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Thursday, August 03, 2006

First-hand account of Sabbath in Tsfat with Katyushas landing

This is a first-person account written by Rabbi Binyamin Alexander, a former Australian who lives in Tsfat (Safed, sometimes spelled Tzfat in this account). After this happened, he and his wife left Tsfat and are staying with friends in Jerusalem. On the way, they apparently stopped in Petach Tikva, which is a suburb of Tel Aviv. The letter was apparently written to his former Rabbi in Australia.

I tried to translate the Hebrew and Yiddish expressions for you, but if anyone has problems with them, please stick a note in the comments and I will respond.

And since I know I will be asked: I am not a Chabad Hassid and neither is Harvey.

Hat Tip: Harvey in Efrat


The worst pain for me was in the bus.

It started Thursday lunchtime, Devorah had seen the fires burning on the side of Mt. Meron just across the valley and had heard the explosions as the rockets landed at about 5:30 am but it didn't seem to be so real until the first five or six rockets hit in a moment on the Metzuda and in the city about 200 metres away. The sound was like a multitude of stock whips cracking at once within our ears. We looked out the window and saw the smoke rise from several spots. Devorah immediately phoned the girls Chabad seminaries which are very close to the Metzuda, and found that B"H no girls had been injured. During the afternoon and evening the bombing became moreregular and we jumped with every explosion. We didn't know whether to go to the miklat [bomb shelter CiJ] or stay in our north facing top-floor apartment. About 10 pm the police or army broadcast that everyone should go to the miklat and we obeyed. Two or three minutes after arriving at the miklat, a massive bombing occurred in the centre of the Artist's Quarter, seriously wounding four children from one family. One person had already died this day riding his bicycle through the city.

The miklat was oppressive with heat and lack of space. When things settled down after midnight, I rang a local rav and it was agreed that we could go home. As our bedroom faces south and our bathroom is in the middle of the apartment, the rabbi said to go home and get some sleep but stay out of the kitchen and the dining room. We slept for four hours.

Teenage children were vomiting and all the seats in the bus were full. The floor was lined with people sitting and davening [praying CiJ].

Friday the rockets landed constantly all over Tzfat in every direction and the tension began to rise in our hearts and the feeling that we had to do something to protect ourselves. I went to the nearest Shul [synagogue CiJ] because of the danger and to my distress found it locked. To the two or three others who gathered in front of the Shul , I suggested the Tzemach Tzedek in the centre of town. Only one came because the others feared the ten minute walk in the open. We made a Minyan [quorum of ten men required for services. CiJ] and as we left the Shul a missile landed a very short distance away. I came home as quickly as I could and Devorah and I comforted each other in whatever way we could.

Friends phoned from the other side of town and invited us to spend Shabbat [Sabbath CiJ] with them in somebody else's home. The people from that apartment had left Thursday night for the sake of their children and gone to Yerushalayim [Jerusalem CiJ]. This apartment faced Meron in the west and was protected from the north by taller apartment buildings. It had an internal Miklat [buildings built in Israel since 1991 have a 'sealed room' in each apartment, which serves as a bomb shelter. CiJ] which was being used by our friends and their two little daughters as a bedroom. As Devorah continued to prepare Challot and chicken, I told them we would come at 3pm.

As the bus meandered down the magnificent hillside towards Meron the pain started to well up in my heart. Devorah's words from Motsei Shabbat 'does this mean that we are becoming refugees!!?' My soul began to weep as did my eyes.

At 2:pm a missile (bomb) exploded one house away and we huddled in the bathroom as they mostly come in barrages. Seconds later as the dust settled we ran to the dining room window, reciting out loud Tehillim [Psalm] 23. We were already dressed for Shabbat so with bags of food, siddurim [prayer books CiJ], tehillim, Tallis [prayer shawl CiJ], Tefillin [phylactories - only worn on weekdays. CiJ] we called a cab. The heroic driver was there three minutes later and shortly we were with Rabbi Sholom and his family pondering our situation and wondering what will be for the Jewish people. The Rabbis wife wanted to run to their home 100 meters away but I said no, as their place also faces due north with no buildings between it and Lebanon.

As the tears rolled into my beard I looked at the pain on the face of the man sitting next to me on the floor of the bus and I took his hand and gave it a squeeze. 'Mashiach must come now' he wispered in pain filled Ivrit. 'Baruch Hashem.. In Yirts Hashem Chaver ' was my subdued reply. My head slumped forward to the seat in front of me and I whispered again and again 'Peteach et yadechah umazbiah lechol chai ratson'. [Open your hand and satisfy all who live with favor.]

We agreed that we would daven [pray CiJ] at home [as opposed to going to synagogue CiJ] after much debate. The Rabbi said that the Torah forbids us to intentionally put our lives in danger and Tzfat was still under attack at that time. He and I davened [prayed CiJ] Mincha [the afternoon prayer CiJ] in the the doorway and our wives were in the bomb shelter with the children saying Tehillim.

Between Mincha and Ma'ariv [the evening prayer CiJ], he and I sat learning [studying religious subjects CiJ] in the lounge facing out to the beautiful Meron sunset. As the sun was about to disappear behind the hills, and almighty and unbelievable explosion occurred. We felt for sure that the building had been hit and he appeared to be thrown from his chair and I jumped up after him as we felt the building shake and he raced on his knees and elbows and I ran behind him to the miklat/bedroom.

