By Aiden Harow, Opinions Editor
It was around 8:15 in the morning when the first air raid siren cut through the quiet Jerusalem morning.
I was making my way up the many steps to Zion Gate, eagerly anticipating the ecstatic frenzy that is Simchat Torah in the Old City, the hours of dancing, singing, eating, drinking, and joy that awaited me just up ahead. After all, Simchat Torah is widely considered Judaism’s happiest day, the day we wave goodbye to the last Torah-reading cycle and celebrate the beginning of the next. It embodies the Jewish spirit, our reliance on and respect for tradition, our permanent optimism for what the future holds.
It was going to be perfect. That is, until it wasn’t.
When I heard the ear splitting whine of the siren, echoing menacingly off of the Old City’s mighty walls, I was confused, but not worried. They test the emergency system every couple months, I thought, recalling the unannounced early morning drills from my time in yeshiva. There’s nothing to worry about.
Then came the BOOOOM, reverberating through the sky like a thunderclap. Then another. Then six more. As I watched, frozen in place, streaks of fire intercepted by the Iron Dome detonated above me in rapid succession. I began to jog, flying up the rest of the stairs towards the safety of my yeshiva, next to the Western Wall.
When I arrived, my friends laughed at my flushed face and the sweat dripping down my forehead. “Hamas gets a little rowdy and you take off running? Good thing you never joined the army,” one joked. I laughed too, albeit a little nervously. I’d never experienced rocketfire before, but the Iron Dome would keep us safe, just like it always had. I excitedly joined the dancing and singing, ready to make the most of the holiday.
Soon after, my dad and brother walked in, their grave expressions starkly contrasting the joyous fervor surrounding us. My dad beckoned me over. I beckoned back, trying to get him to join the dancing.
Then I noticed he was holding his phone.
I pulled myself out of the mass of humanity in the middle of the room, and walked over, my heart pounding in my ears. “What’s going on?” I asked.
“Hamas is across the border,” my dad answered me, fear and anger etched onto his face. “They flattened the crossing with a bulldozer. The garrison is dead. Hundreds are across.”
My eyes widened. I asked the question that scared me the most. “Are you getting called in?”
“I might,” my dad said, voice quivering slightly. “I’m just waiting for my commander to tell me what to do.” He placed his hands on my forehead and gave me a bracha before doing the same to my brother, tears in his eyes. I’d never seen him cry before.
I quickly walked over to the balcony, hoping a look at the Western Wall plaza would calm me, but I was sorely disappointed. People were streaming out rapidly, directed by police towards the nearby tunnel network or the closest building. Air raid and ambulance sirens whined in the distance. A fighter jet streaked past overhead. How bad is this? I asked myself. I headed back inside, thoroughly uneasy.
The news had started to spread. Rabbis and administrators huddled tightly in corners, dread creeping around the edges of the room like a shadow in the night. The singing had taken on a frenzied intensity, as if trying to drown out the anxious whispers attacking from all directions, creating an unnerving cacophony of joy and horror.
“TORAS HASHEM TEMIMA…”
“They’ve taken a kibbutz, dozens are dead, many more missing…”
“ASHREINU, MAH TOV CHELKEINU…”
“They have four kibbutzim now, over a hundred killed…”
“U’MAH NA’IM GORALEINU…”
“Two army bases have fallen, hundreds dead…how could this happen…”
We left davening a little early, so as not to keep the friends having us over for lunch waiting. The streets of Jerusalem were empty, unheard of for midday on Chag, and we made the walk in eerie silence. My mom and sisters had beaten us there, anxious for some company after having spent most of the morning in our hotel’s bomb shelter. Our quiet, muted meal was accompanied by frantic updates to the number of casualties on the radio.
My dad’s phone buzzed. He picked it up, and read the message aloud: “Pack a bag. Be ready to leave at a moment’s notice. Things are bad.” My mom buried her head in her hands, my sisters fearfully locked eyes. I put a hand on my brother’s shoulder. This was happening. And we had to be ready.
After Havdalah, we immediately turned on the news and stayed glued to it for hours. I will never forget what I saw and heard that night:
“Over a thousand dead, countless other missing…a music festival turned massacre…piles of bodies…women and children taken hostage…rape…torture…murder…”
Sleep did not come easy that night. When I woke up in the morning, my father was gone, called up to his army base in Modi’in. We’d be flying home without him. I felt gnawing guilt at the idea of leaving him behind, but who knew when our next chance to get home would be? It hurt in more ways than I knew to be relieved at the idea of escaping our homeland.
My brother had to get back to yeshiva, so I volunteered to help him with his bags, wanting, needing, to do anything to distract myself. We dragged his luggage to the closest bus stop, past empty streets and shuttered restaurants, and sat down, waiting for a bus that never came. Across the street, we saw a young couple with a baby doing the same, rocking their carriage gently as the baby slept inside. Suddenly, a car stopped next to them and rolled down the window.
“ALLAH HU AKBAR!!!”
An object hurtled towards them. The car sped away, leaving a plume of thick black exhaust behind in its wake. I covered my eyes, unable to bring myself to watch the nightmare unfolding before me.
Silence. Then, soft crying.
I opened my eyes, and saw the couple tearfully clutching their baby. The water bottle the Arab man had thrown skittered loudly down the street.
How pleasant is our lot, indeed?