For the last nine years, friends of ours have arranged to bring busloads of families from Ramat Beit Shemesh to army bases in various locations in Israel on the first night of Chanukah to thank the soldiers for protecting us and to celebrate with them. The IDF is reluctant to have visitors in army bases at this time, but somehow our friends managed to pull it off. This is the first year that our schedules allowed for us to participate in this beautiful initiative. It always sounded like a nice idea, but hearing about it and experiencing it is not at all the same. It didn’t take long for us to realize how much we had been missing out the last nine years.
This year, our friends picked a base very close to the Gaza border. The country is not large, so the ride was not long, even with the few stops we made along the way. Driving by Sderot, we saw shelters situated next to each and every bus stop. The shelters were painted by the residents of Sderot in, I imagine, an attempt to make an unbearable situation a bit more bearable. Following along the road, we looked up to the sky and were able to spot what appeared to be a white parachute; but in reality, it was a surveillance balloon monitoring the situation on the other side of the border. We soon arrived at Kibbutz Nachal Oz, a name familiar to me from my phone app, which alerts me to sirens activated anywhere in the country. When tensions flare in the south, Nachal Oz comes up repeatedly, as it is bombarded relentlessly with rockets. It is only 875 yards from the strip, across from the area where Hamas maintains its headquarters. Residents have three seconds to run to safety from the time a siren is sounded. Our tour guide, who is a resident of the kibbutz and is in charge of security in the region through the IDF, quipped that the residents are very happy that they now have three seconds to escape. In the past they had absolutely no time. Their situation has improved by 300 percent! He told us about his neighbor, whose house took a direct hit in the last escalation several weeks ago, and about four-year-old Daniel Tregerman who was killed four years ago by mortar fire. Seventeen families left the kibbutz after that horrific tragedy. Not surprising at all. But what is shocking is that after that, over 20 new families moved into the kibbutz.
Our next stop was to see the Iron Dome, which looks precisely as it does in photos. There is a group of soldiers stationed there whose job it is to guard the defense system from being stolen or damaged. They also maintain the system and reload it when necessary. However, they are not the ones to pull the trigger. That is done by people sitting 20 kilometers away. Each missile launched by the Iron Dome costs $50,000, substantially more than crudely manufactured Qassam rockets.
After speaking with the soldiers stationed at the Iron Dome, we left for an army base that is also very close to the border with Gaza. The soldiers there are involved in protecting the border, preventing attacks, and destroying terror tunnels. The m’sirus nefesh of these soldiers allows for us to feel safe in our homes in the center of the country. When we arrived, there were tables set up with sufganiyot, sandwiches, and all kinds beautifully displayed refreshments. In addition to that, the children distributed packages of treats to the soldiers. The soldiers were also presented with fleece jackets, a very useful item deep in the trenches. The musician (also our neighbor) had ten minutes to set up his sound system. During this time, people were milling about and schmoozing with the soldiers. We ended up meeting a soldier who is a very good friend of our nephew.
When the preparations were complete, the commander of the base lit the Chanukah candles, poignantly using a menorah that was designed from fragments of rockets that were fired into Israel – a true work of art, expressing the fact that we will not be broken – “Netzach Yisrael lo y’shakeir.” Once the candles were lit, the party began. Soldiers and residents of Ramat Beit Shemesh all joined hands and broke out into multiple circles of dancing. Strangers who had never met before were dancing in unity, feeling part of a big and loving extended family. The mood was euphoric, as our collective embrace expressed gratitude to the soldiers who defend us and to Hashem Who has protected us in the face of our enemies throughout the ages.
We rounded off the day with a barbecue with the soldiers back at the kibbutz and then headed back home to Ramat Beit Shemesh. The bus was quiet on the way back. People were tired and many fell asleep. Despite the chill in the air outside, my heart felt warm on the inside, as I thought about the pride and privilege I feel to be part of such a wonderful nation.
Photo credit: Yochanan Katz
Suzie (nee Schapiro) Steinberg grew up in Kew Gardens Hills. She works as a social worker and lives with her husband and children in Ramat Beit Shemesh.