We read a lot about the hostages and other victims of the Hamas massacre in the south of Israel; here is an account how one resident of Jerusalem experienced October 7 and the days following it.
Tania Hammer writes from Jerusalem:
For I desire loving kindness, not sacrifices;
devotion to God, rather than burnt offerings.
Seven years ago, I moved from New York to Jerusalem. In these good years, I have hosted thousands of sabbath meals for travelers from every part of the world. Christians from the United States, participants in the Shabbat of a Lifetime program, have sung in my garden. A young Muslim man, a “lone soldier”—a member of the IDF without family in Israel—adopted me, or rather, I adopted him. People without family or connections are cherished in my home. Israel has welcomed me as a daughter, and I welcome newcomers as a sister.
On October 7, the sabbath of the Rejoicing of the Torah, I wake early, to pray in quiet as the sun rises over the holy city. At 6:30 a.m. a siren sounds. I have heard only one siren in my seven years in Jerusalem. Another siren sounds at 8:30 a.m. I knock on a neighbor’s door. She has tears in her eyes; the television is at full volume. Even though I am a religious Jew and we do not watch television on the sabbath, my eyes are on the screen. Hamas has invaded the south. The impenetrable fence built to protect our communities on the Gaza border is gone.
The screen delivers its deluge. Mutilated, Be’eri, rapes, Nirim, hostages, Nova music festival, burned alive, Alumim, decapitations, Re’im, Hamas, dead babies. Words and sirens swirl in my head as I hide in the secure room. Another siren. Another. Another. Twelve in all.
By Saturday night we are in the midst of a Jewish catastrophe. Fourteen hundred of our people are dead. Five thousand wounded. About 242 abducted, held hostage.
Sunday, October 8. I rise early, as always, to pray. The country is mobilizing—three hundred thousand soldiers. The women in my neighborhood and I will mobilize loving kindness.
We decide to pack essentials for our people in uniform. They left home on the sabbath with nothing; we will fill their bags with things and with love. My women and I go to a pharmacy warehouse to get soaps, shampoos, feminine products, toothbrushes, toothpaste, wet wipes, and protein bars. I think fifty of each will do the trick. “Let’s get a hundred and see how we go,” one friend says.
We unload everything into my sukkah, the temporary dwelling I had built for the Festival of Tabernacles. The sukkah reminds us of our impermanence on earth. It is a reminder that we now understand, perhaps for the first time.
I put a notice online that I am collecting essentials for our defenders in uniform. Within an hour, I receive substantial contributions from people who want to be a part of our “Packages of Love.” That’s what my women and I decide to call our project. One hundred bars of soap turn into one thousand. Hundreds of volunteers come in and out of my house, my garden, the sukkah. By nightfall, we have over a thousand packages.
Israel conscripts women. I decide that their packages will be wrapped in bright pink shopping bags from Rami Levi, a large chain store. They need their own things, and they’re going to have them in pink. We deliver the packages to the Lone Soldier centers for distribution.
Monday, October 9. Through the night and into the morning, supplies arrive at my doorstep. Volunteers from all over the world come and contribute their time and money, people I haven’t seen in a decade or have never seen before. School is canceled and we give the children paper and colored pens to write to our women and men in uniform. Our sisters, daughters, sons, brothers, uncles, aunts, cousins. This is not a war in a remote region—it is a war waged by our families at and in our homes, a war for our existence.
Thousands of tourists who have come on pilgrimage for the Festival of Tabernacles are stranded, their flights canceled. The peaceful country they came to visit has become a country at war. They arrive at my home with gifts. We crank up the music; adults and children are happy to be doing something good in the face of evil, to have purpose.
I receive a picture of our young people in uniform holding my packages. My heart sings.
As new images of Hamas atrocities are broadcast, morale in the country and in my micro-operation falls. Though I am exhausted, I redouble my efforts.
At Rami Levi, Arabs are joking with Jews, workers and customers alike. I tell everyone my shopping cart is for our defenders. An Arab tells me, “My son is fighting for Israel in Gaza now, pray for him too.” I show the cashier the packages we have made, and she tears up. “Your son will get a package too,” I tell her. She gives me a hug.
Monday ends. One thousand more packages.
Tuesday, October 10. We are setting up tables, preparing for volunteers to begin. Even when we are quiet, our thoughts are with the fallen, the hostages, those incomprehensible images, our grieving people. Holy Bagel arrives with meals for all of us, gifted by a volunteer. British visitors come with more bagels for lunch. A volunteer from yesterday finds me in the kitchen and hands me a beautiful bouquet.
I go outside to see how things are progressing and find men of all ages bagging pads and tampons neatly for the women’s pink packages. They are chatting away. These men are professionals visiting from New York, “stuck” here until they can get a flight out. They are putting themselves to good use.
Volunteers come and go between funerals and shiva houses of mourning and blood drives. One is going to an “emergency” wedding. The couple was supposed to get married next month, but they moved up the wedding so that the groom wouldn’t get drafted. His wedding was supposed to be a lavish affair, with over three hundred guests. Instead, there are fifty people with bread rolls and dips.
At the end of the day, three hundred more boxes of supplies arrive, all donated. More are expected to arrive tomorrow.
Wednesday, October 11. The exhaustion is unlike any I have experienced. This project was as much for the volunteers as it was for our defenders. Whether people arrived with one toothbrush or a truckful, whether they stayed for a half hour or came every day, every single one of them made a difference. The project grew wings.
Four days. Over five thousand packages, over $25,000 donated, over five hundred volunteers.
On Thursday, October 12, I reclaim my house, tidy and clean, listen to music. On Friday, I go shopping on the Bethlehem Road and buy something from every shop. I want to support my local businesses, which will be devastated by this war. I go to my newspaper shop and the son of the proprietor who helps him on Fridays is there. He might be drafted next week, but for now he gets another sabbath with his family.
I wish a Shabbat shalom, a sabbath of peace, to all of Jerusalem. I light the usual candles and an an extra one for the precious kidnapped souls in Gaza. We are at war, but these past few days of witnessing the love and gratitude of all who volunteered fill me with a bit of peace. “Be strong and resolute; do not be terrified or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go” (Josh. 1:9).
This article was first published on November 14, 2023 by First Things.
Copyright © 2023 by Tania Hammer and First Things. Used by permission.
- Tania Hammer grew up in Sydney, Australia, moved to New York when she was 22 and found herself in Israel for her 50th birthday – an Aliyah dream come true! She works at a gallery in Jerusalem and is a student of life. Tania is an Orthodox woman with a progressive take on Torah. She started a popular Facebook group for Anglo divorcees and widow/ers called SDEI. But her crowning glory is her daughter on whose footsteps she followed to come to Israel.