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Day 164: Iron Swords War

By Leah Garber

” I fear the most only two words:
The first is “a name I know” and the second is “killed.”
– Idan Haviv

Last night was another sad, quiet evening at Hostage Square in the heart of Tel Aviv, where yellow, the symbol of the hostages, has taken over. One square, in the heart of a city, unveils the sad story of this war and the people of Israel since that bitter day: October 7, 2023.

New displays have been added since I was here last. Oceans of tears have been shed here in the last 164 days since 250 people were brutally abducted to Gaza. The beautiful, smiling, silent faces of the hostages stand in painful contrast to the story they tell, to the painful plea they carry. The gloomy silence embraces all the cries. Cold winter air seeks out broken hearts. The wind carries soft whispers, prayers of hope, and sighs of despair.

As I stood there, my phone started beeping, announcing painful news that opens with the three cursed, bleeding words: “Released for publication,” and this time, the name I heard was familiar. The news hit like a punch in the stomach.

Twenty-two-year-old Captain Daniel Perez, who was injured and abducted by Hamas on October 7, was announced dead. Daniel, a platoon commander, led a battle against the terrorists during the Hamas massacre. During the harsh fighting, Daniel and his team killed 100 terrorists, but then this hero of Israel was killed, and his body was taken into Gaza. For 163 days, Daniel’s family swayed on the terrible pendulum between hope and despair. Last night, with the somber news, the pendulum stopped swinging. Death took over hope.

Based on blood found at the battle scene, Daniel’s family knew he had been wounded. But was he seriously injured? Did he need medical treatment that was denied? Did he suffer?

New findings and new intelligence information led the Military Rabbinate to declare Daniel dead, and although there is no body, Daniel’s family decided to hold a funeral, burying mostly blood, while his body remains in Gaza. An empty coffin with remains of Daniel’s blood. Remains of his life. Remains that tell the story of a brave soldier, an outstanding athlete, a young man who dreamed of becoming a commander, who always said: “If not me, then who?”

Daniel’s blood not only revealed the story of his life, but also one of great loss—dwelling on what Daniel was and what he will never get to be.

It was a quiet funeral—different from others. I never attended one without a body. Thousands of Israelis from across the country followed an empty coffin. Empty in the physical sense, but so full in every other way. Daniel’s coffin overflowed with a sense of pride in his ultimate sacrifice, knowing he risked his own life to save so many others. The coffin was lined with intense pain, too—a pain that under its wings held thousands of hearts that until last night had wished for his safe return and today are broken in pieces.

The coffin was especially heavy because of Israelis’ intense pride in the Perez family, who immigrated to Israel from South Africa during operation Cast Lead, when Daniel was 9 years old. They knew they were moving to a state at war, with constant dangers and challenges. Nonetheless, it was home.

I met Daniel’s father, Rabbi Doron Perez, twice. The first time was when he hosted our first JCC Association solidarity delegation in the peaceful backyard of his home in November. The second time was in his office in Jerusalem, when a second group of JCC Association leaders arrived to bear witness as part of a solidarity mission in January. Both times I left feeling the same way: inspired, strengthened, and at the same time, broken and crushed with sorrow.

In both instances, Rabbi Perez told us about Daniel, who was always special, original, and an independent thinker. Both times, we met an extraordinary person, determined, full of humor, so resilient, yet a broken father, too, full of sorrow and worry, who, despite the abysmal pain, managed to share words of unity and strength; pride in our people and our soldiers; the necessary mission on which they were sent; and our moral duty to return them home safely.

Rabbi Doron Perez also told us about his other son, Yonatan, who was wounded not far from the place where his brother fought and was kidnapped. Yonatan recovered from his injury, returned to fight, and, in the meantime, got married. At the time of the wedding, the family had decided to stick with the joy of marriage even though Daniel’s fate was unknown. They felt this was the time to continue to rebuild the long chain of Jewish peoplehood. It is a chain that has seen difficulties over the generations—rusted at times and nearly broken more than once but never severed. Knowing that Yonatan and his bride, Galia, are another link in the historic sequence of a persecuted people that requires—even when times are difficult and sad—to connect with other links and do precisely the opposite of what the cruel enemy tried to do: persevere and continue the Jewish existence, always, with determination.

At both meetings, Rabbi Perez shared his philosophy—gam v’gam—that two things can exist simultaneously, including sorrow and joy. The pain can be present alongside the joy of life that continues. Even under Yonatan’s chuppah | wedding canopy, the pain for Daniel did not recede.

In the eulogies, we heard about the terrible months of endless worry about Daniel. How can one, anyone, survive the limbo of not knowing what has happened to him for five months? How can anyone last between an undying hope that a beloved son is alive and great concern about his condition? Is he in pain from his injury? Is he being tortured? Where does he sleep? What does he eat? Is he alone or with other soldiers? Is he even alive?

The sea of tears in the cemetery mixed with heavy rains. Together, humans and angels mourned Daniel’s passing.

The cypress trees, standing tall in the cemetery, have witnessed many funerals. They have seen untold sorrow and grief. The cemetery’s paths, blooming in the colors of the rainbow between the graves, seem to apologize for their loveliness, as if uncomfortable with their own beauty.

Gam v’gam, grief and sadness reside side by side with blossoms and beauty. They all can exist simultaneously.

Daniel was there with us at the cemetery, carried in the cold Jerusalem wind. God holds a special place by God’s side for angels like Daniel—a place where flowers bloom year-round, watered by the tears of our soldiers who are now resting.

Rest in peace, dear Daniel. One-hundred-sixty-four days after your death, your mom and dad are calmer. There is comfort in knowing that you did not suffer in captivity after all and that your pure soul made its way to heaven without the cruel human animals defiling it in captivity.

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.

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