Wars may be covered by journalists, but few, in any war, tell the story of the soldiers better than the soldiers themselves. Unlike earlier eras, when letters between soldiers and their loved ones remained private, stored in attics or lost in battle, modern warfare results in letters — often e-mails — that are swiftly forwarded to friends, family and even journalists. The letters presented here are not a scientific survey of IDF correspondence, just a random peek at the e-mails that came our way. They contain no breaking news nor overt politics, but reverberate with the voice of family, the grit of war.
If these letters are about anything they are about love: of God, of Israel, of fellow soldiers, and in the last letter, the love of a cross-section of Israelis for a wounded “lone soldier,” a young man with only one blood-relative in Israel, suddenly embraced “by a rainbow.”
Sarah Schloss, a graduate of SAR High School, earned her degree at Queens College in 2012 and 10 days later made aliyah. (Disclosure: she is the daughter of a former colleague.) Now in the IDF, she trains new soldiers how to handle a gun. As a “lone soldier,” whose family is overseas, she was allowed a visit home to her parents in New York. However, with the war on, she told her parents she couldn’t leave, even if the IDF said she could.
“I have five close friends from my garin [aliyah group] in Gaza at the moment,” writes Sarah. “Three of my friends had friends killed,” and two of them witnessed the dying. “These boys are not only some of my best friends, roommates and brothers, they are also my heroes and I feel honored to personally know people who are defending, honoring and fighting for the Jewish people. Flying to America to enjoy myself at home isn’t right when they’re risking their lives so I could live in Israel.”
When the war ends, “I’d like to see them and hug them and give them support in any way possible.” One friend who watched his friend get killed “is suffering.”
But during the war, “I’m checking the news compulsively and can’t sleep at night because I fear waking up and opening the news and seeing another soldier killed. What if I know him? What if I trained him? …. I’m blessed to have a job in the army that is actually useful during this time. Even though the past three weeks included some of the hardest times of my life, I feel so honored that I was able to help Tzahal [the IDF] in the little way I could. … I don’t want to miss a second of training my soldiers. … All my love, Sarah.”
Ben Dansker of Efrat, a father of a soldier, writes: “We finally spoke to Matan today (July 27) for the first time since his unit went into Gaza (July 18). He has been inside Gaza since then, in the fierce fighting around Sejewia where they have uncovered dozens of terrorist tunnels and terrorist weapon stashes, as well as terrorists themselves. Many of his comrades and soldiers were badly injured; several died.” Matan stopped the arterial bleeding of one of his soldiers and, along with a medic, saved the young man’s life. Matan received a citation as a distinguished squad leader.
Nevertheless, “he lost many friends,” writes Dansker. “Coming out of Gaza for the first time, the division commander pulled [Matan] aside and told him that Matan’s best friend,” Yuval Hyman, 21, from Efrat, “had been killed” defending Kibbutz Nir Am, when Hamas fighters, carrying handcuffs and anesthetics for kidnappings, and disguised as IDF soldiers, “poured out of a terror tunnel on the Israel side of the Gaza border preparing to storm” the kibbutz.
Matan “was devastated, of course,” by the news of Yuval’s death. “Yuval and Matan have been closest friends since they were three or four years old. [The Hymans] are what are called here, a ‘fighting family,’ generations of army officers including Yuval’s great-grandfather who was killed in the 1948 War for Independence. Lovely, kind, generous people.”
Also killed defending the kibbutz was Lt. Col. Dolev Keidar, 38, from Modi’in. Shalom Reich e-mails that Keidar, his deputy battalion commander, “despite being taken by surprise and having his jeep hit by an RPG [rocket propelled grenade] … fiercely faced those who came for his life and the lives of innocents. … There he was killed, defending the residents of the southern kibbutzim and the people of Israel.”
Reich remembers, “He was a bit rough around the edges, even intimidating to those under his command. One of the most energetic men I’ve encountered. [His] firm belief in what we were doing and his tremendous charisma during battle were inspiring and strengthening to all those in his vicinity.” His “tough rebukes, a necessity of the military environment we were working in, [were] immediately followed by a warm smile and a wink.”
One Shabbat afternoon, writes Reich, Dolev “called me to join him in the armored command vehicle. … As were were poring over our maps, we saw a Kassam rocket fired from behind a greenhouse, not 150 meters away. ‘Are they kidding me?’ Dolev shouted into his helmet radio, making me go half-deaf. ‘Benjy! [the driver] Chase down those shooters! Those are the last rockets those guys are ever going to shoot!’ And indeed they were. … This is how I’ll remember him. … As a leader of men rushing into battle at the risk of his own life to defend the people of Israel.”
They say there are no atheists in foxholes, and one anonymous soldier at the Gaza border notes “the amount of prayer services … We’re having deep conversations late into the night without arguments, without fights. … There’s lots more to add but my battery is running low and the staff has been requesting someone give a class on Likutei Moharan (the inspirational teachings of Reb Nachman).” The soldier writes, paraphrasing Psalms, Ashrei Ha’am, “Happy is the nation that is like this.”
Jonathan Price, a professor of classics and ancient history at Tel Aviv University, sent a letter to his uncle, Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun. “It is quickly becoming the case that there are very few people in Israel who do not have a relative or friend who has been injured or killed in this awful war.”
Price’s cousin Max, 20, made aliyah from Los Angeles after high school to enlist in the IDF. “Overcoming many obstacles, including Hebrew,” writes Price, “Max won a place in one of the elite units of the paratroopers.”
In Gaza, Max “entered a booby-trapped three-story building which exploded and collapsed.” Max was hit in the head by shrapnel, above his right eye, and was evacuated by helicopter to Petach Tikvah for surgery.
That evening, in the hospital, writes Price, “They cleared Max’s room and the army psychologist went in alone to speak with Max” to tell him that in the same explosion, three of his fellow soldiers were killed, and two others were in critical condition. “After that, no one was allowed in.”
The next day, when Price and his wife returned to be with Max, “Naomi and I witnessed an astonishing thing. In the two hours we were there, a steady stream of people came to Max’s room, bearing presents of food, balloons, flowers, flags, letters from people he didn’t know, and pictures drawn by Israeli children for wounded soldiers. … I am his only blood relative here [and] he does not have the wide social circle of someone who grew up here. But that was not relevant. Israelis came, in groups of all sorts, from the wide rainbow of Jewish society here, to visit the wounded soldier: secular and religious, men and women (especially many young women, in and out of uniform), young and old, Ethiopian children, Ashkenazim and Sephardim, from almost the entire, remarkable range of Am Yisrael [the people of Israel].
“They offered Max their prayers and blessings, sang songs, told him stories, asked him about himself, and most of all, just said… ‘We love you and we thank you,’ to which Max responded in his modest way, ‘I love you, too.’”