TEL, AVIV Israel — We arrive early Thursday morning for our son Yosef’s wedding in Israel. He is a soldier in an elite combat unit, but he has been given a leave of absence for his wedding. He is not on the Gaza border, thank God. His older brother, who had been called up immediately while the October 7th massacre was ongoing, is not as lucky. He is stationed right by Israel’s worst enemies.
I get off the plane, and forgoing my usual practice of kissing the land of Israel when I exit the terminal, I do it right there in the airport. I’m in a big rush, and nothing can wait. Thankfully, no one looks at me as a weirdo; Ben Gurion Airport is completely empty. Much emptier even than when I arrived several times during covid. Almost no one is coming into Israel. Everyone is at the departure terminal going out.
I quickly get our bags, and by our, I mean our entire family. All nine of our children are now in Israel for the wedding, all our 10 grandchildren, and our four sons-in-law. People told us we were insane, bringing babies into a war zone. But how could we miss our son’s wedding?
I go through customs. The guy sees a truckload of stuff. “Anything to declare?” he asks in Hebrew. “Only my unconditional love for Israel,” I answer. He doesn’t smile or respond. Why so much stuff, he wants to know? Because we’re a huge family, I tell him, and my daughters, who live in Teaneck, are angels who have brought tons of gear for the soldiers.
He lets us through.
I rush to a waiting car, and my social-media-influencer daughter Rochel Leah (@thethirstysouls) and son-in-law Rabbi Itamar Taktuk, who are the rebbe’s emissaries in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and I are on our way south, to the killing fields around Gaza.
Rochel Leah and Itamar were visiting his parents on October 7, Simchat Torah, in Ashkelon. They woke up to a terror hellscape of rockets, bombs, and marauding terrorist savages, and barely survived. Now they join me in going to see the places of the carnage, courtesy of my friend Amichai Eliyahu, Israel’s minister of heritage, who will meet with survivors and local leaders in the south to see how the government can help.
We arrive at a junction that marks the closed military area in the south. We are surrounded by thousands of soldiers and endless military hardware. The men are all sporting mustaches. “Clark Gable look,” I say to them, as I snap photos of men going into war. “No,” they tell me. “It’s a thing now in the IDF. We’re trying to look like the soldiers who turned the tide in the Yom Kippur War after Israel was surprised 50 years ago.”
God, how I hate the ‘70s, I think to myself, as we transfer into a police vehicle and head further south into the belly of the beast.
With the minister, clad in tactical bulletproof vest and surrounded by a phalanx of ferocious-looking Israeli security armed to the teeth, we arrive in Beeri, the kibbutz where a quarter of the residents were slaughtered. The lead soldier gives us instructions. “Walk in single file on the path I show you. Do not touch anything. You can take pictures. If there is a siren or red alert, follow our instructions to the letter.”
We walk through. The kibbutz is completely decimated. The sickening stench of death is all around us. The bodies of the victims have been removed. But the blood is everywhere, as are bodies of the terrorists, covered in plastic.
We walk into one house. The blood of the murdered victims has congealed all over the floor and the walls. The knife the terrorists used is still there. You can see it on my Instagram page. I try not to gag or throw up.
We go into the infirmary where the medical staff were slaughtered. Bullet holes, broken glass, blood — everywhere. The houses all around us are heaps of rubble. The terrorists used not just Kalashnikovs but high explosives, rocket-propelled grenades, and bombs to murder the innocent. The enormous bullet casings are everywhere.
We travel to the Alumim agricultural farm not far away. The leaders are waiting for us. They grow mangoes and avocadoes. Many of their workers are Thai. Fourteen of them were murdered and about 20 taken hostage. One of the Thai workers was beheaded with a pickaxe. The leaders tell the minister that if the IDF does not destroy Hamas utterly, then there is no hope of Israelis every living in the south again.
It is the same message we hear from the mayor of Sderot, whom we visit next. His police station was taken over, and his senior officers all were murdered. Out of 37,000 residents, 90 percent are now war refugees spread throughout Israel. He remains with a tiny remnant.
I ponder his words. Israel will lose the south? But this is not really the south. Like all language in the Middle East, this is deceptive. We are only an hour and a quarter by car from Tel Aviv. It takes longer from me to drive into Manhattan from Englewood when there is traffic than from Tel Aviv to Ashkelon. What I am really hearing is that if Israel does not destroy Hamas, then the country itself has no future.
We travel to the Chabad House in Sderot. The heroes of Chabad have not left. They are running the only supermarket in the town, so the remaining residents don’t starve. They do not charge a shekel for food. They get me a minyan to say afternoon Kaddish for my mother. Then the sirens start. Rockets are headed right for us. Whereas in Tel Aviv you have a minute and a half to dodge the rockets, here in Sderot you have only 20 seconds. The security people around the minister freak out and push us all into the secure area. All clear, we begin to leave. We’re outside, and now it’s even worse. A terrorist has breached the gate from Gaza and is roaming around Sderot. We hear the rat-tat-tat of machine guns as the IDF engages him. The security freak out even more and push us all back into Chabad House.
Strangely, I am not afraid. Not at all. Mostly because I have complete confidence in Israel’s security and because I see the kind of faith in God that the Chabad emissaries have.
