January 6, 2009 - I live in Beit Shemesh, Israel. It's about 28 miles (45 kilometers) from Gaza as the crow flies. For now, Hamas has only reached 25 miles with their rockets, which puts us just out of range. For now.
Everyone here in Israel is doing whatever they can to help. Some of my neighbors are hosting families from the south who had to flee. For my part I called the Yad Eliezer to organization to see how I could help. One of their directors, Yossi Kaufman, told me they were putting together 2,500 care packages -- food, clothes and books -- to deliver to the soldiers, and offered me the opportunity to join a group traveling down to the Gaza front to distribute the packages. I told him, "Count me in."
The next day we drove south and came to a military base outside of Be'er Sheva, from where they control all the logistical aspects of the war. We were met by the commanders of the base who were very moved by the generosity of the donors and the volunteers. Then we went to work unloading the 2,500 packages into a gym from which the logistical engineers ensured they would reach the front lines. It was incredible to see the looks on the faces of the cadets who helped us unload the truck. They could not believe that people cared so much to bring what seemed to be an endless supply of packages.
As we were leaving the base, everyone started shouting: "Tzeva Adom -- Red Alert!" Tzeva Adom is the Israeli early warning system which allows you 15-30 seconds to take cover before an incoming missile strikes. We left our cars in the middle of the road and ran for cover behind a nearby concrete building. About 10 seconds later we heard the large boom of a rocket exploding. Thank God it wasn't near us.
We thought it was all clear, but then about 10 seconds later we heard a second rocket's impact.
We got back in the car and reached Be'eri, just a few hundred yards from the Gaza Strip. It's a closed military zone and the military police were not willing to let us enter the area. After much discussion and haggling, we were finally allowed 10 minutes in the area -- by foot -- to distribute our packages to the soldiers, and on condition that we took no photos while we were there.
In the war zone, Chassidim were dancing with the soldiers. Only in Israel.
Upon first entering the area, we were treated to a surreal scene: Some Breslover Chassidim had a van equipped with speakers on its roof blasting music, and the Chassidim were dancing with the soldiers. Only in Israel.
For our part, we began to distribute the packages to the soldiers who were resting before they had to reenter the war zone. We saw APC's coming out of Gaza with helmeted and sweating soldiers who were so excited to be greeted by our packages. The soldiers could not believe their eyes, and when we explained that we'd come to thank them for their efforts and boost their morale, they in turn thanked us profusely. They said it meant so much to them that people were actually thinking of them and were willing to make the trip out to deliver packages.
We ended up staying in the area for nearly 40 minutes, and the military police even allowed us to take pictures.
Our next stop was the Soroka Hospital in Be'er Sheva, the largest hospital in the south of Israel and the area's only trauma center. We came to the hospital with more care packages to distribute to the wounded soldiers. On the way, we passed the blood donor center where we saw an amazing scene of people lined up to donate blood to help all the wounded soldiers and civilians.
One of the members of our group was a rabbi from Atlantic Beach, New York. He had raised $100,000 in his community to fund Yad Eliezer's packages and to provide assistance to communities on the southern front. He had flown to Israel for a few days as an ambassador from his community to distribute the money they had raised. We also saw two high school girls at the hospital distributing chocolate bars to the injured soldiers. One woman began to cry while explaining to another woman what was transpiring. She was not religious, but she exclaimed over and over again, "Mi k'amcha Yisrael -- Who is like your nation, Israel." Her words are still reverberating through my head.
We visited a room that had injured soldiers. One had shrapnel wounds to his leg, another had been hit by a bullet, and another had suffered mortar injuries. We met another soldier sitting with his parents and family. His arm was in a sling, and told us that his platoon had been hit by a Hamas mortar shell, which had shattered the bones in his arm and currently left him with no ability to move his hand. The soldier had just undergone surgery and he hoped to regain use of his hand -- after a long recovery period including months, if not years, of therapy.
Hamas fighters were wearing explosive belts, making the soldiers unable to shoot in close proximity.
Next I met a father of one of the injured soldiers. He began to cry and asked me to give a blessing that his son should regain consciousness. In a choked voice, I prayed for God to send him a complete recovery. The father would not let go of my hand and asked me again to bless his son by name. Through his tears and broken voice, it took some time for me to get his son's exact name -- Hoshea Li'el ben Miriam HaKohen -- but he would not let go of my hand until I got it right. By this time we were both crying.
He explained to me that his son had just come out of surgery for a tracheostomy and was unconscious. His son was a member of an elite commando unit, one of the first to enter Gaza at the beginning of the ground war. The soldiers had fought for 11 hours straight in very difficult house-to-house combat. They made slow and difficult progress, managing to kill a few Hamas fighters. The commandos had to back off numerous times because many of the Hamas terrorists were wearing explosive belts, which made the soldiers unable to shoot in close proximity for fear of detonating the explosives.
As they entered the 12th hour of fighting, the soldiers had gained the upper hand, killing numerous terrorists and sending the remaining fleeing. While retreating, one of the Hamas fighters fired a rocket high in the air and the explosive landed 10 feet away from this man's son. The impact of the explosion sent him flying in the air. His son was wearing a flap jacket, helmet and radio and was carrying a gun, bullets, grenade launcher and grenades.
