Diary of an IDF Soldier – SAPIR Journal

todayNovember 24, 2023 6

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When Hamas attacked Israel, Yoni Heilman, the CEO of the TAMID Group and an American oleh (immigrant), joined hundreds of thousands of Israelis who were called up to reserve service in the IDF. He has been sending near-daily messages to family and friends, and Sapir is honored to publish them. This first installment takes us through the first two and a half weeks of the war; we plan to publish weekly updates for as long as Yoni continues to write his dispatches.

Sunday, October 8

Yesterday morning I had one foot out the door on the way to Simhat Torah dancing with my son when my phone rang and I got the call. An hour of quick packing, changing into uniform, and making sure the mamad (shelter room) was ready. A few brief words to my kids (14, 9, and 6) and my wife — no time to reassure them or help them past tears — and I closed the door behind me. 

The roads were empty … mostly. Every car I passed looked like mine: a soldier in uniform, a steely expression in his eyes, trying not to exceed the speed limit. 

Our base has been alternately filling up and emptying out over the past 36 hours as individual soldiers stream in and military forces stream out. In between briefings, gathering gear, and exercises, we check our phones. We see the same videos as everyone else. We try to shelve until some later point the shock of seeing familiar faces in grotesque scenes. 

When Shabbat ended, I called to check in with my wife. They had a couple of sirens during the day and are planning to lay mattresses and sleep all together in the mamad overnight — better than the trauma of a midnight run under fire. I am suddenly aware of the other army — that of the siblings, parents, and especially wives with small kids, who have no choice but to step up and be everything for everyone at the moment. Around midnight, the head of our brigade addresses the officers and commanders. He quotes Clausewitz’s On War, which I’ve never heard in Hebrew. 

Today the main entrance to the base was a zoo. Latecomers flowing in to join their reserve units. All manner of military vehicles flowing out. And dozens upon dozens of strangers showing up with food, toiletries, and love. Enough to make your heart overflow. On the side of a box full of food someone had written in marker the words !אל תירא ישראל – כולנו איתכם: Do not fear, Israel — we are all with you! 

Our plans have been changed many times today, but finally our unit is on the move. Heading south.

Tuesday, October 10

Wars are won by the side that best manages its logistics. Those who can keep ammunition, fuel, food, and reinforcements running forward to an ever-changing front, and injured people and damaged equipment moving to the rear, will triumph. It’s all about setting priorities and managing them well. 

As this war enters its fourth day I am adapting to the same mindset. There can be only one top priority, and everything else is determined by it. On days one and two it was preparation for the unknown: getting our hands on as much equipment and information as possible. When I lost my phone at one point, it was two hours before that became a priority — I judged that my wife wouldn’t start to worry until that much time had passed, and I chose instead to make sure I had full clips for my gun and other relevant combat gear. 

Days three and four have been about alertness, now that I am near the front. The need to be alert determines how much I sleep. I eat only enough so hunger doesn’t wake me. My personal cleanliness and comfort finally declined enough today that I sacrificed sleep to walk 10 minutes to the nearest bathroom and took the time to brush my teeth, shave, and clip my nails as short as possible. 

Someone once said to me that Israel’s enemies are deterred only because they believe that we are alert and at the ready throughout every shift. I will not let the reality be any different.

Wednesday, October 11

8-8. That’s what they call it. When I was in sadir — my original, non-reserve service — we judged shifts by how much boredom you could tolerate versus how much sleep you could get uninterrupted. 8-8 meant maximum potential sleep, alongside maximum potential boredom during your shift. 

Eight on, eight off. It has a different meaning during wartime. 

Eight hours on: in the eye of the storm, keeping the outside world at bay as we buckle down to do our jobs and do them well. We can do them well only if we can dissociate mentally and physically. That means no emotional space to process events, to think about what life was before or what it will be after. No space to feel the dirt and sweat and hunger and exhaustion. To let frustrations with leadership surface. To think about spouses and children and parents and friends and careers. The job we have cannot be done with distractions — somewhat easier for me because my phone cannot be on me for those hours. 

