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Friday, January 9, 2009

2009/1/6 -- DAY #10a: Visiting Wounded Boys of The IDF at Soroka Hospital in Be’er Sheva …

This afternoon (Tuesday), I visited with soldiers wounded in Gaza over the first three days of the ground-incursion and their families. I can’t quite describe how I feel upon leaving the hospital. I want very much to write this immediately, while driving back to Tel Aviv. However, I am finding it difficult to choke back the tears; so many young lives in peril, others lost, some families hoping against hope while others thank God for their good fortune – while others are utterly devastated. I have to write this now because every detail of every soldier and his family is precious, and I know that if I wait until this evening to write this entry, details will be missed. In reading my documentation of, and reflections upon, some of my hospital visits today, readers should know that I will take great care to avoid discussing anything that might be too personal on the part of the soldiers or their families while, at the same time, I will try my best to enable you to gain a sense of the impact of my visits this afternoon; quite likely, the visits made a greater impact upon me than they did upon those with whom I visited.

Li-El, 20 years old and married just about one year ago, remains in critical condition. He hasn’t regained consciousness since he was first hit by a mortar shell fired by Hamas Terrorists last Saturday evening, sustaining severe head injuries. His father, Effie, speaks (in Hebrew) of the miracles that have graced his son, his only son, to remain alive; hope remains. When he was hit by enemy fire, the company-doctor was nearby and aided him immediately. His evacuation was tended to with clockwork precision. His doctors at the hospital went to work without delay. Effie prayed for his son; one tear slowly rolled down the side of his left cheek; he didn’t notice – he hadn’t slept in over two days, as he sat either with his son, or outside his son’s room, with his entire family. Effie told me that he believes that God wants the Jewish People to live freely and safely in Israel and that his son believes this too. Effie lamented that Israel had learned far too little from the war against Hezbollah in Lebanon and northern Israel in 2006. He asked rhetorically, with both sadness and frustration, “Why does Israel have to go to lengths any greater than any other country to protect the civilians of the enemy? Why not conduct war as others do so, like the Russians, the Americans, and others? Why risk the lives of young men like Li-El by utilizing ground-forces and having them engage an enemy sworn to kill them, street to street and house to house? Is Jewish blood cheaper than any other blood?” I had no answers. I just held his hand and listened. My heart was slowly tearing; I felt that Effie was right, and he knew that I felt that he was right, but there was nothing really nothing that I could say in response that would helpful to him – or help Li-El. Effie’s cousin was sitting nearby. He started chanting Psalm 127, asking for God’s intervention on Li-El’s behalf. Effie and I joined him, briefly – this could help us all.

Then, Effie seemed suddenly to recall that I had said that I was from Los Angeles when I introduced myself at the outset of my visit: “Koby Bryant!” he exclaimed, “My son and I haven’t missed one game – my son, whenever he’s home from the army, of course – even the game last year when the Lakers lost to the Celtics by 40 points!” For those who know better than others my own sports-team preferences, no, I did not share that I am a Celtics fan. Effie asked that we exchange phone numbers. We did so. He asked that I call to inform him in advance of my next visit to Israel; we agreed that the three of us – Effie, me, and Li-El – would get together to watch a Lakers’ game upon my next visit. With God’s help, we will do so. I asked for his boy’s name; Li-El Hoshea Ha-Kohen BAT Miriam. He made certain that I understood that the name Hoshea implies by its meaning that God will save his son. His wife, silent throughout my visit until this moment, asked me to include in my prayers only her son, and not her, or Effie, or anyone else in the family – all she needed was for God to take care of her boy. Li-El’s wife sat silently throughout the visit, dazed and exhausted. As I left the room, I felt the deepest, sharpest pain in my soul that I recall having ever felt in my life. Li-El Hoshea Ha-Kohen BAT Miriam – God, if there is a prayer in this world that you might hear right now, please, God, hear the prayers of Li-El’s parents, his wife, and his family; please hear this prayer.

