Friday, December 29, 10:16 a.m.
The operation continues.
Every day, our forces penetrate deeper into enemy territory. Every day, the danger grows. We are doing our best to learn from other units, to put into practice the tactics that kept them safe and to avoid the ones that proved deadly. But the reality of warfare doesn’t always allow that. “Safety first” is not our motto, but rather: “Never again.”
Never again will we allow such a merciless massacre to go unanswered.
Never again will our women, children, and elderly be rounded up like cattle.
Never again will the unspeakable horrors of torture, rape, and dismemberment be visited upon our brothers and sisters because they are Jewish, or Israeli, or members of any race and religion that chooses to live within our borders.
The longer this continues, the more we learn about October 7, the longer my list of “Never agains” grows.
It’s why motivation remains high, despite the mounting casualties. Despite the names and faces of the fallen that fill the news. We know exactly what we are fighting for and who we are fighting for.
At the start of a recent mission, one of our platoon commanders came on the radio. Speaking to his troops, he prefaced his orders with a brief speech:
“This mission is in memory of the residents of this town and those who were taken captive on October 7. We stand here in the place the terrorists came from. We will eliminate every last one of them.”
And still, despite the ferocity of his words, our movement is still slow, careful, calculated. We do not fire at will, we do not drop bombs on anything that moves. We are careful about identifying everything we see. That’s how 20 soldiers and a tank ended up escorting an elderly woman who popped up in the middle of a war zone one night, eventually sending her home. It’s why we are twice as careful around Hamas terrorists, whose favorite firing positions are in schools and whose preferred battle accessories are children. And it reminds me of one night during my shift when we got to talking about our different roles. Eventually someone asked the head of the shift, “What’s the hardest part of your job?” He didn’t even have to think: “It’s when I am asked, ‘Permission to fire?’”
Last night’s shift was intense. A lot of close calls. Many moments could have been disasters but were not. Naming it luck — or even skill — would be an insult to the fallen. So I will just end with a quote from Zechariah:
Not with armies, nor with strength, but with My spirit, said the Lord God.
Sunday, December 31, 1:23 p.m.
Sometimes I am sure that, without Shabbat, I would have a hard time taking a break. I enjoy my work, I enjoy going out and doing things, and I wonder whether I would know how to stop, rest, and reflect, if I didn’t feel that it was divinely ordained.
In many ways Shabbat gets blurred into other days at war. So many of the elements that make it different than every other weekday are affected by the superseding laws concerning life and death. And in contrast to normal life, when the weekend is in sight almost as soon as the workweek begins, here we usually realize Shabbat is approaching only when someone points out that it’s Friday.
This was the 13th Shabbat since the war began. As far as these past three months, it was pretty typical.
Gabrielle and I connected ahead of time by WhatsApp so we could give our children the Friday-night blessing, as we have done a dozen times now. I was then on duty through the start of Shabbat, only recognizing sunset had passed when I had the chance to look up and realize it was dark outside.
Those not on duty lit candles, davened at the shul on base, and sat together to eat. For my part, I whispered Kabbalat Shabbat under my breath piecemeal, during the brief moments when I could focus on the words without distracting from my task. Then I waited for a lull in our unit’s advance to dash out and grab some food on a plate. I also brought grape juice in a plastic cup, and three of us stood in a corner to say Kiddush, sanctifying the day. My friend Amir isn’t even remotely religious, but he asked me if he could join us and surprised me by taking the cup, borrowing my kippah, and leading us through the prayer.
My shift ended well past midnight, at which point I went right to sleep. But I found myself awake and heading to the base shul around 9 a.m. Most Shabbat mornings I have been on duty or tired from an overnight shift, and daven quickly to myself. This Shabbat I was neither, and therefore eager to join a minyan.
When I got there, an earlier minyan was coming to its end. As has become common, someone announced, “I’ll be making birkat hagomel” — a special blessing recited by one who has survived a life-or-death situation — “for anyone who wants to be yotzeh.” This is to have one’s religious obligation fulfilled by answering “Amen” to someone else making a blessing. He did so, to a resounding “Amen.”
There were barely 10 men left when the room had cleared. Nonetheless, a recently-arrived soldier stood up to lead us, and we started the first part of davening. About 10 minutes in, his phone rang, and he dashed outside to answer it. We continued, leaderless, for a couple of minutes. Then he poked his head back in, announced “I gotta go,” and left.