Eight hours off: coming off duty into a flood of updates, messages, and news. The flood of emotions, made worse by the hunger and exhaustion I allow myself to feel for the first time since the early afternoon. Maybe that’s why I’ve written these updates after shifts — it helps with the transition. But I can’t sink too deep into it because I have to pull myself back out again soon. 

Over the past eight hours, I missed news of an escalation on a northern front, growing anger at the Israeli leadership, a flood of antisemitism on American campuses. A MealTrain set up for my family. Friends volunteering to dig graves at Jerusalem’s military cemetery. News that two of the soldiers killed were just outside my social circle, one of them married only a year. Processing that our unit killed four terrorists during my shift. Now I need to eat a snack, wash up, and sleep on the floor of our protected area so I can wake up ready for the next eight hours on.

Wednesday, October 11

I had a good opening sentence — really, I did — but in the middle of it we had a Red Alert for a rocket attack. Where I am, we have 15 seconds to get under cover, and I was as far away from it as one can be at my location, so I grabbed my gear and sprinted. 

A couple of minutes later I got it back … and as soon as I sat down on a bench to write, I heard gunfire and everyone sprinted back to protected positions. Thankfully, it turned out to be our own forces — but we didn’t know that for quite a few long minutes. 

I last showered three days ago and was seriously considering it today but … might forgo for now. Dirty and ready to sprint to safety beats clean and exposed any day. 

There is a sense of things heating up, like a long breath being drawn in, and it has become harder for me to maintain emotional tempo. I slept well but woke up without enough time to daven (pray) and eat; the first got 10 minutes, and breakfast took a back seat. 

I was glad in the end to get started on an empty stomach — the first thing to do this morning related to recovering fallen civilians. From there, it was an incredibly busy eight hours. Tactical wins: Our unit captured three terrorists and took out two others, among many other things. Non-tactical: One commander took a few minutes to fix water pipes in a house in one of the towns that has been cleared of civilians. And over the radio I heard an exchange about making sure to milk cows whose owner was similarly evacuated. 

After my shift I went to our base’s shul — a few minutes there help me to make the mental switch. For a moment, I was inspired to see a small group of soldiers in the back in an impromptu study group … until I heard them discussing the technical steps and religious process of recovering bodies. More was said than I ever wanted to hear. 

Before I left, a soldier burst in. Whipping out a kippah, he located tefillin and put them on. A few minutes later, he finished praying, replaced the tefillin for others’ use, and glanced around at the handful of us still there. תשמרו על עצמכם, he said: Take care of yourselves. Then he grabbed his gear and left.

Thursday, October 12

I have felt a growing frustration at the level of anger and despair that fills the space in between conversations and sometimes bursts out on the news and social media.

The anger has been notably absent where I am. Certainly part of that is because my role in all this prevents my being exposed to the flood of images and videos, talking heads, funerals, and the sense of helplessness that is pervasive on the home front. But part of it is because of what I do see that many of you do not. 

The level of donated food, toiletries, and equipment is like a flood. But what makes that lump catch in my throat are the little notes, handwritten, scrawled on napkins hastily taped to sandwich bags. “Thank you for protecting us and lifting our morale and making all the people of Israel feel safe,” reads one. “Fear not, O Israel — we are all with you,” reads another.

There is a sense of things heating up, like a long breath being drawn in, and it has become harder for me to maintain emotional tempo.

As a grunt in basic training, pride in our unit was a big thing. In this war, the pride is in being part of this brother- and sisterhood that showed up and stood ready to do whatever it takes. 

Last night I was lucky enough to get a few extra hours’ sleep. I’ve been using my flak vest and helmet for a pillow and sleeping in the reinforced tunnels we have for rocket fire, but last night someone from my unit showed me that some of the scant housing on our base had open beds. At 4 A.M. I tiptoed my way into a room with five bunkbeds that had a single unoccupied mattress, wondering whether I’d be woken by someone returning from duty to find his bed occupied, or to a unit waking up and wondering about the stranger in their midst. 

