A woman prays on the steps outside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, October 10, 2023 (OSV News photo/Debbie Hill).

I’m a fourth-generation American, the fourth generation to move to Israel and then return to the United States. My great grandparents, who immigrated to the United States from Eastern Europe, were great Zionists and moved to Jerusalem—with my already married grandparents—in the 1930s. When life became too hard, they moved back to New York. In 1979 my parents, young academics with two very young children in tow, including me, tried again. But, once again, Jerusalem proved itself not to be right for my family. In 2007, married and with an infant, I decided it was my turn to try life in Israel. But after four years, we decided to move back to the United States, this time to the suburbs of Washington D.C. Five years ago, we decided once again to try life in Jerusalem. We couldn’t quite put our finger on why. Arriving anywhere new with four young children isn’t easy, and Jerusalem was no different. Jerusalem, whose name means “the perfect city” or “the city of peace,” has become the largest city in Israel and it thrives, even a bit too much. The traffic is dense, and the population growth is dramatic.

Our children move around the city and the country on their own in a way they never could in the Washington area. We live near the American Embassy in an area at least as diverse as any in D.C. We bought and renovated a new home, we got a dog, and we are settled here. Yes, there is the occasional incident. But there are far fewer than in American cities.

In Jerusalem, like many places throughout the country, the last six months were filled with protests and deep criticism of the Israeli government. And yet, our life in Jerusalem has been filled with hope, planning for the future, and marveling at the day-to-day lives of our children.


Saturday, October 7, the Jewish holiday of Simchat Torah

We first understood something was happening when my husband took the dog out for the usual 7:00 am walk. Our neighbor was watching television, and she poked her head out cautiously from her apartment and told my husband to go back inside. She said it was dangerous.

My husband returned home, telling me that our neighbor was saying something about an attack. But he didn’t understand the rapid Hebrew, and I went to find out more. As sabbath-observant Jews, we wouldn’t turn the television on. When I entered our neighbor’s apartment, I found her whole family staring at a TV screen in disbelief. After two minutes of news, I understood.

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My husband’s first thought was that our friends would not have turned on the news on shabbat morning and would not know what was going on. So, he decided to cross the street and tell them.

Just after he left, there was the loudest air raid siren I had ever heard. (The last one I heard was on Israel’s Memorial Day. Every year, a siren is sounded in memory of those killed in the line of duty or by acts of terror.) The siren was so loud, it woke my teenage daughter (no small thing). I quickly gathered my children and ushered them into our “safe room.”

All apartments in Israel are built with a room strong enough to withstand a missile attack. We all knew what room that was in our house, but we had never checked that it was up to code. We didn’t know how to close the steel window, and the steel door had been replaced long ago with a standard wood door. But it was still the safest room in the house.

We followed the rules, which all Israelis know from the rockets that have been flying at the south for years: get to the safe room and stay there for ten minutes. If there are no more sirens, it is safe to come out. And so we did. My husband, who had just returned from sheltering at our friends’ across the street, told me he and our friend would walk to synagogue to make sure others understood the gravity of the situation.

The rest of the day was not our planned Simchat Torah festival, celebrating the completion of reading the Torah, dancing, and singing. We spent the day in and out of the safe room, crowded around the radio (which, after the first siren, I turned on because sabbath is observed foremost by saving life). The few who went to services that day, like my husband and our friend, led a quick service, mostly in the synagogue safe room.

Our friends from across the street came to check on us. Once I revealed that our radio was on, they stayed for a while, listening to the increasingly terrifying news. We huddled with our friends, hoping the younger children weren’t understanding too much.

As the news unfolded over the next twenty-four hours, we began a 1,000-piece puzzle that we hadn’t taken out since COVID. We baked for an army. We called our friends and loved ones. And we started to organize. New WhatsApp groups spawned on my phone. One group to source helmets for soldiers. One to provide clothing to those who’d survived attacks on their homes. Another to support the mothers who were now home alone as their husbands went off to war.


We huddled with our friends, hoping the younger children weren’t understanding too much.

October 10

Three days or three eons after that Shabbat. Time doesn’t pass in war as it does in peace. Some 350,000 people have been called up to military service. That means that they are not at work, and their spouses are not at work. Because of the Jewish holidays, the country’s children haven’t been in school for three weeks. There is no school, and no one can tell us how long the situation will last. So many mothers are at home with many children, while their husbands were called to army reserve duty. These men left their homes on October 7 with almost no notice. There hasn’t been this kind of call-up of reserves since the last surprise war, fifty years ago. Families have not made contingency plans, or any plans.

