By Leah Garber
As the days go by, more and more horrors are revealed from the monstrous atrocities of the Hamas massacre. The things we are seeing and hearing are unimaginable.
Although more than 900 photos of the victims fill our eyes with burning tears, many have not yet been identified, and the bodies of still others have not yet been found. Just yesterday I shared that, Nitzan, the son of Ofir Libstein, was among the missing and apparently seriously injured. Today his body was found, and tomorrow he will be buried next to his father. Father and son—united in life and in death. Only yesterday at Ofir’s funeral, standing by his open grave, the president of Israel offered a prayer for Nitzan’s quick return. We now know he was probably already dead by then. It is a small comfort to think that he was likely hovering above in the pure, blue skies, whispering goodbye to the father he so loved, promising that he and 1,400 others were waiting for him in heaven, among the angels, where evil can no longer touch them.
How quickly hopes are dashed, how quickly our Mi Shebeirach prayers turn into the Kaddish.
Eric Peretz and his 16-year-old daughter, Ruth, were declared missing. Following a painful 12 days of despair and hope, their bodies were identified yesterday. Despite her disability, Ruth dreamed of attending the now infamous Nova music festival. All she wanted was to be happy, to rejoice in the sounds of music she loved, and to live a full, meaningful life, regardless of her physical difficulties. Eric, her father, fulfilled her dream and took her to the festival. They shared a few wonderful hours until the terrorists, who spared no one—not babies, not children, not the elderly, and not people with disabilities—murdered Ruth and her father in cold blood.
Kibbutz Be’eri lost 114 of its members—all brutally murdered in or near their homes. Yesterday, Israeli rescue teams found the bodies of a 5-year-old boy and a woman. The child was found in an attic, in a house set ablaze by the terrorists.
Only 80 percent of the bodies have been identified, and the identity of this little boy and the woman remain unknown. Which parents, whose entire world was destroyed on October 7, have been looking for their 5-year-old son since that cursed day? Which Ima and Abba, clinging to every shred of hope, received the worst of news yesterday? Who among the children, crying and pleading for the last 12 dark days and sleepless nights for their mother’s soft touch, learned yesterday that her body had been found, that she is not coming back—never to hug, shelter, or comfort her beloved child again?
The Sisyphean task of identifying the bodies is assigned to ZAKA, Israel’s primary, non-governmental rescue and recovery organization. Its volunteers are deployed immediately following terror attacks, disasters, and accidents to identify the bodies in a way that is both respectful and in accordance with halacha | Jewish law.
It is important to note that the great majority of the thousands of ZAKA volunteers come from the ultra-Orthodox community—the same community whose members often are accused of isolating, not enlisting in the army, and not contributing to the country’s workforce. Let us remember it is these volunteers who have taken over the sacred work of identifying bodies, collecting body parts, and bringing them for burial, a job that very few would choose to do. These holy men and one woman have been working around the clock for 13 days. They are exposed to the harshest sights. They look into the black, empty eyes of death and touch with their bare hands bodies that have been violated in the most horrific ways. Weeping in silence, they treat them gently, respectfully, sacredly.
Since the outbreak of the war, thousands of the ultra-Orthodox community, most of whom do not normally enlist to the army, have requested to do so. In response, the army is preparing an accelerated training program to recruit those applicants and train them to become fighters as quickly as possible.
The beautiful faces of Israel, its finest, best people, sprout from every background and political opinion. The ubiquitous feeling of “we are in this disaster together, and together we will prevail” wraps us all in a comforting sense of shared destiny. But the chain is wider, broader, stronger, with all of you. The millennia-long story of Israel is the story of the Jewish people, all of us. We have known evil and threats, celebrated victories and achievements, and suffered disasters and heartache—always together.
Together, thanks to millions of embracing hands and open, loving hearts, we built, we created, we founded a national state for the Jewish people—a model state. Together, we will protect our home, re-build the ruins, restore the kibbutzim and sow the fields. And yes, we will smile again, too. One day. Like the phoenix, we will bear the strength to rise from the ashes and fly again. One day. Not today and not tomorrow, but one day our smiles will return, sitting right alongside the pain and grief that will never fade.
This profound message from Rabbi Angela Buchdahl says it all.
Together, united, we will overcome.
Leah Garber is a senior vice president of JCC Association of North America and director of its Center for Israel Engagement in Jerusalem.