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Yom HaZikaron: 24 Shiva Houses in 7 Months

It was the first week of the war. The second shiva house that I attended. It was held in a Jerusalem hotel, because the hero who had died defending people in the Gaza envelope was a lone soldier from France. His name was Binyanmin Lev. Binyamin’s mom spoke about how Binyamin had left the safety of central Israel over Simchat Torah as soon as he heard what was happening down South, in order to go save people. He ran into battle and personally saved many lives. He died while helping treat and evacuate an injured soldier. His mom then spoke about being given the honor and privilege to raise Binyamin for 23 years, and how she’s so proud of him. She said she knows he is up in heaven, arguing with God to protect us and not let anyone else die. There was a lot of talk in his shiva house about how moshiach is coming soon, and how Binyamin will be reunited with his family when it comes. 

As Shabbos came in a week after the war started, I could not fathom that Hashem expected us to welcome her in like we usually do, along with her comfort and His presence. Hundreds of people were missing; the bodies of our dead were still warm. I decided that I needed to do something to allow myself to mourn in smaller proportions–to help myself grasp and process the enormous loss of life, because I could not do so with over 1,000 individuals. And so, I decided to make an active effort to visit shiva houses–I could not mourn over 1,000 deaths, but maybe I could mourn two or five or ten. And in getting to know them and mourning them, maybe I could find some comfort.

Going to so many shiva houses is not easy. Being the support for those experiencing so much loss and so much pain tears your heart out every time. But through showing up, I had the privilege of learning about so many amazing people and meeting their incredible families.

A week and a half into the war. Reuven Shishportish’s family was sitting shiva by the light bridge in Jerusalem. As I walked towards their building, missiles were intercepted by the Iron Dome and they exploded over my head (even though it looked and sounded very close, the part of Jerusalem that I was in didn’t have a siren). Reuven is a father of four. He grew up in Jerusalem, and then helped start his yishuv down south. His sister and neighbor couldn’t stop talking about what an incredible friend and neighbor he was, and how much he loved his children. He was a builder, and had very busy weeks, but Shabbat was family time, and he and his kids and wife took that very seriously. When he did have time during the week, he would take his kids out on rides around the yishuv. 

His sister also spoke about his love for Eretz Yisrael and Yerushalayim. “When he told his kids about the walls of the Old City, it was like he was telling them about a new, secret love of his that he was not willing to share just yet.” 

Reuven fell protecting a nearby kibbutz. His neighbor said she feels like she owes him her life because Reuven helped prevent the terrorists from getting to their yishuv. 

The same day as Reuven, Yonatan Chai Azulai’s family was sitting in their home in Nachlaot. It was a secular shiva, but a Rabbi was sharing Torah for Parshat Noach, and I overheard one of Yonatan’s friends saying she has taken on not eating milk and meat together, and saying birchot hashachar (morning blessings) because of the Oct 7 attack. 

A few days later, I went to Arnona. Aner Eliyakam Shapira’s family was sitting shiva in their living room. Aner’s parents started talking about Aner as an artist and musician. They played a few of the songs he wrote and produced — they were grungy, and about how he yearns for peace. His mom said he ended up having a bunch of months at home after his army service because he was applying to differefront things, and so he was able to dedicate a lot of time to his music. They said he wrote hundreds of songs and was finalizing an album. His sister was always his sounding board for new songs. 

Some charedi government officials came in to offer their condolences. They began to ask Aner’s parents about how he was killed. His parents said that Friday night Oct 6, the whole family had Yom Tov dinner together — it was the first time they were all together in a while. Aner went down to the Nova festival with some friends late that night, but at some point they realized that they were not going to find themselves at a festival when they got down to the Gaza Envelope. They went anyway in order to help, and ended up stuffed in an outdoor bomb shelter with 30 other people. Terrorists began closing in and throwing grenades at the bomb shelter. Aner knew that if a grenade were to hit the bomb shelter, it would explode and kill everyone inside. So he decided to go out and catch the grenades with his bare hands as they came towards them, and throw them back at the terrorists. He knew that he would eventually get killed doing this, so he told the people in the shelter to send someone else out in his place once he was killed. 

Aner caught and threw back seven (7!!!!!) grenades, before he was severely injured. Without proper medical assistance, he soon succumbed to his wounds. Eleven of those thirty people survived the festival because of Aner. Some of them were taken captive, including his good friend Hersh Goldberg (from #bringhershhome). Aner is an incredible hero. His parents seemed so proud, even while they were in so much pain. 

Near the light bridge again. Five weeks into the war. Yedidyah Eliyahu’s mother and pregnant wife listened to his commander as he spoke about how Yedidyah would always thank him, even in the worst conditions. Everyone else would be complaining about the food or the equipment, and Yedidyah would make a point of telling his commanders how appreciative he was of them. Yedidyah was killed on a mission he was not supposed to be on — he insisted on filling in at the last minute when another team ended up being short one person. When I went up to tell his mom and wife that I’m thinking of them, Yedidyah’s mom asked who I was, and when I said “stam” (no one important/directly connected), she said, “you’re a daughter of Israel — that’s why you came.” I could not have said it better. 