Many of us already know people who were killed and people who are in mourning for family members who were just babies. Most of these people still don’t know when a funeral and burial will be held (whereas in regular times, someone who dies is often buried on the same day in Israel). Many stores in Jerusalem are closed, with staff off serving in the army.

Organizations and individuals are asking for donations of everything, ranging from toiletries to clothing, food to flashlights. These donations are not only for those who lost their relatives and possibly their homes, but they are also for soldiers. The army drafted more than three hundred thousand people in two days, and they do not yet have enough supplies in place.

The sirens in Jerusalem, though infrequent, don’t stop. Trying to feel normal, I take my son and our dog out for a much-needed walk. For the first time, we have to do what those in Southern Israel have become all too accustomed to. With no bomb shelter or safe room in sight, my son and I lay on the ground with our hands on our heads, waiting for the telltale boom of the Iron Dome intercepting a missile. Then we wait, to make sure that no debris from the explosion falls near us.


October 13

Today, preparing for Shabbat was nothing like usual. Normally, there’s a sense of excitement. Every week, I bake challah bread for shabbat. My husband shops and cooks mounds of food for the guests we usually have. But today, instead of preparing to nourish ourselves, the whole neighborhood came out to the streets. We weren’t protesting, as some of us had gotten used to over the last few months. We stood on the streets, waving Israeli flags, to accompany a family to the burial of their murdered son.

It was as if we could take away a small part of this family’s pain if they understood that they weren’t alone. That the whole neighborhood was mourning with them.

In the evening, instead of praying at our normal synagogue, we crossed the street to another family who had lost loved ones. Our friend’s sister and brother-in-law had been brutally murdered while protecting their son with their own bodies. About twenty of us joined our friend and his family in their home for Friday night prayers, as an act of comfort for all of us. Singing the words from Psalms felt surreal, untrue even: “Let those who love the Lord hate evil, for the Lord protects the lives of his devoted ones, delivering them from the hand of the wicked.” But I sang. I prayed, begging for these words to become true again.


October 18

Yesterday, I spoke to a friend whose husband was called up from reserve duty on Simchat Torah, immediately after the attacks. He’s stationed on Israel’s Northern border, near Lebanon. He hasn’t showered since he’s been on duty. He’s slept in the rain. Needless to say, he hasn’t been home yet.

Today, two of my kids go back to school—for just four hours. They won’t have school tomorrow. There aren’t enough security guards for all the children to be at school every day. And in some schools the safe rooms or bomb shelters aren’t big enough for the entire student body. But most surprising is that at some schools around Jerusalem (a part of the country that at the moment is considered relatively safe), there are soldiers with large rifles standing guard. In one school, the principal himself, just back from reserve duty, held an M16. The kids reported feeling safer knowing our army was protecting them.


October 23

My daughter’s school is an army base. My son’s school moved to a women’s Yeshiva.

The fear in our country has gotten so great that even in Jerusalem, relatively far from Gaza or Lebanon, people are scared. People are afraid that our neighboring Arab/Palestinian towns might be reading different news than we are. Some people are afraid that even just one or two angry local Palestinians could bring tragedy. Our schools have adjusted accordingly. A small army unit has moved into my daughter’s school. It serves the unit, as they need a place to sleep, and it serves the school because they have protection. My son’s school moved into Midreshet Lindenbaum (a women’s institution for Torah study and volunteerism), which enables the Arab construction workers to continue working on the renovation of the regular school building, while easing parents’ worry.

I don’t know if these are the right decisions. I don’t know if people are justified in their fears. But I do know that people are more anxious than ever before, and that’s not good for anybody.


I don’t know if these are the right decisions. I don’t know if people are justified in their fears. But I do know that people are more anxious than ever before, and that’s not good for anybody.

October 27

I spent the last thirty-six hours in Eilat, with a small group of rabbis and rabbinical students. We went to strengthen and comfort a few of the sixty thousand Israeli refugees, who, because of the attacks by Hamas on the Gaza Envelope, have been moved there. There are another seventy thousand or so refugees sheltering all over the country, protecting themselves from shelling in Northern Israel by Hezbollah and Southern Israel by Hamas. Thirty-eight hotels in Jerusalem are filled with survivors. Dead Sea hotels are also filled. Jewish refugees fill our homeland.

