By IJC Member Althay Ramallo
It's 7.30 am, October 7th, in Tel Aviv. I just woke up from a deep sleep after having spent a peaceful Shabbat evening with my mother on the beach in Tel Aviv, catching the sunset and discussing all the activities I have planned for this year as part of my recent move to the Israel for work and study. That Shabbat evening, I enjoyed the best hummus from Kaspi on Gordon Beach, shakshuka and a silent walk around the white marble streets of Tel Aviv. Nothing could have prepared me for what was about to happen a few minutes later.
It's 7.45 am and while my mum is still sleeping I scroll through social media. My heart skips a beat as we are woken by loud sirens. I look at my mum; she is smiling as she is probably too naive to recognize the sound, thinking it is most likely a firetruck. I look at her and I tell her: Mum, I think that is the Iron Dome notifying us to go downstairs and find the miklat (shelter). I grab my keys and we head directly downstairs. That's when I look at the local Israelis staying with us in the hotel and I see their faces. Now I know there is something seriously wrong.
I check the news and social media, and I am not prepared to hear that Hamas has infiltrated the southern territories with paragliders and other orchestrated actions in such high numbers that the atrocities only increase every minute. Refreshing my social media was never as devastating, as every second the news is worse: first local residents being kidnapped, then local bystanders being shot in cold blood on the streets. A few minutes later, I refresh the news and I hear that a local music festival in the south in kibbutz Re'im has become the main target of Hamas and they have started shooting blindly at hundreds of young people at the festival. As every second passes, the number of casualties increased. I immediately connect on Instagram with my friend Shye Klein, a Canadian Israeli photographer who made aliyah a few months ago and told me that he was at that same festival. Miraculously he had made it out alive with his car-share group of 3 friends; when they heard the first shots, they ran to the car and drove as fast as they could up north along the main road. He tells me that even so, the worst is not over as driving up north, on every side of the road, he can see dead bodies piled up.
I look at my mum and I tell her that this attack is not something Israelis are used to and we are not ready to comprehend its magnitude. In a matter of minutes, the entire country shuts down and pandemonium takes to the streets. Everywhere you look, there are people crying, shaking and running. I asked the bartender what's going on and he tells me his colleague has been missing since last night with two more people. The entire country and most of the people staying at my hotel are encouraged to take shelter. The siren dome alerts are constant. We are encouraged by the Israeli government and the home front command to get food and supplies for a few days as war has been declared with the Islamist Jihad. The scenes in the supermarket remind me of the Covid outbreak as people rush through the supermarket aisles. Although we come back with bags of food, I did not eat for almost a day as every time I checked the news, nothing could prepare me for the realization of what was going on, the gruesome videos, and images that were starting to circulate.
Faced with countless casualties and multiple wounded, that entire shutdown of the country and the initial combination of fear and frenzy automatically switches off. Israelis are used to this and transform into social action, volunteering and service. There is no time to cry at this moment.
We hear that in the main hospital they are asking for blood donations. It does not matter if you are Israeli. We head directly to Dizengoff Square where the entire city has mobilized to collect food, clothes, medical supplies and gear for the victims, wounded and the hundreds of thousands of reservists who have been called up. Young and old people, of every colour and background, start operating networks to connect people with others who are in need, whether it be for shelter, a place to stay, psychological support and much more.
I did not spend much more time on social media because I knew the numbers were just the tip of the iceberg; so we kept volunteering and tried to stop thinking . Later that night we are smacked in the face with the magnitude of the assault, equating the event with 9-11, but proportionally worse. The darkest day Jews can remember since the Holocaust.
The international community starts to get involved. The EU and the US as well as the major Western democracies condemn the attack, offer assistance and much more. Reading this warms my heart but makes me sick too, as I start to think that it is only when the world gets to hear about atrocities being perpetrated that transcend the purest evil the world knows, that the world starts to listen and see things as they are.
That same night, as we are still absorbing the news, a rocket seems to have hit a rooftop in a building one block away on Frishman beach, but thankfully we are all in the shelter. My brain shuts down and I think I must get my mum out of the country earlier than expected. After many calls and emails with the crisis hotline it appears the airlines have canceled flights, but the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is flying military planes to evacuate nationals from different countries. We are being put on a list and I immediately get a taxi to Ben Gurion airport. I have never witnessed so much chaos in my life as that night in the airport. People from all nationalities, flags from many Embassies, Jews, Christians, Muslims from all backgrounds and movements have headed to the airport and their respective governments are taking care of them. I also start to think that maybe I and the people around me have lost some faith in our God - or simply faith in the idea that things will get better.
I said goodbye to my mum and I came back to where I will reside for the coming year, thinking that if things escalate in the coming days I might also have to seek an emergency flight from Ben Gurion. In the four days that follow the attack, there are few consistent memories in my mind as I spend the days repeating the same routine: going to a local Reform synagogue close by in the morning for daily shacharit and Kabbalat Shabbat - a synagogue that welcomes me with an open heart. For the first time in many days I feel warmth in my heart as I sing the prayers and I notice that the melodies are exactly the same as in Belgium at the IJC. I finally feel at home.
Days have passed and even though the situation is far from settled and there is a risk of involvement from the North leading to a potential regional and multifront war, I am starting to find some peace and serenity as I feel for the first time a sense of being really at home, with people who have the same values, the same goals and aspirations. I have never seen sunsets so beautiful as the ones in Israel and I immediately think that living in this land is extraordinary although things are not perfect. I start to think that if one really wants to live here, one must be worthy of this land through one’s good deeds and mitzvot. This country can give you marvelous things and fulfill you, but one must give something back.
I cannot recall how many times I have recited the b’racha for the State of Israel and the IDF soldiers this week, or been deeply moved by this week’s haftarah in which God says that God will open the blind eyes and will free the prisoners sitting in the dark, an incredible analogy with the current hostage situation. I cannot recall how many times my friend Shye told me with a trembling voice that this tragedy is a punishment from God because the young people in the music festival had placed a huge statue of Buddha in the middle of the stage equating the analogy with the story of the Golden Calf at Mount Sinai. I cannot recall how many times I have feared for my Jewish friends abroad in Belgium, France and UK who have been advised to hide any display of Jewish symbols and to stay away from protests and big events. I cannot recall how many times I have thought that despite this horror the People of Israel have experienced, an abundance of peace and healing will be brought here in the foreseeable future and that God’s hands are ultimately above God’s people.
Today, I put my mezuzah up for the first time in my apartment, the same mezuzah that Rabbi Brian got me in Poland as a souvenir and I start to think that I am thankful to be living here and to experience these unprecedented times in history.
Today I can only think, Am Israel Chai!
Althay is from the Canary Islands and has been an IJC member for three years. He serves the community as gabbai and is now doing a one year Master’s Degree in Tel Aviv.