How the Yom Kippur War Sealed My Fate With Israel
In the high holiday prayer U’Netaneh Tokef, we say, “On Rosh Hashanah it is written; on Yom Kippur it is sealed.” There are moments in our lives that set the course for all that lies ahead. A critical element of my fate was sealed one Yom Kippur 50 years ago.
I was living in Haifa with an Israeli family as part of a high school ex-change program. My “sister,” Avital, and I, both 17 years old, were walking home from Yom Kippur services. We were surprised to encounter a stream of cars urgently rushing past us. When we had walked to shul that morning, the streets had been deserted.
We soon learned that Israel had just been attacked by Syria and Egypt. The cars we saw were neighbors and friends reporting for military duty. When Avital and I returned home, we helped to cover all the windows and clean out our apartment building’s bomb shelter for what would be many long stays over the coming days. I was in shock, along with everyone around me.
During those 18 days of the Yom Kippur War, five decades ago, I was sealed into a deep and life-altering relationship with the land, people and State of Israel.
I was raised in a committed Reform home in Denver, Colo. Other than a family vacation a couple of years before, though, I had no relationship at all to the Jewish state. After 10 days of driving from site to site in an air-conditioned Mercedes on that first trip, I felt no special bond. I figured I’d seen Israel and would likely never return.
I’d planned to spend a year of high school as an exchange student in Switzerland, where I would study, ski and use the German I was learning. That changed with the terrorists’ murder of 13 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Watching on television as Jews were slaughtered just because they were Jews, I lost any taste for the German language and culture.
I still wanted to study abroad, and instead chose what was then the Reform movement’s Eisendrath International Exchange (EIE) program in Israel. Armed with almost no Hebrew but lots of curiosity, I set off in the summer of 1973 with 30-plus other teens. In our summer ulpan in the Ben Shemen Youth Village, I fell madly in love with Hebrew. Learning Hebrew felt like uncovering my soul’s language.
After several weeks at the ulpan, my friends and I dispersed to Israeli families across the country who would host us for the next four months. I moved in with my Israeli family in Haifa before starting the school year. My adopted parents, Yehuda and Ahuva, and Avital immediately embraced me; my younger “brother,” Lavi, tolerated me. The parents invited me to call them “Abba” (Dad) and “Ima” (Mom). They introduced me to their sprawling extended family. They brought me to the beach, where Abba swam every day after work. In no time at all, I felt at home.
Just a month after joining the family, war broke out. We were running back and forth to our cramped basement bomb shelter every time the air raid sirens went off. Crouched on mattresses on the cement floor, we were glued to the radio, hoping for any scrap of news. With the onset of war, I no longer felt like an outsider. My people had been attacked; we were called on to respond as best we could.
I was amazed that Israelis’ first impulse was to pitch in, even as they experienced danger and fear. When Avital and I set out to find volunteer work in the city, all the jobs were already taken. Still, we managed to make ourselves useful. We entertained kids in the bomb shelter of our apartment building and worked at a day care center. Eventually, we found a job with the local post office delivering postcards from soldiers.
Every time I brought a postcard to a parent, wife or child of a soldier, I witnessed unrestrained joy—the message meant that, at least for the moment, their loved one was safe. Many were not so lucky. In a country as small as Israel, the toll of more than 2,600 deaths and 7,500 wounded was incalculable—nearly everyone lost someone close.
At the outset of the war, I wrote to my concerned parents back home that they had nothing to worry about. Prime Minister Golda Meir and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan had everything in hand. We were safe, or so I thought.
Abba was called up for reserve duty delivering supplies to troops in the Golan Heights. On his first leave, he brought home hand-painted ceramic dishes and grapes. He told us he’d “gotten” these items from the kitchen table of a Syrian family who’d fled the advancing Israeli army. With the chutzpah only a teenager can muster, I challenged, “How could you take booty? I thought the Israeli army was the most moral in the world!”
Abba proceeded to lecture me: “You don’t understand. Human beings will do anything if given a chance.” It took me decades to understand. He had once been an idealistic youth like me. But after being orphaned in the Shoah, coming to Israel as a teenager and fighting in three wars, all optimism had been knocked out of him. He wanted to make sure I understood: Israel was not a fairy tale.
On Yom Kippur it was sealed. From 1973 on, my life would forever be bound up with Israel. I would return to the country for a year of college and would visit dozens of times after that.
I had come to love Israel and its complex and imperfect society. Decades of occupation, war and the current assault on the fundamental institutions of democracy have only increased the gap between Israel’s founding ideals and reality. Still, I continue to balance my faith in the country with support for those who fight on the ground for those values. Among them is my eldest daughter, Anya, who made aliyah six years ago with the Zionist youth movement Habonim-Dror to work for a just and peaceful Jewish state.
Rabbi Dayle Friedman offers counseling and spiritual direction to rabbis and to people facing the challenges of aging. Her books include Jewish Wisdom for Growing Older: Finding Your Grit and Grace Beyond Midlife.
A member of the International Council of the New Israel Fund, she is currently working with friends to organize
a virtual reunion of her Eisendrath International Exchange group.