Despite all the protection, the explosion cut into his son's head and left him unconscious. Miraculously, none of his equipment detonated. Equally miraculously was that he landed 25 feet from a doctor. The doctor was able to intubate him on the spot, which likely saved his life. But he never regained consciousness. At the hospital, he had just undergone surgery to drain the blood away from his brain and to reduce the pressure on his skull. Doctors had also given him a tracheal oxygen apparatus to ease his breathing.
At this point, the only thing the father wanted was hope that his son could recover despite the oxygen deprivation at the time of the injury. Before I left, he implored me again to pray for his son's recovery, and introduced me to his son's wife. They were married only 15 months ago.
As I sit to write this account of my day in the south, the emotions are still raw and I know I will never be the same again.
Today I went to Yad Eliezer with my wife and children to help assemble another 3,000 packages for the next shipment to the soldiers.
The most amazing thing of all is that despite their discomfort and pain, each one of the soldiers and their families was thankful and appreciative of the visit and the packages. Yet in truth, all the thanks really go to these brave and courageous young men, may the Almighty help them and protect them.
POSTSCRIPT: OCTOBER 2009
It is nearly one year after I first met the father of the injured soldier described above, Liel. A month after that visit, when the unilateral cease-fire had been declared, I went to the hospital to visit more soldiers and to get an update on Li'el's condition. As we made our way over to the neurological ward, I had an uneasy feeling in my stomach turning to knots, not knowing what I could say to this family who was suffering so greatly. As we entered the recovery ward, my mind was racing about how to handle seeing Li'el's wife and mother who were not even able to look up or speak with me the last time I had visited. Yet when we asked how Li'el was faring, my heart began to race as I sensed something was profoundly different this time.
The prior week had been touch and go for Li'el -- and an emotional rollercoaster ride for his family. Miraculously, he had regained consciousness, but then just as suddenly he blacked out and through the week had been fading in and out of consciousness. The doctors felt the cause of the problem was the pressure building on his brain and that the only hope was for him to undergo a thirteenth surgery. He was now heavily sedated to recover from the surgery, but his family felt optimistic with the prognosis given the glimmers of hope they had experienced over the past week. We spoke with the family for a while and found out that Li'el was one of eight children and that one of his brothers was reporting to active army duty the next day. To top it all off, Li'el's wife was expecting a child in the summer.
We then went out of Li'el's room and spoke privately with Li'el's father. He still remembered our visit from when his son had first been admitted to the hospital. He reiterated to us that he believed that his son's fate was in G-d's hands and that he sincerely felt that the prayers from around the world were responsible for his son's recovery to date. Li'el's father repeated the story of his son's injury to those who had joined us for the visit, and added the following incredible detail:
When the medics evacuated Li'el, his father met them en route to the hospital. At the very moment that this man was accompanying his wounded son into the hospital, a wounded Hamas terrorist was being wheeled in (with his father at his side) by the army. Li'el and the Hamas terrorist were being given identical treatment, and the two fathers sat together in the waiting room anxiously awaiting word from their children's respective surgeons. Li'el's father said that this is the way that people of God act, the true spirit of the Jewish people. He said this incident will never make the news, but it is something the world needs to know about.
As the weeks turned to months, Li'el's condition improved and he was discharged to a rehabilitation hospital. The initial rehab was very successful, but as time went on his progression curve flattened out and the updates became more mixed with Li'el becoming frustrated or despondent over the lack of progress.
In July, Li'el's father told me of the wonderful news that Li'el's wife had just given birth to a baby boy. The baby was later named Yonatan Dvir after one of Li'el's friends who had fallen in combat. I called Li'el in order to arrange a visit, but when we first spoke, it was a little awkward explaining who I was and why I wanted to visit with him and his family.
Yossi Kaufman of Yad Eliezer and I traveled down south to visit Li'el, his wife and their new baby. It is hard to describe the feeling of visiting a person who on the one hand you feel so close to -- almost like family -- yet on the other hand you have no idea who they really are. The last time I had seen him he was post-surgery vacillating between life and death. When we finally met and hugged, I felt like I was holding onto life itself.
Li'el has no recollection of anything from the moment before his injury until the time he awoke from his coma. He laughed as he told us that the first thing he saw upon awakening from his coma was his letter of discharge from the army. His optimism shone through his fatigue as he described to us the ups and downs of his ongoing rehabilitation.
After speaking to Li'el for nearly an hour (the headaches make it hard for him to endure much more), I told him that before we left I had to complete a promise I made to his father at the beginning of the war. At the time, his father had only accepted the care package that we had brought from Yad Eliezer on condition that it would signal a future "celebration" which we would share together. As I stood there looking at Li'el, his wife and baby, I was overcome by emotion, choking up as I explained that I had brought a gift from my family to celebrate their new baby. Only a few months earlier, I never imagined that I would be able to live up to the "promise" I had made to help placate Li'el's inconsolable father.
Now, incredibly, here I was, holding back tears of joy replacing what only a short while ago were tears of anguish and despair. Realizing that over the last year, our calm and precious lives that we take for granted were in an instant shattered and replaced by hopelessness, then only to be shocked backed to our senses by the miracle of recovery.