Another soldier stood up to take the lead, and we quickly adjusted to his shift in nusach, the differently nuanced versions of prayer, usually determined by whether one’s family is of European or Middle Eastern descent. Things felt a bit backward, but no matter — we are all getting used to one another’s differences, which seem to pale in comparison with what we have had in common these past 90 days. At the end of davening, a soldier who had missed the prayers for the IDF and for Israel’s hostages repeated them aloud. As we had earlier in the services, we answered “Amen” emphatically.
During the middle of the day, I was back on duty. At one point, part of our unit passed by a Gazan nursery school, loaded with explosives in an attempt to kill or injure our troops. For a moment I pictured the nursery that my youngest daughter attended a couple of years ago. What did they do, hide bombs in the children’s cubbies?
We really needed coffee, but Amir, who likes to brew it fresh over a flame, refused to prepare a pot unless I would take a cup. Unexpectedly, he asked, “Hey, when is havdalah?” We turned curiously to look at him, before realizing he wanted to know when he could light the flame on his small burner.
Again, I found a moment — this time to dash out for the candle, grape juice, and spices we needed. The first chance to do so came about an hour after Shabbat ended, but no matter. In a corner we lit the candle, made havdalah, and then got back to work.
It wasn’t the most meaningful or spiritual Shabbat I have spent. But as our shift stretched out into the early hours of Sunday morning, I couldn’t help but remember the words of Ahad Ha’am, the famous Zionist thinker, who wrote about Shabbat at the end of the19th century:
“More than the Jewish people have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept them.”
Monday, January 1, 12:48 a.m.
2024 has arrived in Israel.
Our unit, deep in Gaza, witnessed firsthand how our enemies chose to usher in the new year: by launching rockets into our towns and cities. When word came of the launches, I wondered how many soldiers watched rockets launching, unaware that they were headed toward their own families.
A few minutes later I came off duty and checked my phone, only to learn that they were fired at my own wife and my three children.
Tonight’s launches, events I cannot yet write about from the past few days, and my experience of the past three months, are a constant reminder that there is work to be done — that the IDF must pursue the critical goals it has set for itself, because we face an enemy whose moral and ethical framework bears no resemblance to our own.
I might dream of peace, but I hope for something simpler: safety and security for my family. Happy New Year.
Tuesday, January 2, 12:03 a.m.
Over the past 48 hours I have felt as if I am in the eye of a hurricane, as tragedies swirl around me.
In a neighboring division, a larger-than-expected explosion resulting from the destruction of a Hamas tunnel led to several injuries and at least one death. I haven’t seen names yet, but I often play a critical role in such operations in our sector. In that neighboring division, the person in my role must be living a nightmare.
As has been published at this point, my unit is making its way through the homes of the terrorists who attacked and pillaged the Israeli town of Nir Oz before kidnapping a quarter of its residents. Last week I stood on the road the terrorists used to get there; last night a video of their actual drive to Nir Oz was published in the media. And over the past few days we have been finding evidence of Israeli hostages, traces of the brutality of October 7, in the heart of Gaza.
This afternoon my former battalion — where I served in the reserves before my current role — was attacked deep in Gaza. Twelve injured, six seriously. One dead. No names.
On occasion, a friend will reach out and say something like, “I’m thinking of you.” Often, that message arrives with some kind of disclaimer. “It feels silly to say,” or “I wish I could do something more meaningful,” or “I feel so distant from what is going on.”
That is the reality of war. Especially for those outside of Israel, but even for those who are here in the middle of it: We are not experiencing this war uniformly.
Some of us have lost loved ones.
Some of us have loved ones serving.
Some of us have been called up.
Some of us have been released.
Some of us live in leafy suburbs.
Some of us are under regular threat of rockets.
Some of us are enjoying vacations with hotel spas.
Some of us wish we could just take a hot shower and wash away the grime of warfare.
Every war in history has been this way. It’s called the front line for a reason — not everyone is there.
As I have previously written, there are times when I take pride in the fact that so many Israelis — and Jews around the world — can live some semblance of a normal life because I and hundreds of thousands of soldiers like me are not. There’s a famous but generally hard to attribute quote, that a friend in the U.S. Army shared with me when I first joined the IDF in 2002: “People sleep peaceably in their beds at night because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.”
