All Yakir Eliyahu and his parents, Orly and Amnon Eliyahu of Bet Shemesh, Israel, were looking forward to was a quiet Shabbat together. But then the 20-year-old’s cell phone rang. When whoever was on the line called a fourth time – a sign that it was an emergency – the family knew what to expect: Yakir had been ordered by his Israel Defense Force commanders to report for duty.

Before the end of the holy day – this past Saturday – Yakir, who is close to finishing the elite Golani Brigades officers’ course, was on his way to Israel’s border with the Gaza Strip. His uniform is still waiting for him on the drying line outside his parents’ home.

Should the Israeli military order a ground incursion into Gaza after four days of air strikes, Yakir Eliyahu – now stationed at the Nahal Oz kibbutz not far from Palestinian-controlled territory – will likely be one of the thousands of invading soldiers. His family, and countless others across the country, are grappling with the unknown just as their fellow citizens in the south are dealing with the ever-present threat of Palestinian rockets raining down on their homes.

“I’m worried,” says Orly Eliyahu, a teacher’s aide at a Chabad-Lubavitch kindergarten in Bet Shemesh, a medium-sized city in the foothills of Jerusalem. “But I trust in G‑d.”

Since the beginning of Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s latest offensive against Hamas targets and rocket-launching sites in the Gaza Strip, the mother has been coping with an emotional cocktail of fear, pride and hope. On Saturday night, her son called home so that she could hear him light the Chanukah menorah with his fellow soldiers.

“He wanted to make me happy,” she states.

And when a rocket struck the kibbutz where her son is stationed, killing one, he sent a text message to his mother assuring her that he was fine. He also didn’t want her to listen to the news.

“How can I not listen to the news?” she asks.

An Israeli soldier stationed on the Gazan border dons tefillin with a Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi on Tuesday. (Photo:
An Israeli soldier stationed on the Gazan border dons tefillin with a Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi on Tuesday. (Photo:

Eternal Hope

Up and down the closed military zone surrounding the Gaza Strip, rabbis, rabbinical students and concerned volunteers operating under the auspices of the Chabad-Lubavitch Youth Organization visited soldiers like Eliyahu on Tuesday, delivering care packages of warm pastries and sandwiches, and miniature books of Psalms. They also helped the men put on tefillin, which the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, encouraged soldiers – and all Jewish men to do – during the 1967 Six Day War.

“You could see on their faces,” says Rabbi Yossi Swerdlov, “how moving this was to them, and how deeply they appreciated the extra bit of spiritual protection.”

And despite the danger – a rocket slammed into the ground not 200 meters from the camp – the soldiers grabbed the hands of the group in a lively round of dancing.

“We spent I don’t know how long in exuberant dancing,” says Swerdlov. “They danced with an excitement and energy that were awe-inspiring.”

Less than 40 kilometers from the border, residents also managed to eke out some sanity in the midst of war. With many schools closed by military order – residents throughout Israel’s south must stay within a certain distance of bomb shelters – some teachers, like Michaela Kubitchek of Ashdod, called their class lists to check in on their students and offer a lesson or two.

“Everyone is fine, thank G‑d,” Kubitchek says of her class of third-graders at the local Chabad school.

The woman relates that in her city, which on Monday earned the distinction of being the farthest point hit by a Palestinian rocket – it was surpassed by Kiryat Malachi on Tuesday – citizens have a full 45 seconds to seek shelter once the air raid siren sounds. Her family either uses a space under their stairs or a communal shelter in their building.

When the siren finishes its wail, she explains, everyone waits for the eventual explosion.

“If we hear a boom, we know we can leave the shelter,” says Kubitchek. “If not, we wait five minutes.”

Early on, some people found it hard to cope with the stress.

“The mothers were more hysterical than the children” the first night, she remembers.

And then, the lights went out.

“It was quite an experience,” says Kubitchek, dryly. “But after five minutes, we went back home and lit candles.”

Her nine children, ranging in age from three to 17, “understand the situation according to their ages,” she says. This morning, some of them sat under the stairs during an alarm and on their own, started reciting Psalms.

In Ashkelon, meanwhile, military authorities gave permission to schoolchildren to meet in shelters across the city. At each location, neighborhood Chabad-Lubavitch yeshiva students and volunteers from outside joined the children to learn Torah with them.

The prevailing attitude, according to Kubitchek, who puts her kids to sleep in the middle of the living room so that they can exit the apartment quickly in an emergency, has been the classic Israeli refrain of “it will be alright.”