Life in a war zone: Seconds from shelter in Israel

“Seventy-five seconds? That’s an enormous amount of time!” He wasn’t being ironic. Just straightforward. These words were spoken by Rabbi Gustavo Suraszki, who spent Shabbat with me in Jerusalem this past weekend. He lives in Ashkelon, where his family has now spent a decade adjusting (if that is possible?) to Hamas’ playbook, and to finding shelter within just 15 seconds. As we ran inside a friend’s apartment when we heard the siren, and he observed our actually having time to have a short conversation about whether in the absence of a formal shelter it was safer to gather in the kitchen or the living room of the basement apartment, Rabbi Suraszki was expressing amazement at the “luxury” of our having an extra minute that the residents of Ashkelon and many other cities of the region would ache to have when the sirens blare.

This is normal? Yes, this is normal. Abnormally normal, but normal. It is abnormally normal to follow the moment of panic brought on by the siren with a wonderful, collegial, ruach-filled, melodious seudah shelishit, the third meal of Shabbat, which we enjoyed together in the immediate aftermath of the siren. I wonder if the singing was more emphatic than it would have been the previous Shabbat, or if the same group of rabbis had gathered in, say, Los Angeles. I wonder if the friendly ribbing, and the stories punctuated by punch lines and poking, evoking the kind of belly laughs I have not experienced in months and that makes you feel profoundly alive and human, were all unconscious outgrowths of not just living through this surreal time, but also studying through it, and praying through it. I wonder if our cathartic behavior emerged also from having to lead through it, carrying the burden and blessing of trying to articulate feelings and thoughts about the situation to our communities back in the States. 

When I was in Israel during the first Gulf War in 1991, and after it became clear that Saddam’s scuds were potentially destructive nuisances, but not the chemical-warhead-enhanced weapons we feared they might be, I remember the alliterative JNF (Jewish National Fund) slogan that exhorted us to emerge from our proverbially and literally sealed rooms to plant trees on Tu b’Shevat, which that year fell just a few weeks into the war. Shtilim lamrot tilim. “Seedlings despite missiles.” The slogan was both catchy and pithy, and embodied a Jewish and Israeli ethos that continues to today. Missiles fall. You never get used to it, or accept it. But you still plant trees. And sing songs to escort the Shabbat queen on her departure.  

And even as the siren’s echo reverberates, you think about how you as a Jew and how Israel as a Jewish state can embrace the next moment and the next day with heightened humanity, with morals as sharp as possible even and especially during times of war. In other words, in the very moment during which civilization could be breaking down around you, you recommit to building the world you hope to inhabit, and to bequeath. You invest in the society — and in the nation-building you desperately wish the Arabs in Gaza, and beyond, would begin to do. Because when you are so completely committed to constructing a bright future for you and your neighbors, who has time to launch rockets?

Seventy-five seconds? That’s an enormous amount of time. To fill with kisses. And laughter. And dreams for the peace that will come some day.

Rabbi Adam Kligfeld is senior rabbi at Temple Beth Am. He is in Israel as part of a Hartman Institute study cohort, one of 27 rabbis from across the denominations who have been studying together since last summer.