The communal room in the lobby of an apartment building. Super crowded. I couldn’t figure out who the family was at first. Then I found Elisaf Shushan’s mom on the couch. I sat by her and listened as she spoke to someone who was in Elisaf’s music class in high school. They talked about how much Elisaf loved music. She said that he never liked to fight–he never wanted to. He was a musician. “How could he be dead when he didn’t like to fight?”

Two of Elisaf’s music teachers from high school arrived. They started talking about how talented a musician he was, and said that they still have some of the songs that he worked on in school–they said that they were planning on having their current students perform them in his honor. His mom started crying from talking to the teachers. One of her sons came over to comfort her. 

It was an incredibly rainy day. My winter coat soaked through as I walked out of the Old City where I work towards Yakir Hexter’s shiva house. His family sat shiva in a tent outside their home, which was heated but not entirely dry from the intense rain. Yakir’s father spoke about getting a knock on the door a few nights before, and staying up all night making arrangements with his wife and the army. “You never think it’s going to be you until it is.” He spoke about how he and Yakir had both learned in Yeshivat Har Etzion (Yakir was killed with his chavruta, David Schwartz), and how he would sometimes join Yakir there so they could learn together–that was a very special time for them. Yakir’s favorite thing to learn was Mesilat Yesharim. I went to Yakir’s shiva house on Rosh Chodesh. We davened mincha before I left. We said Yaaleh V’yavo as rain pounded the roof of the shiva tent. I will never forget the absurdity of it. 

A shiva house full of my high school teachers. Zecharia Pesach Haber’s wife went to my high school a few years before I did. My teachers were in Israel for winter break. This is not where I would have hoped to see them. 

Zecharia’s wife spoke about how she and Zecharia had met. His mom had picked her out for him. She said that within one year she made aliyah, found the love of her life, and got married–it all seemed to work out for her. Zecharia’s wife loves to hike, and it was important to her to marry someone who would hike with her. One day, they went on a full day hike together up the coast of Israel. She said that she had wanted to see if he could do it, but in the end she was wiped as well. She talked about how once, a few months into their dating, she was trying to decide if she should continue going out with him, and decided to turn off her phone for 24 hours to think. When she came back online, he was super upset at her because he had been worried about her — she hadn’t warned him that she was gonna go dark. She promised to tell him next time she decided to turn her phone off so that he wouldn’t worry. The next day, her phone broke and she was once again offline without warning. 

Zecharia’s wife said that the last time he had gotten out of the army, they decided not to pull the kids out of school — he was supposed to end his reserves duty shortly, and they felt like they couldn’t keep disrupting their kids’ lives. Unfortunately, that’s the last time that he was home. The last time that she and Zecharia had spoken, they were having a disagreement about where to send their oldest to first grade. He died before he could explain why he thought that his school was the better choice.

Saturday night. A huge tent pitched outside of Yuval Nir’s parents house, a few blocks away from the place I went for seminary. The tent was full. Yuval is a father of five, and has four or five siblings who each also have many children. And so, among all of the circles of neighbors coming to comfort the adults, there was a gigantic cousins circle for all of the kids. Something about large amounts of kids at a shiva house is very jarring, maybe because you know that somewhere in that circle are five kids who will grow up without their father. 

Yuval’s wife spoke about how Yuval saw the good in everything. For years, Yuval and his siblings would send a text to their group chat each night with something nice that someone had done for them that day. It didn’t matter how busy they were or what stage of life they were in, or even if they were in reserves in the army — you had to write something. 

Sitting with each of these families was incredibly difficult. Each ones’ world has been shattered, and they will never be the same. You can see that hurt in their eyes, and in the way that they hold themselves. And whenever I could see myself in any of the mourner’s positions, it made sitting there with them even harder. But I also saw tremendous strength and love. People who are so proud of their loved ones, and who know that their husbands and sons would not have had it any other way. I do not know how these individuals have this strength, but I now understand that it is this strength that has brought our nation this far. We should have crumbled. We should have given up a long time ago. But somehow, the Jewish spirit pushes forward. I just wish it was no longer necessary. 

It’s also clear that this strength is what pushed each of these heroes, and all of our soldiers, to give up their lives for this country. A common theme throughout the shiva houses was that these men wouldn’t hurt a fly in their normal lives, but that they were willing to give up everything for their people. I don’t think that we will ever be able to properly thank them, but I hope that remembering who they were and how they lived might count for something. 

In going to all of these shiva houses, I did succeed in what I had initially hoped to do—I am now far more capable of conceptualizing the enormous number of deaths. But in doing so, I have also exposed myself to so much pain, both of these heroes’ families, and of my own. I feel so incredibly honored to have been able to meet and hopefully bring the tiniest sliver of comfort to each of their families, knowing that people who don’t know them are also thinking of them. I do think of them; every day, sometimes multiple times a day. It’s hard, but it also pushes me to keep going—to continue to look for ways to be there for others and comfort them, and to continue to live and succeed here in Israel. I wish that they were still alive, that everyone who has been killed for the sake of the Jewish people were still alive. But I know one thing for certain—I will not allow their deaths to be in vain. The Jewish people will continue to prosper, and we will bring this world to a place of everlasting peace. I will try my hardest to be a part of that. And God willing, when that day comes very soon, I will finally be able to meet these heroes along with moshiach. 

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  • Avatar photo will says on May 17, 2024

    Beautiful. Thank you, and Shabbot Shalom.

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