And sometimes I feel a disconnect. Sometimes I feel the way the war continues while others’ lives go on, and I wonder how much our paths will feel divergent when this is all over. How long will it take us to find one another again? Or will we only then, “afterwards,” begin to realize how far apart our life experiences have carried us?
I don’t have an answer. But as many other units have been sent home, and mine begins to wonder if we will be rotated out of combat soon, it’s been on my mind. I wonder about friends who spent months at war and have recently returned home. Do they feel disconnected from work, from community, from people around them? Do they struggle with the knowledge that they are home, back in old routines, while the daily headlines constantly remind them that the war goes on? Or do they find comfort knowing they came when called, served honorably, and have earned a moment’s respite until they are called again?
And when my time comes — and I can only assume I will be released, if only temporarily, before the guns of battle fall silent — what will I feel?
I don’t know that, either.
But there are things I do know.
I know that it is impossible for someone who wasn’t called up to understand what it has been like to be a soldier in this war. But if you feel that disconnect, let it not manifest in silence. Say something. Tell a soldier you are thinking of him. Tell someone who has come home that you know you cannot understand what she experienced but that you appreciate and respect it no less for that.
I know that the loss of family or friends, the experience of horrors firsthand, the reality of having been called up to war — these change a person. We will need time to process these changes, time to find our way back to normal, or to establish a new normal. Do not assume we are unchanged, or try to force us back into our old box, until we have figured out who we are after all of this, and figured out how to incorporate this new version into our postwar lives.
But do not be silent. Be there. Be a presence in the lives of those you were close with before the war, even if they are different afterward. Offer your thoughts and your words, even if they feel ignorant, to those whose experience of this war has been so different from your own. Because the alternative — silence — feels like a chasm. Like an insurmountable gap in understanding just how different our experiences have been for the past 90 days.
A friend asked me how I felt about the solidarity missions that have started to arrive. The hundreds or thousands of people who are strolling through the burnt remnants of towns my unit endangered themselves to make safe again.
I reserve the right to feel mixed. But I think it comes down to the purpose of the mission.
Does it come from a personal need to lay claim to some of the loss that has occurred? Or is there respect for the enormity of sorrow, and a drive to take action in response?
Is there a sense that coming to Israel during a time of war gives a complete picture of what it has been like to be here since October 7? Or an understanding that no one can fully “get it” without living it, alongside a desire to nonetheless demonstrate that Israel is not alone and those who love us will not wait to visit again “until it’s safe”?
Offer your thoughts and come on your missions, but do not stop there. Show understanding, even if it is only that you cannot understand. Respect those who have lost so much, even if you have lost nothing. Take action, however you can, to bring our paths back together, to find our way back to community, to establish the same sense of unity we felt on October 7. But instead of a unity from fear, form a new unity from love, understanding, and strength.
Wednesday, January 3, 7:54 p.m.
“Long have I lived among those who hate peace. I am for peace, but even as I begin to speak, they move to war.”
It’s been a rough 10 hours for reasons I will shortly describe, I felt the need to say תהילים (Psalms) after my shift ended. Without intending to, I opened to chapter 120, which concludes with the verses above. I cannot help but feel that King David’s words, written some 3500 years ago, perfectly encapsulate the past three months. Or the last hundred years. Either works.
I knew today was going to be busy. We’ve been finding more and more signs of Hamas as our unit moves deeper into Khirbet Ikhza’a, the home base of those who ravaged Nir Oz. We’ve seen heartbreaking evidence that our own brothers and sisters were held here, or else dragged through the town, though we don’t yet know their fate. And we’ve seen evidence of the terrorists who lived and fought here until the IDF arrived. Weapons and uniforms — like any army.
But we’ve also seen pamphlets on how to infiltrate Israeli towns. On how to kill or kidnap civilians. And in the booby-trapped nursery school we came across, coloring pages for children with an assortment of images: soccer balls, bullets, and different types of mortars and rockets. Hamas may have developed the ability to attack us with the intensity and coordination of an army, but they are not an army. They are terrorists. Their goal is to terrorize and to kill, and to educate their children in the same way. I no longer have to understand this intellectually: I have seen it with my own eyes. Once again, I am reminded of Golda Meir’s famous quote: “Peace will come when the Arabs will love their children more than they hate us.” Alas.
And so I came on to today’s shift as well-rested as I could be, prepared for the job of coordinating an entire brigade’s movement through the area in which we were to operate today.
That was not how the day went.