At 8 I awoke to polite voices around me. I opened my eyes to a room of people getting ready for the day, and one soldier saw me stir. תישן אחי, he said: Sleep, brother.

I woke up anyway and saw these guys were getting ready to head out into the field. They are part of Unit 669 — a commando rescue unit of literally the best people you want in times of trouble. Think of a helicopter flying in through heavy gunfire, someone rappelling out of the sky and picking you up like you weigh nothing. These guys call that a Monday. 

I blinked and two of the guys switched to English — and I introduced myself to Jason, originally from Perth, Australia. Turns out, my organization, TAMID, and his company, Stella, have worked together. We spoke briefly about our respective units, and then he told me about a nonprofit he has just created to collect funds that will support private post-trauma therapy when the war is over, when the lines for treatment will stretch the public system beyond capacity. He put it together in between missions. 

This is a war. There is trauma. And for too, too many, life will never be the same. But we will triumph. We will build a safe new reality. I know it because I, and the thousands of soldiers I have seen over the past week, will not rest, will not see our families, will not take our boots off, until we have made it so.

Friday, October 13

It seems like ages ago that I wrote about 8-8 shifts and what felt like my ability to maintain clear emotional separation between downtime and “on” time.

The past 24 hours have been turbulent. 

Those guys from 669 I shared a room with a couple of nights ago? Yesterday they rescued a team of ours that took casualties. 

Twice yesterday we jumped to warnings of an attack on our base. I found myself with full gear, taking corners barrel first, like in the old days. 

I came off duty to find my relief in tears — her friend was just killed by a rocket, while driving. 

I slept outside on a bench and woke up to warnings of a terrorist cell crawling toward one of our positions. (After several minutes, we realized that it was a few wild dogs.)

I cried through shacharit (morning prayers), for which I managed to catch a minyan, as I listened to the first part of the priestly blessing “May God bless you and guard you” and as our unit’s rabbi led us through a powerful rendition of Avinu Malkenu — Our Father, our King — a supplication usually recited only on fast days and during the High Holiday season.

My ears are ringing with the words that our community rabbi shared on Yom Kippur — about the tremendous power of even the thought of repentance. And those of Rav Haim Sabato, referring to “the sadness that our prayers and pleas over the High Holy Days did not pierce the gates of heaven.”

Back to work.

Saturday, October 14

In the course of my work at TAMID, I recently had the opportunity to work with a very smart friend and colleague. She focused my team on the concept of polarities: a spectrum whose balance is less about finding a single point, and more about adapting to shifts from pole to pole under different circumstances.

Thus were my past 24 hours.

Shabbat is referred to as מעין עולם הבא — a flavor of the world to come. For me, it began as the holiest of days, which I will offer as a series of images:

  • A handful of female soldiers, rifles slung over their backs, reverently lighting Shabbat candles.
  • Three hundred soldiers — Ashkenazi and Sephardi, religious and secular, from a dozen different units, singing Kabbalat Shabbat — welcoming Shabbat. We spilled out from the tiny synagogue on base into a vortex of dancing, shouting, crying voices as armored Hummers with mounted machine guns drove around us, their occupants smiling and singing along as they headed out to the front. שבת קדשנו, מחמד ליבנו, וטהר ליבנו לעבדך באמת we sang: Our holy Shabbat, treasure of our hearts, purify our hearts to truly serve You. 
  • Overhearing an intellectual debate between a colonel (who formerly led our unit) and our rabbi (a major) about the permissibility of boiling water for coffee on Shabbat in times of war. 
  • Later learning that that same colonel had volunteered to come back to our unit as a spare hand. After leading it for years, in this war he spent the week releasing potato shipments from local farms to the rest of Israel, milking cows, cleaning garbage after the end of a meal, and arranging an armored caravan to rescue pets left behind when the border towns were evacuated.
  • The rabbi said a few words before dinner: “This week, more Jews were killed than in any week since the Holocaust.” He paused. “But this time it’s different. This time we have an army. We will not let Jewish lives be forfeit. We need not walk fearfully in the darkness. We are trained, we are equipped, we are strong.”

