By Leah Garber
New beginnings—the air is filled with a sense of anticipation for renewal, for a change that heralds good, and full of hope for a better tomorrow.
While the world counted down to midnight to welcome 2024, we sat in our home shelter and counted 10 minutes from the moment we heard the wailing siren until we were allowed to leave the room. Instead of fireworks and celebrations, we heard the Iron Dome battery intercepting 27 missiles fired into central Israel at exactly midnight. Happy New Year. It began just the way 2023 ended.
Like anticipating the new year, we imagine other beginnings. Impending parenthood, for example, is a beginning accompanied by endless worry, excitement, and curiosity. What will the baby be like and who will they look like? What will be their favorite song, color, toy? And what will they want to be when they grow up?
Sadly, some babies’ beginnings, even though they overflow with immense love and hope, also come with endless pain. Instead of two pairs of loving arms, only one embraces them—only their ema is there to welcome them into this battered world. So it was for Shoshi and Avi Khovalashvili. A week and a half before his death, Avi learned Shoshi was pregnant with their second child. The couple had recently purchased a new apartment and looked forward to filling it with the laughter of happy children, with sounds of happiness and life. Avi picked a name for the baby, just days before he was killed on the first day of the war. The knock on the door that every Israeli fears arrived at 4:30 a.m. the following day. Avi’s death shattered his wife, now a young pregnant widow who will raise little Romi alone until her baby brother is born. Brand new to the world, he will gaze into his mother’s sad eyes as she tries to make up for Avi’s loss.
Moti Shamir also was killed on the first day of the war in heavy fighting against terrorists who infiltrated Israel on that fateful day. His widow, Revital, approaching the end of her second pregnancy, soon will give birth to another fatherless child. Her eldest son, Lavi, whose name means “lion,” will need the courage of a lion to be the man in the family and a big brother to his sibling who will never get to know their dad or to call him by his name. Big brother Lavi will need the courage of his namesake to navigate a world where fathers go out to protect home and family and never come back.
Elhanan Klein managed to fight for almost a month before he was killed. After some grueling battles, he was given a 24-hour leave, rushing home to his pregnant wife, Hila, and their three small children. Two minutes from home, within touching distance of his loved ones, the long, cruel hand of death overtook him when a carful of bloodthirsty terrorists shot him dead. Hila will give birth to a fourth son alone. Elhanan will not be there to hold her hand, to coach her to breathe during contractions, to wipe her tears when they hear their baby’s first cry, or to assure her he will always be at his family’s side.
The salty tears shed by Hila, Shoshi, and Revital mix the pain of death with the sweet joy of new life—an impossible blend of loss and hope. Life in Israel.
Elhanan, Moti and Avi are among the angels now, surrounded by many like them—young dads who left orphans, parents, and widows behind. In this painful reality, they left behind babies and children who will never say “Aba” or “Daddy,” will never sit high on their father’s shoulders, will never brag that their dad is the strongest, the fastest, the smartest. Their dads are gone. So many dads are gone.
Michal Lubnov caresses the baby growing in her belly but cannot assure him that mom and dad are waiting for him together. Her husband, Alex, has been held captive by Hamas for 88 days. Nature does not wait. The pregnancy is progressing, and Michal fears Alex may not be released before the birth. Will he be there by her side during the painful contractions, to calm and comfort her, to welcome their newborn, or will he still be in captivity, hidden from daylight in Hamas’s tunnels, unaware of the moment he becomes a father?
Like the new year, not every beginning starts with ease, with pure joy. Parenthood is an experience like no other, combining all the happiness in the world with constant concern for the fate of our children. It is difficult to separate the two, and precisely at the height of our happiness, we are also most anxious. May the feeling of true joy be undamaged and remain unbroken. All we want is for today’s blessings to be here tomorrow.
Shauli Greenlick dreamed of being a musician. On a brief 48-hour leave from fighting in Gaza, he auditioned for a music competition, “A Star Is Born,” immediately winning over the judges and the audience. A few days later, however, he announced he was withdrawing from the competition. In the darkness of fighting in Gaza, when the never ending night overtakes the sunshine, Shauli felt it wasn’t the right time, writing this to the show’s production team:
I imagined this year differently, a year of ambitions and the fulfillment of dreams. Now I’m living an old dream, to fight for my country—and right now it’s still the middle of the night. A new dream and another will have to wait a bit. I hope this period passes and that it will pass quickly, I promise to continue to fight for this country that I love and also for my dreams in the future.
On one of his last visits at home, Shauli’s siblings gathered to sing together. The camera caught a private moment of mother and son amidst the family joy. Shauli, holding a glass of wine, is embraced by his mom. She holds him tight, close to her heart, as if she felt the thread of her beloved son’s life unraveling. A mother knows; she knew. Shauli was killed last week, and at his grave, heard by thousands, his mother said:
My Shauli, you made me a bereaved mother and at the same time, the proudest mother in the world. Proud of your choices and your goodness. I thank you, God, for the deposit you gave me for 26 years. Go my beloved child, my angel, to your next duty to watch over us above. It is with a heavy heart that I return the deposit to you, God. I understand why you want him near you.
If this is how 2023 ended, what will the new year bring?
When will peace come? When will a mother’s hug be just that and not a goodbye? When will babies be born into a world in which two parents shine down upon them with two sets of bright, loving, promising eyes?
The year 2023 was a brutal one, full of internal conflicts that brought us to Israel’s war bruised and tired. We wept oceans. We sacrificed. We hurt. And, united and full of Israeli pride like never before, we are doing our best to overcome; we did our share.
Now it’s your turn, 2024, to bring about change, to carry peace on your wings. We, too, deserve to embrace our children with ease, in peace, not fearing it’s the last hug. We, too, deserve to live. Please be kind to us, 2024. Please, God, may this be a year of salvation and comfort.
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.