Instead, I found myself at the center of not one but two major events in our sector. I was prepared; during the lead-up to this operation, I took part in a working group on medical evacuations. Today I put that work into practice twice in the space of four hours.
The incidents combined so many of the things I have thought about and written about:
- The millionth of a second of silence when we learn of injuries, before we snap into action.
- The softly spoken words that are used in managing critical situations — working with urgency, but without volume.
- The speed with which the injured are carried out of the battle zone and onto helicopters, even as the fighting continues.
All of it was part of a carefully coordinated dance of so many different moving parts: the commanders in the field, some of whom oversee initial evacuation while others focus on the enemy. The medical team, which evaluates injuries and directs the medical helicopter. The logistics team, which manages the vehicles involved in the evacuation and the attack. The operations team, which oversees the entirety of the incident from A to Z. And many, many others. All moving in concert. All focused on helping those who have been critically injured in the line of duty. We prioritize, then we take action.
We never lose sight of the bigger picture of the war we are fighting, like the officer who noted that one of the critically injured was unique in his role — the injury would degrade our unit’s capabilities until we found a replacement.
We never lose sight of the humanity of what had just happened — like the battle director, who suggested sending the combat ambulances back to their unit with Books of Psalms with which the injured soldiers’ comrades could pray.
A maelstrom of intensity, life and death hanging in the balance.
And then, חזל״ש: Back to normal. The helicopter alights, ambulances return to base, fighters push ahead. Back to the battle. Back to routine.
In my civilian life, I am the CEO of a nonprofit. I consider myself ambitious and am proud of my career trajectory. Here in the army, in this war, on my team, I play a small role, nothing like that of an executive.
And yet as I sit and process today’s events, I wonder whether the most meaningful accomplishment of my life will have been my actions today. The extra 30 or 60 or 90 seconds of time I afforded critically injured soldiers because I was able to process information quickly, communicate clearly, and navigate through rapidly evolving intelligence.
I don’t know. But here I sit, exhausted from the efforts of today, both proud that I could play a role and anxious for the well-being of my fellow soldiers. And I’m putting in one last effort — on a spiritual level — in the hopes I can help tip the scales in their favor.
“Our help is in the Name of God, Creator of the heavens and the earth.” — Psalm 124
Monday, January 8, 1:09 p.m.
Yesterday our brigade completed its operation in Khirbet Ikhza’a. After more than two weeks of battle, battalion after battalion wrapped up its mission and returned to the Israeli side of the fence.
The colonel who commands our brigade was there when the gate was closed. He spoke to us in the afternoon about the singular focus of the operation — the goal that was paramount for each of us, even though on paper there were several objectives. “Crossing the fence,” he said, “the first thing I saw was the town of Nir Oz. And the first thing I thought of was that when the residents of Nir Oz are finally ready to come home, they will look across at where we were, and it will be clear how much we’ve changed their reality. And they will feel safer than they have for a long, long time.”
He paused before adding one more thing: “I must admit I’m also a bit emotional at the knowledge that we were able to complete this operation without losing anyone.”
Later, my team debriefed in a smaller forum. Our officer, coated in two weeks of scruff and grime, spoke about the importance of not only the operation itself, but also the fact that we had been thorough, extending the operation until it had reached its goals. “Ultimately,” he said, “what we want to avoid is our children having to come back here and continue what we failed to accomplish.”
I’ve been thinking quite a lot about the extent to which those fighting this war are of one mind, despite differences that range from the political to the religious and everything in between. A friend who was released last week, but who has had several emergency call-ups over the years, wrote about the “weeks to months that it takes reservists to adjust from the unity of the front to the debates and differences within Israeli society.”
I know there are some — especially those who get their news from international media — who worry that the unity of the front stems from a worrying shift to the right. That soldiers, en masse, are getting carried away with the intensity of battle and will drive Israeli society to a more aggressive and anti-Palestinian stance than ever before. For the record: I don’t think that’s the case. And while I have my opinions about Gaza, and my focus is on ensuring the safety and well-being of Israel’s citizens, I reserve a place in my heart and mind for the tragedy that is befalling innocent Palestinians caught in between two aggressors whose circumstances have left them no better option than to rely on the morality of the IDF.
That morality remains stronger than ever. It was that morality that led our unit to scrutinize a group of Palestinians in our sights last week. Could we be sure about which one had just launched rockets at our families? Were we certain we could discern the aggressors from bystanders? We could not. And so we chose, yet again, to let terrorists survive another day rather than take even one innocent life.