Oren, 20 years old and single, was hit by shrapnel. He assured me, as he assured himself, that he would be fine. His injuries were minor, he said. They weren’t quite as minor as he would want to believe, though the prognosis was a good one. Oren was surrounded by boys and girls of the IDF and volunteer-visitors from the Be’er Sheva area. They were keeping him company, keeping his spirits up. His spirits were high, but it will still be a few days before he goes home to continue to recover and to begin to rehabilitate his arm and leg. All he wanted was to get well enough, quickly enough, to rejoin his unit and continue to defend Israel’s men, women, and children against Hamas; aside from Li-El, who would likely have felt similarly, this was the sentiment among all of the soldiers with whom I visited; they are proud and they feel a great sense of responsibility to one another, to their fellow soldiers, to their country, and to the Jewish People. As Oren shared, and as had been shared by so many soldiers throughout the week, he has no choice but to return to battle when he is able to do so; he is fighting to protect his own family and his home from people who want to kill him and destroy Israel. As he concluded, “we are fighting a war in our own backyard, not thousands of miles away from home – if we lose, we won’t have a home!”

As I walked toward my fifth visit, I ran into Chana outside the room. She was holding the hand of a soldier’s wife, giving her comfort and strength. I asked her if she was from the area. She explained that she is from the north of Israel; Be’er Sheva is in the south. I asked her what brought her down south. In a kind, comforting voice, she explained: She had lost her older son in the summer of 2006 during Hezbollah’s war against Israel, launched from Lebanon. Now, her younger son is serving in Gaza, just two years later. Coming down to stay in the south of the country allows her to be closer to the one son whom she has left. Visiting soldiers in the hospital and comforting their parents and families, gives her something to do and makes use of the pain that she felt while her eldest child was in the hospital before he died. Chana is truly a Jewish Hero, of enormous proportions. Room after room, her hugs and soft words aided and comforted the parents of children who had been wounded in battle. Chana is my hero today, along with each of the boys that I visited.

Yo-ad, Yarit, and Maxim were all wounded at the same time. They were admitted together to the hospital and they were given one large room to share after their initial recoveries from surgery, respectively. Maxim was outside in the hallway when I arrived. He is one of Israel's fastest track-runners. His left hand was injured by shrapnel. As a Lone-Soldier (a soldier in the IDF without immediate family in Israel), it was inspiring to see, and most comforting to him to have, his "adoptive" Israeli family at his side, helping to raise his spirits and help with his care.

Yo-ad's wounds required greater intervention to ensure that his right arm will regain proper and full function. Without going into greater detail, with God's help and with rigorous rehabilitation, Yo-ad will recover, hopefully fully, though the recovery will take time and it won't be easy. What struck me about Yo-ad most immediately was that, from the moment I walked into his area of the room, he was my host. It was as though Yo-ad and I were simply conversing in his living-room. There was something unreal about the hospital surrounding us, as if it were a theater-set. This could only have been so because Yo-ad wanted it to be so; neither his injuries nor the challenges that they would yet pose would define Yo-ad. When I shared with him and his mother that I am a Rabbi from Los Angeles, Yo-ad asked if I knew Yishaya Braverman, who served together with him in the same IDF unit and returned to Los Angeles less than one year ago, after his army service concluded. When I told him that I do know him (Yishaya's father, Rabbi Nachum Braverman, is a colleague of mine in Los Angeles and a fellow supporter of FIDF), he asked that I send Drishat Shalom to his buddy, love and regards that I so look forward to sharing personally (Yishaya, if you are following this blog, please know that I will be back on Thursday night and will call you then - I don't have your number or your email here with me). Yo-ad's mother then explained that the family-ties run even deeper, as her husband is the Chief Rabbi of Caesarea and he and Rabbi Braverman are close colleagues and friends as well; Olam Katan -- it is indeed a small world. As Jews, we might well have only 2 to 3 degrees of separation. After all, we are truly a very small family. Yo-ad will recover. He is a strong young man, with a big heart. With God's blessings, his recovery will be a complete one.

Yarit's family was simply surprised and elated to receive a visitor from abroad. While Yarit did not want to speak at length (he was tired from the numerous local visitors who had been with him all day!), his mother took me aside. She told me that Yarit is a kind and loving boy, that he is frustrated that he got hurt because he feels that by not being with his unit he isn’t helping them. There was probably very little that I could have said to Yarit that could have helped to ease his frustration. I told him that we were all proud of him – all of us -- and that he carried every Jewish person with him into battle as he fought to save Jewish lives from Hamas. He smiled, for a brief moment, and then he closed his eyes and rested.

There were other beautiful, wonderful, inspiring soldiers and families with whom I met this afternoon. Don’t think for a moment that their stories are any less compelling. I simply have nothing left within myself to draw upon to write any longer; I’m drained, and my soul aches.

Please God, heal them now.

Rabbi Isaac Jeret
Spiritual Leader
Congregation Ner Tamid of South Bay