When my husband and I returned to live in Israel last July, 12 years after coming to America, anticipated the enormous challenges of making a new life for our family. We knew we would all — including our six children, ages four-12 — have to face major adjustments after living in Twin Rivers and being part of the warm, welcoming Jewish community of East Windsor and our “family” at Shalom Torah Academy, Congregation Toras Emes, and the Shalom Heritage Center.
We were lucky to have discovered the little settlement of Neve Daniel in Gush Etzion, a religious community in Judea with approximately 400 families on a mountaintop, and it has truly become our home.
What we hadn’t been prepared for was a war just three months after our arrival. The timing was particularly interesting, because my children had just spent three weeks worrying about their “poor friends” in America, suffering through Hurricane Sandy, the power outages, homes damaged and destroyed. My children were truly concerned and empathized with those who had had to struggle with the punishments of the superstorm.
But when they heard that Hamas had declared war on Israel, they honestly — and blessedly —had no idea what that really meant. For a number of days, the war was somewhere else, far away. It meant collecting things for people in need and, again, empathizing with others.
Then, just after lighting Shabbat candles, a siren sounded here in Neve Daniel.
I did not know what to expect, and felt for a time like all the assistance the country provides to help newcomers with language and other aspects of life in Israel simply does not cover how to explain war to our children. It was clear to me that the children were watching and waiting, observing our reactions and those of our neighbors. They were surprised by the pride and motivation of Israelis who expressed that this war was the right thing to do, that Israel was “taking care of bad guys.”
Our safe room is set up as a den, furnished with guest beds and equipped with toys, a pleasant place that my children use daily. So when my three sons asked if they could sleep in the room that night, I happily agreed. If being together in that safe space would help them feel secure, why not? Any anxiety or fears never went beyond that slumber party in the shelter.
On Shabbat we learned that the siren was to warn us of a rocket that fell in the desert, inflicting no damage. There was much discussion in our home and on the street of the miracles we were witnessing regarding Hamas’s lack of success in their aim to destroy Jewish lives.
Our house became the drop-off point for donations to soldiers waiting for a possible incursion into Gaza. We collected books, toys, clothes, and blankets for children in southern Israel whose homes have been hit. We have shown our children that this is our family and our home and we respond to challenges with helping, not hand-wringing.
We are grateful that the fighting was limited and brief (although personally sorry that the Israeli government stopped the initiative before their work in Gaza had brought longer-lasting stability). Dads who had been called up to reserve duty came home after just a couple of days, but reserve duty is one aspect of life here they just need to get to know. Life returned to normal so quickly, but truthfully, this is a part of our children’s new normal.
The next evening, after Shabbat, marked the end of our kids’ month-long induction process into B’nei Akiva, the nationalist Zionist youth group. This year’s induction ceremony would have two changes: The location was moved closer to shelters in case a siren sounded (that never happened) and youngsters from the Ashkelon branch of B’nei Akiva came for Shabbat to Neve Daniel to get away from the hail of rockets. Hundreds of children — there are 400 families here, but we have over 1,200 children — were dancing with flags and singing “Hatikva” and “Ani Ma’amin” — “I believe” — at the top of their lungs.
It said more to my children than I ever could. They learned a lesson so early on in their aliya that I hope will stay with them for the rest of their lives. That others try again and again to destroy Israel and the Jewish people is a reality they may always have to live with. But the response is to sing out, dance with flags, hold each other, and live life as fully as possible. There is no other response to a celebration of death.