Shabbat morning dawned, and I felt very much at peace. 

Later in the morning, I stepped into the operations center during a very busy point and saw I could help by sitting at the radio. Not a moment later, a mortar fell directly on one of our positions, and I found myself at the center of reporting and coordinating an emergency evacuation and body identification. Watching multiple teams mobilize with grim expressions on their faces. Watching the colonel go out to meet the injured as they were loaded onto air transport. Watching his No. 2 step out to speak with a mother. And then the room settled down and we got back to our regular work. 

Now Shabbat is over. Tonight is Rosh Chodesh, the first day of the new Hebrew month. The blessing for the new month calls for a good life of peace and redemption. But I cannot put out of my mind the nickname of the new month: Mar Cheshvan, “bitter” Cheshvan.

Sunday, October 15

This morning I moved to a different position with a small team. We rode on a convoy of Hummers, and my first thought was that it felt like every movie I’ve ever seen about U.S. forces in the Middle East. 

Then I looked out at the landscape: beautiful farms, groves of trees, a small city glimmering on a nearby hill. These are not the deserts of Iraq. This is our home. People live here. My unit and I — and so many others — are here so that those towns and cities don’t become the next front. So the farmers will be able to harvest their crops. To give truth to the phrase “Never again.”

I came off duty to find my relief in tears — her friend was just killed by a rocket, while driving.

Then we passed a series of small towns. Beautifully green in the morning light but empty of their inhabitants. Soldiers lie on sleeping bags in yards, on driveways, and across the hood of their vehicles. Covered in the dirt of battle, but unwilling to sully the pristine houses they are protecting, to preserve what can be preserved of normalcy.

The landscape changed to a series of gentle slopes, trees, winding paths. Before I had the chance to process our location, we came upon scattered tents and dozens of cars. The site of a massacre just a week ago, when terrorists attacked a rustic music festival. This is all that remains. Like a picture I once saw of a New Jersey Transit parking lot with the abandoned cars of commuters killed on 9/11 — except all of these cars had their doors wide open. They needed to be cleared of IEDs left behind by the terrorists. 

Finally, we pulled into our new position. A small town, founded before the state as part of an effort to settle the Negev desert. And on the surrounding fields: more firepower than I’ve ever seen in one place. Sadly, I don’t think the town’s founders would be surprised that we are still fighting for our very existence. But I like to think they would be at a loss for words to see the power and presence surrounding what must once have been a handful of tents — and to know that hundreds of thousands of soldiers, 9 million Israelis, 16 million Jews around the world, have mobilized to protect their homes. 

Never again.

Monday, October 16

Today I want to share a series of vignettes — just some scenes that don’t really connect but that remain on my mind. 

  • A few of us spent some time with a soldier named Achia whose wife had delivered their fourth child, a son, two hours earlier. We worked with him on names, but it wasn’t easy because he had conditions. “Four letters,” he said. “Also, my wife won’t allow names that include either the letter ח or ע.” We burst into laughter — he has the very distinctive accent of a Yemenite Jew, and those letters are particularly strong in the Yemenite accent. 
  • My dreams are starting to take on a military theme — and as in my first army service, I am remembering my dreams when I wake up. Last night I was in my childhood home in New Rochelle, N.Y., anxiously wandering around the backyard at night because my kids had fallen asleep in random places, and I worried about collecting them all in the event of rocket fire.
  • A VIP visited our location. After a friend of mine got a picture with the VIP, the head of the VIP’s security team pulled the soldier aside and asked, “Is there anything you guys need? Anything?” My friend looked at him and said “Honestly? I would love to find myself a fancy helmet like yours.” The security chief, without a moment’s hesitation, lifted off his helmet and gave it to my friend. 
  • I’ve had the chance to witness a funny dynamic — a father and daughter serving in close proximity. At first, I thought it must be comforting to have someone like that nearby. Now I notice that the dad keeps giving his daughter tasks, changing things she does to the way he thinks they should be done … and she is mostly frustrated that he won’t let her do her job. So — pretty much like in normal life, just that here both are high-ranking officers. 
  • Today I walked past a long line of Hummers surrounding a playground, in which soldiers sat on the grass in circles. 

