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.
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.