The Most Unexpected Beautiful Shabbat of my Life

I didn’t want to go.

Last week, my wife Abby told me that our family was going to be spending the Shabbat weekend with 50 families who had been displaced by the war in a youth hostel. 

I didn’t think that they would want outsiders intruding in their topsy turvey lives, and not only that, but Shabbat is the one day our family comes together for our own cherished time. And between me and you, I’m still a little scarred from the last time I slept in a youth hostel twenty five years ago (but that’s another story)! I tried coming up with excuses, but Abby wasn’t having any of it. And so, I packed my bags and we got into the car last Friday afternoon.

Since October 7th, over 250,000 Israelis have been displaced from their homes. Dozens  of entire communities have been forced to flee from Hamas missiles in the South and the treat of a Hezbollah invasion in the North. Hotels, motels and hostels have been transformed into long term living quarters where families, small and large, have been living for the past 100 days.

As the staff of Israel365 has been stretched due to the overwhelming demands of our expanded war time initiatives, my wife Abby stepped in to help with our charitable activities. Israel365 realized that we couldn’t help everyone impacted by the war who needed assistance and so we decided to focus our energies on the community of Sderot.

Shabbat in Sderot, brought together by Israel365. Jan 2023.

Sderot is a beautiful city in Israel just a kilometer away from the Gaza border and has born the brunt of years suffering under Hamas rocket attacks. The southern city has become known for its omnipresent bomb shelters since when a siren goes off in Sderot, residents only have 7 seconds to run to the nearest shelter. 

Yet, despite the alarming security risks, there is a waiting list to buy a house in Sderot! 

Young couples actively choose to build their homes in Sderot as a loud and proud message to our enemies that they will not intimidate us. As a result, the Jews who move to Sderot are all incredible heros who put their country first and who have created an unbelievable community of strength and resilience.

On a weekly basis, Abby organized all kinds of programs to assist Sderot’s displaced families whose needs were far ranging and overwhelming. Before schools were set up for all the kids, Abby and our daughters arranged for carnivals to entertain the children. When she heard that after a month, families were still living out of their suitcases, Abby bought them small closets. And when, Abby realized the Sderot mother’s hadn’t had any time for themselves, she arranged for a bit of rest and relaxation so the women could recharge their batteries and take better care of their families.

Spending so much time with these awe inspiring pioneers, Abby learned that Sderot’s 35,000 residents were disbursed all over the country in a haphazard way. While their physical needs were being provided for, many were craving something just as important: community. They hadn’t seen their closest friends and neighbors since they left their homes in a frenzied hurry on October 8th and the people of Sderot just wanted to be together to process their pain and trauma.

Israeli security forces patrol the southern Israeli city of Sderot, October 11, 2023. Photo: Oren Ben Hakoon/Flash90

We therefore helped the residents of Sderot arrange for a therapeutic retreat where friends and families could spend Shabbat together for the first time since October 7th. The families themselves arranged all aspects of the weekend with great attention to every detail. They created innovative programs for children and teens, and workshops for mothers and fathers who yearned to be together.

At no point over the weekend were there any tears or signs of sadness. The overwhelming atmosphere was one of deep gratitude for being alive and joy for being together. 

One of the most poignant moments of Shabbat was at Friday night dinner when they started singing the traditional Shabbat songs. Gradually, the singing became louder and louder until the rabbi of the community got out of his seat and began dancing. Eventually everyone started dancing around the dining room. Suddenly, the Shabbat songs transitioned into Simchat Torah songs. Without any words communicated, Shabbat spontaneously turned into Simchat Torah and the families of Sderot resumed the dancing from the holiday tragically cut short.

What I had feared would be uncomfortable proved to be the most inspiring Shabbat of my life. For 25 hours, the unique and eternal strength of the Jewish people was on full display as the most courageous men, women and children of Israel were sending out inspiration to the Jewish people and the entire world. 

As we begin getting ready for another Shabbat back in our home in Beit Shemesh, Abby and I can still hear the families of Sderot singing at the top of their voices, “Am Yisrael Chai” the Nation of Israel lives!

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