No, I don’t think shifting politics are the reason for our unity.
I think it’s because, by virtue of putting on our uniforms, we are acknowledging that we share the same top priority. We never disagree on what comes first. We have struggling businesses, semesters that we cannot catch up on, traumatized children, exhausted spouses, lonely partners, stalled careers, emotional and mental strain — but all of those come second. There is one top priority: restoring a sense of safety to the citizens of Israel. And to a larger extent, to the Jewish people around the world. And most of all, to the residents of Israel’s south, who have felt forsaken for almost 20 years. For whom bomb shelters scattered around every bus stop and nursery school were a fact of life. A reality that we now know led to their becoming the sites of massacres.
Our singular focus distinguishes us from the rest of the world — but in some ways even from the rest of the country. During a recent briefing — after the second or third time that week that our unit was ambushed by an RPG attack — one of our officers talked about the bigger picture. “Society,” he said,
And yet, the day will come when this war ends. In all likelihood, I will be home before that conclusion. And so I am trying, when I can, to remind myself of those other perspectives, of the experiences of others that have been so different from mine over the past three months.
I glance, briefly, at the New York Times headlines, often enough to understand what the world claims is going on. Often enough to “get the joke” when, for example, in the process of creating a summary of our operational successes, someone called out, “What are these summaries for?” and the sarcastic reply was “the Hague.”
I read the Facebook post of a friend whose anger at what he believes is happening to Palestinians is matched only by his sense of stigma and alienation were he to speak publicly about it. And the post of another friend, whose faith in coexistence was shattered by a poll showing that 72 percent of Gazans support Hamas and the massacre they perpetrated on October 7. Both of these are perspectives I will encounter on “the day after.”
I listened closely to the story of a soldier new to our unit. She looked to be about 20, with long nails, stenciled eyebrows, and piercings everywhere. She softly spoke about a guy with whom she had gone on one or two dates, before deciding to surprise him at the Nova music festival. When rockets started falling, one person in their group started to panic. They jumped in the car to drive away. On their way down the road they passed more than 50 terrorists spraying bullets in every direction. A few bullets hit their car, and this guy she had barely dated leaned forward protectively, literally talking a bullet for her. Her efforts to resuscitate him were unsuccessful. And now she was here, three months later, in a minor role helping coordinate convoys but with a world of emotion and pain hidden underneath.
I try to understand the experience of others.
It won’t necessarily be easier at home.
Two of my kids have phones. When they message me, I try very hard to understand what they are going through and how this situation will have lasting effects. I know them so well — and yet, barely at all over the past three months. It’s not always easy to fully comprehend the emotional turmoil behind a broken-heart emoji. Though it wasn’t that hard, truth be told, when my youngest borrowed her brother’s phone to type out “I love you I hope that nothing will happen to you shalom.”
I remain tethered, heart and soul, to Gabrielle. But sometimes our hardest days apart are also the ones when we can barely connect. When we’ve each had our own battles.
Last night our entire brigade was sent home for leave. As we are between operations, it was called התרעננות: refreshment. Before we were released, our officer reminded us that we were not the only ones who needed refreshment.
“Go home not just to be refreshed, but to refresh others,” he warned us. “Wash dishes.”
On the way home I read a Facebook post that Gabrielle had forwarded to me a few days back, from a “Miluim Moms” group:
No, he hasn’t yet been released. though many others have.
Yes, he wants to come home already.
No, I’m not really in touch with him. He’s abroad, on “vacation.”
Yes, I’d be happy for some help, please speak only in concrete terms.
No, cake is not what will help very much right now.
No, we haven’t gotten used to this and will never get used to this situation.
Yes, “at least” they have school.
No, I’m not a lioness, but I have no choice.
Yes, “at least” work is flexible.
No, I don’t take care of myself, because right now I’m trying to care for three other broken hearts.
Yes, I know it’s hard for everyone.
When I got home it was after dinner. Gabrielle didn’t know I was coming — I had only just learned we’d be going home. And of course she makes sure everything is perfect when I get home (minus those hardware projects that always crop up). But since it was a surprise this time, I got the chance to do something small, if symbolic. After the hugs and kisses, I tried to shift my attention — to recognize something of what life has been like at home.
And I washed some dishes.