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Day 271: Iron Swords War

By Leah Garber

Come in peace,
the harvest is already remembered before the last portion is sown.
And before the winepress and the wine barrel,
please return to us in peace

Come in peace,
the courtyards are opened, we set the table and lit the candles.
And before the straightened psalm,
we wait for you to return

— Rachel Shapira, Israeli poet and songwriter

Twenty-two -year-old Omer Neutra grew up on Long Island in New York. He was a Knicks fan and the captain of his high school basketball, volleyball, and soccer teams. More than a passionate athlete, Omer was a proud Jew and Zionist. Following a gap year in Israel, he decided to join the Israeli army, delaying his plans to attend Binghamton University. Omer enlisted and served until he was kidnapped from his army base on October 7. His parents watched the video of his abduction as captured by the terrorists’ cameras. They saw that he was kidnapped alive, but since then there has been no sign of life whatsoever nor news of his condition. Omer’s family arrived in Israel immediately after he was kidnapped, and their lives have been completely devoted to bringing him home ever since. The family is supported and embraced by the American administration and by President Biden himself.

Last night I met Omer’s family at Hostage Square in Tel Aviv, a place that, until 271 days ago, was known as the Tel Aviv Museum Plaza. Since October 7, it has become the saddest place in Israel. As happens every Tuesday evening, there was a “singing-for-their-return gathering” last night that featured sad songs, songs of prayer and grief, and stories told by former hostages and bereaved families.

A thread of sadness and grief hovered above, connecting us all. Thickening with our tears of despair and frustration, it wrapped us all in unity. Israelis from across the country and from all backgrounds and sectors stood together, side by side, crying the same cry, wiping the same tears.

Did our grief and anguish manage to cross the barbed wire fences between us and Gaza? Could it penetrate the blackness of the terror tunnels, overcome battle cannons, and the cries of our brothers and sisters? Did it reach their ears, caressing, comforting, reassuring them that they will come back?

More than anything, 20-year-old Adi Leon loved music. His mother told us yesterday in the square that their house was always full of friends, who sat and played music, sang, enjoyed life. But Adi also loved his country, his homeland, and he went out to fight, full of faith that this was his mission.

A few days before his death, his parents managed to visit him, give him a last hug. At that time he told them, “I saw things that no human being should see.” He was referring to the severed limbs, the mutilated bodies, and the murdered babies who were waiting for the soldiers who came to rescue the southern kibbutzim. These were the atrocities, the horrors, evidence of the unimaginable cruelty that the world has already managed to forget. Here in Israel, however, the wound still bleeds, unable to heal and refusing to let go.

After his death, his parents found a notebook in which Adi wrote his last, chilling, and beautiful words.

I go into this war knowing that I am not certain to return, but I believe wholeheartedly in what I am doing. We have no other country, and now it’s my turn to defend it and take revenge for all the citizens and soldiers, the babies, and the elderly, and all the women who were simply helpless in the face of the inferno of Hamas. This is the education my parents gave me. This is what I believe. I hope you remember me. Adi

Adi signed his last words with the Star of David and a heart.

So much beauty, innocence, patriotism, and love are contained in his words. He eloquently expresses his commitment and devotion and the depth of his belief in our right to live here. What determination, willingness to sacrifice, greatness of spirit and soul our soldiers have—and they are all so young, just at the beginning of their lives.

Much has been said about this, the Tik Tok generation, including that they are spoiled, self-centered, and entitled. They are anything but spoiled or self-centered. They are the best possible generation any people can hope for. They are our pride, the best of our children.

We stood as one, wrapped in grief in the square, the hustle and bustle of Tel Aviv going on in the background. Through the stories and songs, we got to know the fallen, the hostages, and their courageous, brave families. The cruel enemy did not distinguish between Jews and Arabs, Israelis and non-Israelis, religious and secular. The terrorists wanted to cut short all lives.

And like the dead, we the mourners represent the diverse faces of Israel, a wide, beautiful spectrum of opinions and beliefs, eager to put aside disputes and stand together in a tremendous human embrace, crying the greatest cry our country has ever heard. We formed an uplifting human chain that stands in complete contradiction to the winds of division and discord that blow from our legislature. There, in the comfort of parliament seats, our politicians are still stuck on October 6. They remain busy with the same political interests and lag behind the rest of the country whose people, on the morning of October 7, realized the magnitude of the hour and moved on—together. Truly.

Salvation will not come from our leaders but from our soldiers and the parents who raised them so well. It will come from the hard-working people, from all the volunteers. It will come from those who believe the whole is greater than its parts, and that it is our responsibility to repair our fractured world. To rebuild what was destroyed, to replant what was uprooted, to nurse what was broken, and to revive the wasteland. These are the people who were out in Hostage Square last night and in many different squares across the country.

Just before we sang “Hatikvah,” the national anthem, we lit up the night sky with lanterns, and together we whispered, then called, and finally shouted: “Let there be light!” We were hopeful that our flames would light the way for the prayers we offered up to heaven, our plea to God to bring back the light that was brutally stolen from us 271 days and nights ago, leaving us in endless darkness, in thick pain and endless sorrow.

When we dispersed from the rally, we encountered people leaving the Tel Aviv Opera Hall. Side by side we got into our cars in the busy parking lot—Israelis wiping their tears following time spent with the families of hostages and those uplifted by the music and experience of attending an opera. Israelis who love life and seek to grab every piece of it. These and those. | Gam v’gam.

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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