A few hours later we are back to the relative safety of Jerusalem. It is Friday, and I am preparing for my son’s Shabbat Chatan, his wedding Shabbat. We have rented an apartment in the Old City of Jerusalem but we have not been informed that it has faulty pipes. There is a flood on the floor. I walk down the stairs, fly up in the air, and feel a bang on the back of my head that is the worst of my life. I am stunned and in shock. I feel the back of my head, and I see that my hand is covered in blood. Soon my whole chest is red with blood. I have a huge gash from the slip brought about by the faulty plumbing and now I am in an ambulance being rushed to Shaarei Tzedek hospital. As I try to collect myself amidst the concussion, I note the irony of having been in the most dangerous place on earth the day before and emerged unscathed, only to have almost died in a Jerusalem apartment that was not fit to be rented.
I get a CAT scan that shows that for now I don’t have internal hemorrhaging, thank God. They give me seven staples in back of my head and release me to rejoice with my soldier son Yosef at the Kotel. The IDF also releases Mendy from the border for just one Shabbat.
Finally, bliss. Nearly all our family is there for Shabbat, which is truly joyous. Yosef gets called up to the Torah and we sing and dance the entire day. Wow? Is this really possible as Israel fights an existential war for its survival?
Shabbat ends. Mendy rushes back to his base. I visit various hotels around Israel where the war refugees are being housed, including one where my friend Uri Geller is entertaining children from a kibbutz where 20 members were slaughtered. Many of the children are orphans.
I decided, amid a healing broken arm, and the terrible gash and staples on the back of my neck, to ride a bike along the Tel Aviv seashore. I need to feel that there is still all the natural beauty in Israel that I so love. That it is not just consumed by war and terror. The streets are empty. The beaches, amid the most glorious weather, are empty too. Tel Aviv is a ghost town. The Tel Aviv port, normally a huge hub of activity and fun, is a deserted wasteland, with one corn-on-the-cob place open. I give him business and buy the corn.
I arrive at a hotel. I take a shower and start getting dressed. The sirens begin. Deafening alerts that Qassams are headed right where I am. Where the hell do I run? I forgot to ask where the bomb shelter is. I run out of my room in nothing but a towel (sorry for that painful image). The entire hotel floor is empty. I am alone. Boom, boom, and then, SHATTERING BOOM. Now, for the first time in my adult life in Israel, I am shaking. The first two explosions, I knew, were Iron Dome. The last one made all the earth shake and could not have been Israel’s defense system. I run back in the room, put on some clothes, and race to the lobby. “A Qassam hit a building 200 meters from here,” I’m told. “Three are reportedly injured. You can still see the smoke from the fires.”
I collect myself and now it’s time for the reason we came, which was not just to be with my Jewish brothers and sisters when Israel is at war, as we have done with our family in previous conflicts, but to see my soldier son married. He is marrying a wonderful young woman named Dalia. She is also an IDF soldier; she works in a unit that arranged 70 funerals of murdered soldiers in the south in the week before her wedding.
We all forget the war and put on our finest garb. The wedding has been moved from Jerusalem to Raanana because we found a hotel that has a large enough bomb shelter for all the guests. The wedding is joyous and immaculate, almost as if the 300 or so guests needed some sort of release from all the pain, blood, and murder of the last weeks. The prayer for the IDF is read by Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, the IDF’s chief global spokesperson, who has taken a break from his constant appearances on CNN, Fox, ABC, and NBC to honor our soldier son at his wedding. The witness to the wedding vows is Doron Spielman, deputy global spokesman for the IDF who is also on all the world’s airwaves defending the Jewish State against
My friend Bret Stephens of the New York Times is there as well, covering the war for his publication, and I thank him publicly for being the only voice of morality at a publication that has a few days earlier falsely reported that Israel bombed a Gaza hospital and murdered 500 Palestinians, something directly contradicted by American intelligence and President Biden himself.
As I speak at the chuppah as the rabbi honored with conducting the ceremony, we hear the familiar “boom, boom, boom,” and we are surrounded by plumes of smoke. The Iron Dome is stopping the Qassams from murdering us.
But is the Iron Dome a blessing? I suddenly wonder at my son’s wedding. “I want you, Yosef and Dalia, to have a normal life. Herzl did not conjure up Israel merely as a Jewish state but as a place where Jews would no longer be afraid. Who among us today is not afraid?” Perhaps the relative security of Iron Dome allowed Israel to accept the unacceptable and to live with the unlivable. Is it normal to live with a genocidal enemy on your doorstep and rely on a battery of missiles for your survival? Did JFK allow Cuba to keep nuclear weapons on America’s doorstep, even amid America’s ballistic deterrence”?
No, he was not that stupid. And in the greatest moment of his presidency, he got the USSR to remove the missiles. But not Israel, who allowed the cancer of Hamas and Hezbollah to metastasize until so many innocents were murdered by the Hamas savages.
The chuppah ends, the reception begins, and just as I expected, it is the most celebratory wedding I’ve ever been at. The crowd is on fire with joy and excitement for two IDF soldiers who are getting married. I see the celebrations — almost all Israelis, most with children serving on the front lines — and I think to myself that this is a giant F-you to Hamas.
You will never stop Jewish weddings. You will never stop Jewish babies from being born. You will never make us afraid. And you will never push us out of our ancient homeland.
Despite all your savagery. Despite all your barbarism.
We, the eternal people, are here in Israel forever and ever and ever.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach of Englewood is the author of “Judaism for Everyone” and “The Israel Warrior.” Follow him on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter @RabbiShmuley.