Yeruchim and Anat Chana Rivlin setting the table for Shabbos in their home

 

Yerucham Rivlin with two of his sons

This was a rough week for IDF families after a dozen young men were killed in the fighting with the terrorists in Rafah in Gaza. As a result, twelve funerals were held as this grinding war with Hamas continues into its eighth month.

Over 300 soldiers have thus far lost their lives in the fighting since October 7. On that day, over 200 troops were murdered in their base in southern Israel near the Gaza border. Then there were the police in Sderot, civilians, and those seeking to rescue anyone they could as well as treat the injured.

Prior to yom tov, I had the privilege of meeting Yerucham Rivlin, who lives with his wife and twelve children in the community of Otniel near Hebron. The Rivlins have nine boys and three girls. Two of the boys lost their lives on October 7 at the Nova Music Festival. Yerucham will be a guest on this week’s edition of the Meaningful People podcast, where he tells his riveting and heartbreaking story in detail.

Last Chanukah, we visited with Rabbi Benny Kalmanson, who lost his son Elchanan on October 7. At the time, Elchanan wasn’t in the IDF, but when he heard of the assault on the communities in the south, he and his brother rushed to the scene and managed to lead hundreds of people to safety amidst the barrage of gunfire. During their heroic rescue attempt, Elchanan was killed and his brother was injured.

“I still say I have nine boys even though there are only seven left,” says Yerucham haltingly, still adjusting to his family’s new reality.

Nachi Gordon speaks with Yerucham Rivlin

Yerucham Rivlin’s father was a distant cousin of Israel’s former president, Reuven Rivlin, so at least in Israel it is a recognizable name.

Over 360 mostly young people were murdered on October 7th by terrorists who crashed through what looked like a rather flimsy fence that separated southern Israel from the Gaza Strip. In total, more than 1,200 people were murdered and many more injured when the armed terrorists marauded through the small communities in that part of Israel.

Four of Yerucham’s sons were working at the music festival. They were aged 26, 23, 21, and 18. Two of the boys, Aviad, 23, and Gideon, 18, were killed. Yerucham explains that it was Shabbos Shemini Atzeres and Simchas Torah, so his phone was put away and he spent most of the morning davening in shul and celebrating the chag.

It’s difficult to discuss with Yerucham what his sons were doing at a music festival after two of them were murdered by terrorists. That fact is not important, but people may still be curious as to the dichotomy of the situation. I would like to add that sensitivity and tact are necessary when broaching the subject of where people’s children were on a Shabbos or yom tov since, regrettably, you may find such situations in numerous families. In terms of awareness, it’s important to understand our society and how it impacts people of all ages and observance levels.

Yerucham is aware of the contradiction and takes the initiative to explain the different levels of observance in his own family. There are twelve children, he says, and each one of them is completely different from the other. In fact, he says, 18-year-old, Gideon, or “Gidi,” was an outstanding student in a Jerusalem yeshiva, but then something changed, and he cannot aptly or explicitly identify that something.

He concedes that the older boys may have been affected by their army service, but he adds that some of the children are Chareidi, so it’s a complicated issue to understand.

Despite the frame of mind or the situation they were in, his sons were killed because they were Jews in the land of Israel. In other words, their death was a Kiddush Hashem despite the contrasts and contradictions or our inability to effectively understand.

Tragically, the list of families that lost a father, husband, or child continues to grow. Israel is fighting what has always been seen as an inevitable war with a hateful enemy who only flippantly discusses peace in places like the UN. But war and death are all they understand and, apparently, this is what they teach their children.

About a week before Shavuot, a friend from Israel wrote to me that a young Chassidic man named Mendy Kenig of Kiryat Sefer would be in New York for a few days with Yerucham Rivlin and it would be a worthwhile learning experience to meet them. I did meet with them and it was worth the few hours we spent together.

There’s a sadness and an air of resignation in Yerucham’s eyes. But at the same time, he is also hopeful about the future. He explained to me that at times he takes long walks around the community where he lives and wonders to himself why G-d chose him to make such a huge sacrifice.

“I look around and think about the families that have lost a child fighting the war in Gaza, but why me? Why my two sons?” he asks. So far there has been no answer, but he is determined to emulate the reaction of Aaron HaKohen when his two sons, Nadav and Avihu, perished. He quotes the pasuk that says: “And Aaron was silent” (Vayikra 10:3).

So, Yerucham is quietly asking his questions while accepting the will of G-d and seeing how it has affected his family. He says his wife also has deep faith, but they miss their two boys terribly and that void is accentuated in particular at their Shabbos table.

Mendy Kenig, as explained above, is a Chassid from Modiin Illit who, through an organization he founded, Menucha Veyeshua, has brought up to fifty families together to spend Shabbos with each other, sharing their stories and experiences, hearing lectures, and most importantly, consoling each other.

Yerucham speaks English fairly well, though heavily-accented. He talks in great detail about how their lives changed on October 7 and how one of his daughters heard from the two boys who survived the attack but did not know the whereabouts of the others, and lost all phone contact with them.

His oldest son, Yochai, 26, managed to reach his car and covered himself with a blanket in the backseat after locking the doors. He remained in that position for more than six hours. He said he felt the terrorists attempting to open the doors, thankfully without success. Yochai told his father that the terrorists shot several bullets through the back windows, which allowed air to seep in, enabling him to survive for hours under the blanket without suffocating.

Finally, after the half dozen hours passed, he heard Hebrew being spoken outside and he believed that the IDF had arrived. But still, if he jumped out of the car, he was afraid the soldiers would mistake him for a terrorist and shoot him. As he worked on the sound system at the music festival, he had a wristband that identified him as staff. So, he cracked open the window and reached out his hand, screaming in Hebrew that he was an Israeli. His life was saved.

Over the past several months, Mendy Kenig and Menucha Veyeshua have hosted hundreds of bereaved families for Shabbos and they are doing so again next Shabbos. At first, Yerucham said he and his wife were apprehensive about going, but Mendy eventually talked both husband and wife into joining them along with their entire family.

“We got to know people who share our tragic experiences,” Yerucham says. “There were great speakers, great food, and different groups for people to join.” He adds that he was pleased to see his teenage children (his youngest is 10) talking with other teenagers and after Shabbat, exchanging phone numbers so they could keep in touch.

In some ways, this is a new fraternity that is unfortunately growing in Israel. Yerucham says that Mendy asked him to attend other Shabbatonim but he and his wife were reluctant to join since both believed they were taking space from others who they felt needed to be there.

But Mendy expressed to him that he needed him to be there and Yerucham’s wife conceded. It was just a few weeks later, as Yerucham explains, that Mendy asked him to accompany him to the U.S. Yerucham said that being away from home would be particularly difficult for his wife, so Mendy asked if he could speak with her directly. Eventually, Mrs. Rivlin acceded to his request.

In the video circulated by the group, Yerucham is davening at the kevarim of his two sons. He’s talking to them and telling them that he is going to the U.S. and asks them to pray for his and Mendy’s success and to beseech Hashem to watch over them and bring them success so there can be future Shabbatons for families who experienced the loss of a loved one after 10-7.

As you can imagine, the cost for one of these weekends that hosts fifty families is enormous. If you would like to be a part of this important endeavor, you can reach Mendy Kenig via phone or WhatsApp at 972-52-715-1169.

May the families of the fallen be comforted in their losses and know no more pain.

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