We chose to go to Eilat to comfort one of my classmates in rabbinical school who survived the attack on his home and was evacuated there. Eilat, on the southernmost tip of Israel, is the top Israeli beach destination, and now a city of refugees. Walking the boardwalk lined with shiny stores and amusement park rides, I know that almost every person I see has lost their home, job, and school. Many have lost close family in the most horrible of circumstances, watching as their lives shattered.

In our few hours in Eilat, we lead four prayer and song circles for kibbutz communities and individuals. Each time we begin tentatively, not sure if the little we have to offer was what people need. Each time we speak or sing, we experience the depths of the need, not only for physical and emotional support and safety, but for strengthening of the spirit. As my rabbi, Shai Zarchi, teaches, singing requires us to take big breaths. Not the small, shallow, panicked breathing most of us have become too accustomed to since Simchat Torah, October 7. When we move our lips in song, we help return ruach—spirit or air—to ourselves.


October 31

Yesterday began almost normal. Almost routine. My rabbinical school class, which was supposed to start its final year last week, had one class on Zoom. Only half of us could attend, and fewer were able to pay attention.

Later in the day, I went to pick up my third-grader from school. Just as we were leaving the building, an air-raid siren sounded. About one hundred kids ran for the safe rooms. Several children were screaming. Some added to the chaos by sounding make-believe sirens with their voices. And one lovely teacher tried, unsuccessfully, to sing a song about peace.

My day wrapped up with a birthday party for an eleven-year-old who has been displaced because of the war. She and her grandparents are living off the generosity of others, while this girl's parents provide required services to those still in their hometown of Ashkelon. At this party was another family who is sheltering in Jerusalem, to avoid the frequent rockets shooting at Ashdod. There was also a mom and her four children, whose husband has been serving in reserve duty since the day the war started.

This kind of day is what we now call sheegrat milchamah—wartime routine. There’s regular routine. There’s emergency routine. And there is wartime routine. The only thing I know about this routine is that it’s never routine.


November 7

A whole month has passed. It feels as if we’re living. It feels as if we’re working. In Jerusalem, those of us who can work try to. But war is everywhere. I can’t bear to turn on the radio. Every song, every advertisement is about the war. Instructions for what to do when a siren sounds. Phone numbers to call in case you’ve been evacuated from your home. Websites to visit if you need psychological support. Organizations to donate to in support of war efforts.

Walking the streets of Jerusalem, there are pictures everywhere of the captives. There are Israeli flags lining the streets, intended to boost morale. Signs saying yachad n’natzeach—together we will win.

Shul, my synagogue community, which is my main source of support and comfort, is also war-filled. The Torah portion read aloud to the congregation this past shabbat was all too resonant. Worried looks and tears everywhere. Every mention of peace in the liturgy screamed out by those who believe or omitted by those who no longer do.

Thirty days after the heinous attacks by Hamas. Thirty days of asking what I can do to alleviate our pain. Thirty days struggling to give answers to my kids who have begun to ask impossible questions. Thirty days of 240 captives in Gaza.

We don’t yet know when this will end, and we certainly don’t know what the aftermath will look like. Not for us individually. Not for our country. And not for our people. But all of us have already begun to ask: What can I do to help? We’ll need to think big and small. We already need to think about how to support building or rebuilding entire communities. We need to work to support families recouping enormous financial losses. We need to provide psychological care to thousands of children, teens, and adults. Beyond the critically important practical needs, we also need to think about how to infuse day-to-day life with ruach, the spirit or breath of life that brings hope and healing. We all need to make even small gestures—listening to a story, singing a song, offering a short word of strength, praying together—that might alleviate, even if momentarily, the overwhelming pain. We will one day begin to breathe together again.

Abi Dauber Sterne is co-author of the book Stories for the Sake of Argument and director of an initiative that harnesses the energy of healthy arguments to help people learn, grow, and develop closer relationships. She held senior leadership roles at international nonprofits and is a Senior Schusterman Fellow and rabbinical student at the Shalom Hartman Institute. She lives in Jerusalem with her spouse and four children.

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