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Reesa Cohen Stone

First Hand Report from Former Winnipegger Reesa Cohen Stone from Be'er Sheba: A Nation of Heroes

by Reesa Cohen Stone, Oct 8, 2023


Why must we fight for the right to live, over and over, each time the sun rises?

Ari Ben Canaan, Exodus by Leon Uris

In your unfailing love, you will lead the people you have redeemed. In your strength you will guide them to your holy dwelling.
Exodus 15;13


In the past few months, I've taken to waking up long before the sun. I get up, get a few errands accomplished, then sit outside with a cup of coffee to watch the sun rise. I watch the stars wink out and the sky begin to glow. I use the time to pray and meditate. I think about the day ahead of me. 


Saturday morning, Shmini Azeret, October 7, was no exception. 

I sat outside our Sukkah and sipped coffee. It was a beautiful morning, quiet and still. I thought about my kids, as I do every day. I have five grown children, each in a different town across the Land of Israel. Only one lives here in Beer Sheva, in her own apartment. As the light grew stronger, I thought about what salads to make for lunch and how 'shul' would end very late today, so what time should I put the food on the hotplate? I sipped my coffee. And as I sipped, I thought I heard some booms in the distance. They sounded like artillery booms, but how could that be? The IDF don't have training sessions on Shabbat. The booms continued. I thought maybe it was thunder, or that a building had collapsed, or somebody was doing some sort of construction. The booms continued. and continued. and continued. I tried not to listen to them. Because I know what that kind of boom means. 

And then, at around 6:40 AM, the first siren went off, indicating incoming missiles. 

I took my coffee, went into the house and entered the safe room. 

For several hours, there were sirens after sirens after sirens. Some overlapped each other. Sometimes, we had 15 minutes between. 

It was Shabbat, and we don't use electronics, so we had no way of knowing what was happening. My husband managed to get to the Tunisian synagogue across the street in between sirens and there he heard some rumours. We heard that Jerusalem was being targeted by missiles. How could that be? We discounted the rumours of invasion, of war, of, well just about everything, because, hey!!! The IDF! 

None of this made sense. 

We waited out the day. I tried my best to read, and not think about my daughter in Jerusalem, my son in one of the towns closer to Gaza, another son near Ashdod, which regularly gets pounded by missiles, and my third son who recently moved to the city of Lod, where, two years ago, riots broke out. My youngest daughter lives in an unprotected building and was probably, at that very moment, crouching in the stairwell. I would not think about it. 

Coincidentally, I was re-reading, for the first time in at least 30 years, the book Exodus.

50 years and one day previously, a week after my birthday, the Yom Kippur War had broken out. 

I wasn't yet living in Israel. The summer before that war had been a busy one; I went to summer camp for the first and only time, we had a family wedding, and, if I'm not mistaken, it was the summer I first read the novel Exodus, by Leon Uris. 

I'm just going to take a moment to talk about the book, and the influence it would have on my life. It's a terrible book. The writing is sloppy, the characters are often two dimensional and utterly unrealistic, the dialogue is stilted, and the depiction of history is wildly inaccurate. (To my chagrin, I didn't understand how inaccurate for years.) And yet, Exodus impacted my future more than any other book I have ever read. It cemented my pride in my people; it caused me to delve into Zionism; it made me want to live in a country populated by heroes. And eventually, I did. 

On that awful day, in 1973, when the Yom Kippur War broke out, I, and I think many others living far far away, simply assumed that the Israeli army would defeat their enemies within days. Because that's what Israel did best - defended their Land and their People. 

My friends and I spent the Sukkot holiday raising money 'for Israel'. We went door to door asking for bottles to return, giving the money we collected 'to Israel'. My mother and some of her friends knitted helmet liners, having been told that the nights in the desert were very cold. 

I waited for the war to end yet it dragged on. For weeks, we would ask our teachers for permission to listen to the news every hour. And the teachers at my Jewish school always allowed it. Sometimes, one of the Israeli teachers would ask what a word meant. We huddled around a small radio listening to battles won and lost, not quite understanding how dire the situation really was. 

One of those Israeli teachers left the day after Yom Kippur to join his army unit in the Sinai. He returned months later, deeply tanned, skinny, with hollow eyes. He told stories of sleeping in a tank; of the sand that penetrated into everything – his tent, his food, his eyes; of how his gun jammed, but the Egyptian soldiers never realized and surrendered anyway. He was the first soldier I had ever spoken to. I had never considered the man a particularly good teacher, but he turned into the kind of hero I wanted to emulate, or at least live amongst.

Five years later, I did.

By the time Shabbat/Shmini Azeret 2023 ended, my stomach was in knots, but I was still hopeful that the situation was under control. There had not been a siren in Beer Sheva since 1:00 PM.
Even before clearing up, I opened my phone.

The news was worse than I could ever have imagined. 

A few minutes later, my youngest son phoned. He had been called up that afternoon and was on a base to receive equipment. I next phoned my son near Gaza. He and family were fine, having been told to stay in their house and lock the doors. Hamas terrorists had infiltrated his town and taken hostages. He had been told to be on base the next day. While on the phone with him, my Jerusalem daughter called. They had indeed had several missiles, but they were ok. My middle son, near Ashdod, was looking for a lift to his emergency base after receiving his call up. My youngest daughter decided to come home for a few days and not stay in her unprotected building, though she had gotten to meet her neighbors in the stairwell.  

Throughout the night and the next day, reports slowly came through; damage that was caused by the missiles, fires that had broken out in neighbourhood parks, while the number of those massacred and maimed rose and rose and rose. The reality and the tragedy of what had happened was beyond belief, beyond comprehension. 

Over the course of the next day, each of my boys let us know they were ok but could not tell us too many details as to where they were and in what capacity they would be serving. Their phones were taken away, and we now have no way of being in touch. My oldest son's wife and four children have come to stay with us for the duration. My second son's (pregnant) wife and three children are with her family. 

We are all sleep deprived, unfocused, sick at heart, grieving deeply. But having the children with me gives me some comfort and some focus. And much joy. 

I will have to go shopping. 

I have never once regretted the decision I made that winter of 1973-4. And while not everything is perfect or rosy, and while some problems that arise seem insolvable, heroes, I learned quite quickly, come in all sizes and shapes, and they do all sorts of different heroic jobs; from firefighters to soldiers; from farmers to teachers; from the righteous who immediately organize donations of food, socks, and soap for the soldiers, to the lines of people waiting patiently at the hospital to donate blood; from the youth knocking on the doors of their elderly neighbours to make sure they were all right and to check if they needed anything, to the elderly who are busy cooking and baking for soldiers and others who cannot get food; from workers stocking supermarket shelves while rockets are falling, to drivers making home deliveries to the homebound. 

I have been blessed, not only to live surrounded by heroes, but to have raised a family of heroes. 

When you get a minute, say a prayer for us.

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