These are the stories and images that sustain me, that remind me of the good that has come from this unfathomable evil, and that help me find my optimism that things will get better, eventually.

I shared that idea with a friend of mine, and he said that these stories, the videos, the donations, the brother- and sisterhood, they do nothing for him. The tragedy is too great, the pain is too deep, for any of this to make him feel okay. For me, they are like small bricks that must be carefully placed in order to climb out from the dark place into which we have been thrown.

Tuesday, October 17

I had a whole paragraph about the government and its policies, but honestly, I don’t have the stomach to talk about it. 

I will say just this: I’ve been thinking a lot about the true meaning of leadership, and I see little of it in government, though I see plenty of it all around me. Vigorous debates over the right way to achieve important goals, paired with readiness to work together on whatever decisions are reached. The acceptance of personal responsibility: Today yet another military leader publicly acknowledged his failure ahead of the war. But also looking beyond oneself — something known in Hebrew as “rosh gadol” — getting things done even if they are not part of your job. What’s more, chains of command that can be set aside for someone with something of value to add. And, everywhere, a sense of mutual respect and camaraderie. Because underneath it all — we really care about one another. 

You can see it in small things, too. Like the way I’m often asked whether I’m getting enough sleep, or eating well, or need a break. The gentle voice, the hand on the shoulder when we ask one another to do something. Commands are not shouted — they are shared. 

And also in the large things. A great many people here would lay down their lives for one another. Some already have. 

It was a busy morning. I relieved someone on my team who caught a ride out of our position to get to the funeral of a friend who was killed last week. During my shift, we stopped a terrorist cell. After the funeral, my friend came right back for his next shift. 

I stepped out from our protected position to get some air and call Gabrielle from somewhere with better reception, but then there were four consecutive volleys of rockets, and where I am, we have only about seven seconds to get under cover — if the alarm sounds quickly enough. 

I think I’ll nap in the bomb shelter before going back on for the night shift.

Wednesday, October 18

Last night was pretty quiet. One soldier was shot in the leg but will survive. We found some dead terrorists — but also some of our own victims. About 30 feet away from where I type this is a cardboard box full of chains of bullets and magazines from the Kalashnikov rifles favored by those who would see every one of those bullets pierce a Jewish heart. I asked someone whether we should be collecting them and sharing them with the army spokesperson’s unit, to photograph and share with global media. “Why bother?” was his answer. “And anyway, they’re everywhere.”

Soldiers lie on sleeping bags in yards, on driveways, and across the hood of their vehicles. Covered in the dirt of battle, but unwilling to sully the pristine houses they are protecting, to preserve what can be preserved of normalcy.

There’s a passage recited at the seder that always felt like a mantra more than anything, אלא שבכל דור ודור עומדים עלינו לכלותינו, והקדוש ברוך הוא מצילנו מידם: Yet in every generation there are those who rise up to eliminate us — and the Holy one, blessed be He, delivers us from their hands. My grandparents, Holocaust survivors thanks to Oskar Schindler’s list, doubtless thought of the Nazis during that passage. My father, the quintessential “survivor of survivors,” does as well. For me, it has had meaning but was primarily a favorite tune and a signal that we were finally reaching the meal portion of the seder. Next year will I be able to recite that passage without breaking down at the memory of a cardboard box?