The four of us prayed fervently and when things settled down Devorah said, "maybe we should check upstairs to make sure that the neighbours were all right". We were afraid that the building might be on fire and that help would be needed. The Rabbi ruled again that we are not permitted to put our lives directly in danger and that the ambulances would come. He then whispered "let's check the other rooms for damage, but instead led me to the stairwell where we ran from floor to floor confirming that nobody had been hurt and that there was no fire. On our return we found out that there had been a massive flash of light through the protective window of the miklat.

The three year old was badly shaken and hid under covers and fell instantly to sleep.

We davened [prayed CiJ] Kabbalat Shabbat [the special prayer that begins the Sabbath CiJ] and Ma'ariv with as much Kavannah [concentration and intensity CiJ] and joy as we could muster, every word taking on a new level of meaning and every word expressed with passion and at L'cha Dodi the Rabbi and I danced and danced and danced from the miklat to the lounge and all around the apartment. We praised Hashem [God CiJ] in song and with our dancing and gained much strength from the words of L'cha Dodi. After Aleinu [the name of the concluding prayer at the evening service. CiJ] we sang "Al tira" [Fear not] for a VERY long time to the Chabad niggun [the tune used by his sect of Hasidim. CiJ], coming back time and time again to the line "Ki Imanu Kel", [.for God is with us.] again and again, and again and again,expressing our absolute trust in Hashem and for the sake of bringing in a true feeling of Shabbat.

I recalled years ago when you Rabbi, told the community at South Head that we should sing this out loud every time we say Aleinu.

Surprisingly, another couple showed up, arms laden with Shabbos [Sabbath CiJ]food and we had a wonderful dinner together. We spoke of words of Chassidut [about Hasidism CiJ]and sang and ate with nervous joy, as the rabbi's wife hesitantly went back and forth to the miklat with the baby as we heard missiles continuing exploding all around Tzfat.

On the bus, the cellphone rang and it was Leah, now living in Yerushalayim. As she expressed her caring, I began to sob and was unable to respond, Devorah took the phone and they told us that we must come to them. [Leah is the daughter of the family with whom they are now staying in Petach Tikva. CiJ]

I couldn't stop thinking that we were leaving the home that we love so well, the holy people who are our friends and what they must also be going through. Did they decide to leave too? Are they safe? What pain are they going through? I felt pains in the side of my chest and prayed that they were just from the tension as my wife and I struggled in our own ways to understand what was going on and what was happening. It was hard to keep our equilibrium.

Throughout the night the missiles never stopped and when Devorah awoke Shabbat morning, there I was in my Tallis unsure if I should risk going to Shul which is about 200 metres away. Devorah supported my decision to go,reminding me that when Jews are suffering we gather together and appeal to Hashem. And, that Rabbi Marzel of Beit Chabad of the Old City of Tzfat, would want me to be there. Devorah said "would The Rebbe go to Shul with you?" I answered "of course he would". So the Rabbi and I made our way to the entrance of our building. We ran across the road, huddling in to the walls on our left side we ran up the stairs and then even faster along the open stairway which was more exposed from the north. Cautiously we passed through the Old City, broken glass under our feet, along a street that had been bombed the night before. Into the Mikveh [ritualarium CiJ] and then to [the synagogue to CiJ]join the other 13 men and 4 women who had come to daven. The davening was amazing and the first time that I had felt any internal peace since Thursday morning.

We returned home to a full Shabbat lunch delighted that we had made the decision to go to Shul. During lunch a number of Bochurim [unmarried boys CiJ] showed up and miraculously we had enough challot [special loaves of bread for the Sabbath CiJ] and more than enough food to satisfy us all. The bombing just didn't stop, but we stopped to make sure that Shabbat was Shabbat and we had a L'Chaim [a drink CiJ] and made Brochot [blessings CiJ] for the people of Israel and for the people of Tzfat specifically. At Shul after Mincha Rabbi Marzel read a Ma'amar [Hassidic thought CiJ] and inspired us all not to fear and again at Ma'ariv my friend the Rabbi and I sang "Al Tira" with as much power and Kavannah as we could muster with our friends. We all hugged, wished each other "Shavuah Tov" [a good week] and messages of safety and Chizuk [strengthening CiJ] and we really didn't want to leave the company of our fellow Jews not knowing when we would meet again.

After Havdolah [the ritual that ends the Sabbath CiJ]both families decided that we needed to move out of Tzfatfor the short term and Roni and Rav Shalom and their daughters left on Sunday for a Moshav in the south.

After another constantly noisy night, we went home, setting a time limit to be at the bus station for the 11:00 am bus to Petach Tikveh to be with Devorah's relatives.

As we were packing, minimal clothing in two small bags, Katyushas fell on either side of our building and we dashed into the bathroom, which people had said was the safest place to be. With Devorah forgetting her 'Bubbie [Grandma CiJ] Brag Album', we ran for the bus.

As we left the bus in Petach Tikveh, my heart was breaking as I'm sure Devorah's was too.

From our safe haven in Yerushalayim we wish you all a Shabbat of revelation and joy and we know with absolute emunah that we'll all be together again soon.

Love from

Binyamin and Devorah


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