and sent my great-grandchildren in other areas of Bet Shemesh and Jerusalem into their shelters and safe rooms. And then, despite it being Shabbat, Simchat Torah, the end-of-Sukkot, my son and four grandsons (another flew in from the US and joined them), all family men now, were called to serve in another war, a milchemet mitzva – a war in which it is a mitzva to participate – a war that started by 1,500 Iranian-backed Hamas terrorists who breached the security barrier between Gaza and Israel in over 80 places, and invaded some 22 communities in the south of Israel, slaughtering over 1,000 Jews, and beating and abducting over 100 Israelis, mostly civilians, dragging them into captivity in Gaza.

I’ve been there, lived the horror of war in my lifetime. I’ve seen and felt the fear, the anger, the tears, the pain and the sadness that fills our eyes and hearts; but also, the huge acts of kindness, the outstretched arms, the beautiful notes and videos of grandchildren sent to their fathers serving our country. I’ve seen new growth sprout from the depths of tragic wars. I’ve heard the cycle of Torah readings that end in joy on Simchat Torah, and like life itself, begin again with parshat Bereishit.

“Ki lo yitosh Hashem amo v'nachalato lo ya-azov -- Surely Hashem will not abandon His people, nor forsake His heritage. ​"Tehillim 94:14 This is some of what I say to Hashem every morning when I talk to him privately.

My children, family, and friends keep phoning and sending messages asking, “How are you?” Me? Why do they ask me how I am? Baruch Hashem, I’m fine! How I wish the families sitting shiva, the soldiers under fire on the frontlines, and the women and children in captivity could answer the same.

I dream that this terrible war will be Israel’s last. I dream of Gaza with its population of murderers eliminated, washed away into the sea. I dream that the lands we gave up for peace at such a great cost are finally restored to Israel, and the settlements of Gush Katif rebuilt and repopulated with Jews.

I dream about volunteering with my friend Sylvie at a peace-time IDF center, sitting in an IDF facility and filling boxes of chocolates instead of bullets, and in each box, I would leave a note of gratitude – a note signed with a little red heart.

Faigie Heimanwon first prize in the Israel Education Ministry Jewish Culture short story competition and is a popular author of short stories and essays, and a memoir, Girl For Sale.