I am well aware that these notes may serve a greater purpose in this war, but I write them for only two reasons:

1. The effort of collecting my thoughts, framing them into some kind of structure, and reflecting on the meaning of what I am experiencing helps me to process and move forward. I will also freely admit that it’s my English refuge in a world of military Hebrew. 

2. Gabrielle and I are a unit divided, going through different and extraordinary hardships. Neither of us will ever be able to fully comprehend what the other went through, and there isn’t always enough time or emotional space to fit everything I need to say into our brief conversations. So I hope these notes (and what she is going through that she shares privately with me) will help us remain in sync. Gabrielle’s superhuman empathy, her ability to understand what she couldn’t possibly understand of my army service, is what made me fall in love with her in the first place. I’d like to help her do it again.

When I write, I write only to you, Gabrielle. I love you and miss you more than words can express.

Thursday, October 19

Just woke up from a bad dream that wasn’t as bad as my prior shift, during which a colonel — the same one who arranged the pet-saving convoy last week — found what he thought might be his murdered niece next to the body of a terrorist. It was too hard to tell because so much time had passed that identification will require DNA processing.

I don’t think the town’s founders would be surprised that we are still fighting for our very existence.

Another colonel stopped by to brief us on plans for the south and developments up north. Outlining strategy, he paused, then said אין לנו ברירה : We have no choice. I grew up hearing that Israel’s wars were מלחמות אין ברירה: wars of no choice, because our enemies sought to destroy us utterly. I thought that was past. Hearing this colonel speak those words was chilling, on the same day I stumbled across a used (but empty) body bag in the bushes, watched videos of students calling for genocide against Jews at my alma mater, and tried to process other horrific images.

I want to share the moments of levity and inspiration that are around me — I have a list of them. But I don’t have it in me right now. Just one indescribably powerful moment: a newlywed female officer in our unit, muttering half under her breath to me, “When this is all over, I’m getting myself pregnant.”

Thursday, October 19

I’ve been in a few different locations since the war started, and until recently was in Be’eri — an idyllic kibbutz near Gaza that had about 10 percent of its residents killed. I will not expand on the details; I stumbled across a guided tour of international journalists while I was there, so I imagine many of you have read about what happened in Be’eri. For those concerned about security of information: I am no longer there.

Before leaving, I took a walk around the kibbutz. I felt I owed it to the residents of this place to witness its beauty and to bear witness to its horrible loss. Before I left, I wrote this:

The things I have seen — and pictures I have taken — are difficult to comprehend. I thought of a friend who, unasked, took down our sukkah after I was called up — as I walked past sukkot whose owners have either been evacuated, kidnapped, or killed. Cars in various states of ruin from the mortars and rockets fired at Be’eri many times daily since the war began. Burned-out houses pockmarked with bullet holes from the massacre that happened here.

Burnt pages from a Tanach — a Bible — bring to mind every Jewish tragedy in history. Knowing that some of the residents here were burned alive when they barricaded themselves in their houses, I am reminded of the famous story of Rabbi Hanina ben Teradyon, who was killed by being wrapped in a Torah scroll and burned alive, at the command of the Roman Caesar. I cannot believe that my fellow Jews were murdered in the same way, surrounded by burning pages of holy text, in 2023.

There are also incredibly poignant and touching images: a fresh lemon hanging on for dear life on a burnt tree; a flag of bright blue and white against the backdrop of a house cleared of terrorists.

I tiptoed into one house that was barely standing and found a series of absurd contradictions: a kitchen, burnt black, whose table was covered in brightly colored plastic straws; a tote bag covered in soot, hanging in the front closet, wishing “happy holidays from Be’eri!” A bowl of what appeared to be large marbles labeled “seeds of hope” on a small table near the front door.

Noticing papers strewn on the floor, I peered closer and learned whose house this was: Lilach Kipnis, a social worker who specializes in helping children through the trauma of living under rocket fire. She and her husband, Terry, were kidnapped by Hamas; Terry’s medical aide, Paul, murdered.

