By Aytan Waxman, Staff Writer
After nineteen days in the army, I felt we were finally getting started. Following nearly three weeks of cutting shrubbery, designing elaborate rock sculptures of the famous Golani Tree logo, and marching and running back and forth in perfectly synchronized coordination, we were finally receiving our guns. This was also an extraordinary day because it was Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Every Yom Hashoah, at promptly 10:00 AM, an air raid siren goes off in Israel, allowing for two full minutes of silence and reflection. That day was special for me because we received our guns at around 9:00 AM. By ten o’ clock, we were already on our way to another important training exercise. But even the army stops for the siren. After all those days of silly army tasks, this was our first time standing in three lines, as armed Israeli soldiers.
Some of us were looking down, as we naturally reflected on the sad past. Others were not really sure what to do with their heads and started awkwardly looking around. But our Samal (staff sergeant) had his head held high. He was looking forward, towards the future. When the siren ended, he told us something I knew I could never forget.
Fast forward some time to New York City and like most Jews, on October 7 I was enjoying my Simchat Torah with some friends. We spent a late night with some friends in Columbia University but Baruch Hashem still made it to shacharis (morning prayer) on time in the morning. In the middle of davening, the Rabbi paused the kehilla (congregation) and announced that a war had broken out in Israel. I thought this announcement wasn’t a big deal. While I was in the army, two Mivtzaaot (operations) broke out, and everyone called them wars. In reality, though, they were really just barrages of rockets and retaliatory air strikes. Sadly, this is nothing out of the ordinary for Israel. I knew that often these things get blown out of proportion and thought nothing of it.
A few minutes later, right before hallel, a different Rabbi came in with some more information. He mentioned something about hostages, breaching the border, and so many killed. It didn’t make any sense to me. It was a weird hallel for me. As more and more information trickled in, the less and less things made sense.
My thoughts circled to my family and friends in the army. I knew my brother still had two weeks until he completed his training, that he was in Chevron for Shabbos, and that my plugah (military company) was not down south. So I wasn’t so worried about them initially. Nevertheless, it was a long two day yuntif. Pieces of news were flying all over the place and I had no idea what to believe, what was real and what was not. Once I got information that tens of chayalim from both the Golani and Nachal brigades were killed, I couldn’t focus. My friends and I belonged to Golani, and my brother to Nachal. I soon learned that the head of the Nachal brigade was killed which freaked me out even more. Amidst all of this chaotic news, I tried not to be such a downer to my friends and to just focus on the simcha of yuntif. Despite my efforts, my head was just not there.
My brother sends out a daily blog from the army. One of his high school friends happened to be by her phone when that text was sent. She saw the notification flash and was able to bring some good news once it was no longer chag in Israel. As the chag came to an end here, I dreaded turning on my phone. I was worried I would open the Golani group chat and find out that many of my friends were among those killed.
With trepidation I turned on my phone and got some bad news. Not a lot. But one life lost is one too many. As the weeks go by, more and more bad news comes. Everyone in Israel is feeling this anguish and it hurts to not be there with them. I initially tried as hard as I possibly could to get back to being with my boys, with my nation. The army was drafting reserves at crazy rates. They didn’t have time to figure out all the bureaucratic steps it would take for me to join. This disheartened and left me–along with the rest of American Jewry–feeling paralyzed.
Days in YU went on but that paralyzing feeling didn’t go away. The range of emotions among the student body was interesting. Some people were immediately able to move onto the next thing, able to focus and to lock into their school work right away. Others, myself included, were attached to the news and had zero hope or concern regarding classwork and midterms. Those tasks just seemed like the least important things at the time.
Some professors were understanding of the situation and others less so. Sitting in class a few weeks ago, I got the first call from my brother in a while. I literally jumped out of my seat and ran out of class. I got to hear a bit about where he was, and when he was expecting to go into Northern Gaza. As a former machine gunner myself, we got to discuss tricks of the trade that he never heard of because he was so fresh in the ranks. We got to learn some Rambam Hilchos Melachim, the rules of a Jewish war, and emotions one is supposed to feel. Then his commanders called him away, ending our conversation.
The University as a whole, though, has been helpful. Aside from Iyun shiur (Talmud lecture), every piece of Torah I have heard around the Yeshiva is, of course, related to the war. When hanging out with friends, there is not really much else to talk about. Every student finds themselves either planning their route to aliyah tomorrow, or contemplating it seriously for the first time. And like all Jewish weddings, each enjoyable event we partake in has a hint of broken glass in it.
Two days after I spoke to my brother, he was able to call again. It was essentially a call to say goodbye for a while. I haven’t heard from him since. However, we did get a little sneak peak of him in a video enjoying the beaches with a big smile on his face.
While reflecting on my brother’s position, I was reminded of my Samal and the speech he gave us a few years ago on Yom Hashoah. I remembered why it was so special we got our guns that day, why he was looking forward and towards the future. When thinking about it now, it almost sounds cliche. But it’s also the most important thing to remember. Looking down means we lose. Being sad and paralyzed is not doing anything important. We need to strap up and answer the call to action. Answer the call with a big smile on our face and with the confidence that comes with battling side by side with Hashem.
As many people have realized, this is much more than a physical battle taking place in Gaza City, Sadjaiya, or Khan Yunis. This is a battle of good versus evil. Any additional good that we do is a bullet combating another act of evil.
So let us continue making the good outweigh, outplay, and overcome the evil.