The author, second from left, with a group from Yeshivat Hakotel in Sderot

Like most gap-year talmidim, I am regularly asked by family and friends how I am holding up during the war. I am physically safe in the Old City of Jerusalem and there are relatively few restrictions on my movements and travel. After the horrific attacks of 10/7, Torah study in yeshiva took on a fervent intensity that was exhilarating, even as it threatened to become overwhelming. Three months into Israel’s longest war since 1948, learning has settled back into the prewar rhythms of a Hesder yeshiva. So how am I holding up? I am fine but am periodically troubled by feelings of helplessness. Here, I am an outsider, a tourist of sorts. Although an existential war for Jewish survival is only two hours away, I feel disconnected from the fighting. So, when I heard that Hakotel “Ram” Rav Ari Cutler was organizing a “Day of Chizuk” on Tuesday, December 26, near the Gaza border, I jumped at the opportunity to participate. Military personnel would tell us of their experiences, and we would give moral support to IDF soldiers who were risking their lives defending Medinat Yisrael.

The day began with Shacharit at the Kotel at 6:15 a.m. Following davening, we recited Tehillim and sang soulful niggunim. A somber mood descended on our group. The reality set in that we were going to a place of terror and death, but we were united in our goal to bring love and camaraderie to our brothers and sisters on the border. We boarded a bus and departed the Rova at 8 a.m.

After an uneventful two-hour ride, we reached our first destination, the Netiv HaAsara moshav, located on the Gaza border. Benny (I will not be using last names due to security considerations), a resident, and active-duty soldier, volunteered to act as our guide through the area while recounting the events of October 7 in minute detail. The recently thriving settlement lay in ruins, with shattered windows, charred vehicles, and houses reduced to rubble littering the landscape. We saw bullet-riddled walls and sidewalks stained with human blood. The nearby thunder of artillery and the roar of jets overhead provided a poignant soundtrack to our tour.

Benny shared chilling accounts of the massacre of his friends and neighbors, pointing out the exact locations where each of Hamas’s atrocities occurred. We began in a bomb shelter where a seventy-eight-year-old woman was gunned down in cold blood. We then walked to the remnants of the house of an elderly couple named Yaakov and Bilha. The house had been struck by an anti-tank missile, destroying the home, and killing its occupants. Benny also told us of remarkable acts of heroism, including a father who sacrificed himself to save his family when he jumped on a grenade thrown by Hamas terrorists into the bomb shelter where he and his two children were hiding. With seemingly every step, there was another story to be told of brutality and murder. Our hourlong experience of bearing witness to evil paled next to the realization that we had barely scratched the surface of Hamas’s depravity.

Next, we traveled to Sderot where we met Yair, a chayal, and a policewoman named Molly. They spoke of their 10/7 experiences. Upon learning of the terrorist infiltration of Sderot, Yair told his family that he had to go fight. He instructed his wife and children not to open the door for anyone under any circumstances. Most movingly, he recounted how he hugged his eldest, a seventeen-year-old boy, goodbye and told him to look after his mother and siblings, as he was the man of the house now. When Yair left home, he fully expected to never see his family again. Fortunately, he survived. He served valiantly, even eliminating a Hamas sniper who was shooting at Israeli soldiers from a roof. He described his shot as miraculous, as he did not have a scope on his weapon.

Molly told us of how terrorists seized control of the local police station and murdered eight policemen. In response, the IDF demolished the police station, killing the infiltrators. Initial attempts to use a tank proved futile, merely resulting in a small hole in the station’s reinforced wall. Ultimately, an aircraft was called in to drop explosives, obliterating the structure.

After Sderot, our next stop was to visit with members of the Sayeret Matkal, the storied elite special reconnaissance unit of the general staff of the IDF. These soldiers had just returned from a twenty-four-hour tour in Gaza. Our job was to express our support and gratitude to them while sharing a barbecue dinner. As we ate grilled chicken and burgers together, our group listened with rapt attention as these heroes shared their experiences. They explained that during the initial days of the war, the IDF formulated a detailed plan for taking Gaza. However, those plans had to be scrapped after the IDF received critical information from interrogated terrorists. Had the initial plan been implemented, the chayalim would have walked into a Hamas trap resulting in extensive casualties. After dinner, the soldiers thanked us for our company and for providing a welcome distraction.

We ended our day with a visit with Sammy, a Yeshivat Hakotel alumnus and active-duty member of the IDF. He was stationed at the Tze’elim army base, where chayalim receive extensive training in urban combat at the Urban Warfare Training Center, a Potemkin village known as “Mini Gaza.” He shared with us that even during battle, our soldiers are never far from the Torah. Indeed, it is not uncommon to find soldiers in Gaza taking a moment, perhaps in a corner of an abandoned building, to daven and learn together.

Sammy also told us of his friend, Elisha Loewenstern, who was killed when his tank was hit by an explosive. He said that an hour before Elisha died, a picture was taken of him learning Rambam on a Hamas operative’s couch. Elisha embodied the best of our chayalim—kind, courageous, and always immersed in Torah and mitzvot. We concluded our visit singing “Acheinu” together, while tanks rumbled around us, getting into formation as they prepared to re-enter Gaza. Sammy would be joining them, and we thanked him for spending time with us before his deployment.

The bus ride back to Hakotel was silent. We bore witness to horrors not seen since the Holocaust. We also met men and women who were the epitome of Jewish resilience. Whatever comfort and uplift we provided for these heroes was magnified by them and reflected to our group. As the hour grew late, a deep exhaustion came over me. A mantra repeated over and over in my mind: Am Yisrael chai. n

 

Josiah N. Gampel graduated from DRS Yeshiva High School and is now learning at Yeshivat Hakotel. Josiah was chosen to receive the 5TJT Student Journalism Award in 2023.

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