On a table I noticed a photo album that appeared to have somehow survived. Gently opening the cover, I saw it was a birthday gift to Lilach, and the pictures were in decent shape. Gabrielle has always loved albums — there is a project that awaits in which we finally put our hundreds of pictures into physical albums — and so I thought about how important this album might be for the Kipnis family.

I carefully dusted off the ash and took the album. Gabrielle has already reached out to their sons through social media, in the hope we can get the album to them and, soon, back to Lilach.

As I walked back to my post, I noticed a house on which the invading terrorists had spray-painted “Hamas” in Arabic.

Underneath, in Hebrew, there is now an addition: עם ישראל חי. The people of Israel endure.

Sunday, October 22

It’s been a couple of days since my last update — days that have been both routine and surreal. Surreal because of what I did on my weekend; routine because … well, all of those surreal things have become routine. 

It seems to me that when all is said and done, I’m pretty lucky. 

The tragedy that started this war tore right through the heart and soul of the Jewish people — and beyond. There is so much pain — I see it in the messages I receive, the articles I manage to skim, the phone calls I have. 

And while no one seems to be certain of what needs to be done, everyone is certain that they want to do something. Anything.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the true meaning of leadership, and I see little of it in government, though I see plenty of it all around me.

I joined the army as a foreign volunteer when I was 19. At the time, I justified my short service as an investment for the future. If my country ever needed me, I reasoned, I’d be trained and ready. 

Then came the realities of life. I spent only a few years in reserve duty as a combat soldier, in between long stints in the U.S. When I returned to Israel with my family a few years ago, my unit wasn’t sure they needed a then-38-year-old sharpshooter. But after about two years of phone tag, I found a new job more appropriate for someone of my age and life experience. Three weeks before the war, I joined my new team for a week of training for my new role.

Two weeks ago, I felt that my decision as a 19-year-old finally bore fruit. The call came — literally. I was ready. And now I am here.

I am here — immersed in the exhausting, stressful but fulfilling job of restoring security and peace for the Jewish people. Playing a small but defined role fulfilling התקוה בת שנות אלפיים — להיות עם חופשי בארצנו: The hope of 2,000 years, to be a free people in our land. 

I get to work hard and to devote the hours in between to rest and sleep in service of the next shift. 

I see how hard it is for those who haven’t been drafted. Who feel the pain as I do, and the impetus to do something, but without clear direction. 

There is much to do — so much. Supporting soldiers and their families. Being there for those who have lost family and friends. Telling Israel’s story. Standing proudly for morality and ethics. Keeping what is happening here present in one’s mind. 

But I think the farther you are from the literal front line, the harder it is to believe that what you are doing matters. So people read a lot. Watch videos and look at photos that turn one’s stomach. Flood themselves with the war while crowding out everything else. Immerse themselves in a routine that creates trauma and depression and precludes hope and optimism. 

From where I stand, we are all part of one giant human chain. I can serve as I do because so many others are supporting my family. And others are supporting them. And my service helps others who are farther in and more directly in contact with this effort than I am. 

At the same time — I know how incredibly hard it would have been for me to sit this one out. To feel that I could be doing something but didn’t have the means to. My unit was one of the first called up, and we reached full strength before we even got the official draft notice — the first in the IDF. Which means I am also surrounded by others who feel as I do. 

In short: Though it has become far more complicated and there is no more black and white, I can say today what I said on the day of my draft at age 19 — at the end of the day, there is nowhere I’d rather be and nothing I’d rather be doing.

Tuesday, October 24

Twelve hours ago I was eating dinner with my family, in my home. This morning I write from the thin foam mattress I share with a fellow soldier who has the shift opposite from mine. Technically it’s called “24-hour leave,” though a more fitting term would be “emotional whiplash.”

Sunday afternoon I was just getting ready to start my shift when one of the officers on our team called me. “We’re starting a rotation of leave, one at a time,” he told me. “You’re up first.”

My drive home — in a borrowed car — was bizarre. The longer I drove, the stranger things became. Military vehicles gave way to civilian ones; police checkpoints thinned and then ceased altogether. There was traffic. Aggressive drivers. Populated rest stops. 

Close to home, I drove through a checkpoint at the entrance to the suburb where we live — a reminder that everywhere in this tiny country is on the front lines. But once I got through, it felt like the twilight zone. People were out exercising, stores were open. The building where I live … looked like it did before the war. I’d heard a lot from those who aren’t drafted about how much is different, but to my eyes it all seemed so unchanged. Bizarrely so. 

24 hours’ leave means less than that with your family. It started with immense joy and not a few tears. It’s been hardest to connect with my kids since the war started; Gabrielle and I have years of experience sustaining our relationship through conversation, distant when necessary. But my kids need their father physically present, and nothing else suffices. 

I ate hot food — mostly cooked for my family by our incredibly supportive community. I fixed those chair legs that waited for the war to break; set up the new computer that had arrived in my absence. Troubleshot a bank issue.

I sat on the sofa. Played with my kids, who skipped school for the day. Did loads of laundry that left the dryer filled with green lint. Helped hang the Israeli flag off our porch. Slept in my own bed, hand in hand with my wife. 

There were too few moments. And then I was packing. 

A different officer on our team had also had a short leave a few days earlier. When she returned, I asked how it was. “I feel drained,” she told me. “Too much crying.” 

Now it was my turn. Two weeks ago, I left home for the unknown with an hour to prepare; now we all knew where I was going and had time to get worked up in advance. Goodbye hugs were tear-filled, gut-wrenching. My son has a hard time seeing me on video when I call, and I’d barely seen him during the war. I hope he’ll be able to handle it better during this next stint; I miss him. 

Then I was off, heading out into the night. Being home was like being in an alternate reality — it felt amazing, but it also felt unsettling. Not quite right. Somehow, right now, the front lines are where I feel at home. 

My ride back to base reset me. On the Waze navigation app, a warning popped up when I set my route: “Your destination is in a dangerous area. Use extreme caution.” Then the radio, a combination of songs dedicated to soldiers, others about peace or hastily written about this new conflict, and announcements for what to do if you encounter rocket fire while driving. 

The cars thinned. Toyotas gave way to military Hummers. The rest stops grew empty, then the street-lights went out. And then I was driving through the gate, unrolling my sleeping bag, checking on my combat gear. Back to the alternate reality that has become my real world, for now. 

Home … I guess.

Tuesday, October 24

While falling asleep, I was skimming messages I’ve received but haven’t responded to. Usually all I have in me is an emoji of thanks, or a simple thank-you. But this one caught my eye: someone calling me a hero and a tzaddik — a righteous person. 

My first instinct was to make clear that I am neither of those things. But then I thought about all of the soldiers around me. From the 669 rescue team to the guy who sets out snacks for the command center’s midnight-to-8 A.M. shift. They are heroes and tzaddikim — aren’t they?

How about the spouses who carry on without their partners, shouldering the burdens of daily life meant for two, alongside the emotional anguish of worrying about the safety of their life partner?

How about the children? Little kids who just miss Abba, older kids who try to act adult, the ones in the middle who are scared and hurt?

Parents whose contentment at seeing their children all grown and settled reverts to worrying about safety on a daily basis? Friends, siblings, colleagues — suddenly worrying about those who were drafted, all the while juggling their own trauma and the realities of life?

Those who tirelessly raise money and donations for relevant causes? Who volunteer their own time and resources? Who battle on the field of public opinion or in the halls where government policy is formed? Are these not heroes and tzaddikim?

Maybe this, this, is what is meant by the phrase in Isaiah, ועמך כולם צדיקים, לעולם יירשו ארץ: And Your people, all of them are righteous — they will inherit the land of Israel for all eternity.

Let us hope.

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Written by: Soft FM Radio Staff

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