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Astonishing. Overpowering. Inspiring. Loud. Unforgettable.

These are words that describe the OU Mission Shabbat in Sderot, 2 kilometers from Gaza border, and at its hesder yeshiva, whose students learn Torah and serve in the IDF.

Bomb shelters are everywhere in Sderot. Buildings, schools, playgrounds, and bus stops are made of thick, reinforced concrete, to protect residents against the relentless Kassam rockets which Hamas has been firing at them for more than a decade. Most of the rockets are painted colorfully. Their playful, artistic creativity contrasting starkly with the deadly seriousness of their purpose.

Artillery explosions and plumes of smoke rising above Gaza to the southwest, continued every few minutes throughout the night until exactly 8:00 a.m. Shabbat morning, when the latest ceasefire took effect. Some of the explosions were extraordinarily loud. The silence was overwhelming but also tense since every soldier and citizen here is fully aware that if they allow Hamas to replenish its arms and reorganize its fighters, this will raise future costs in “blood and treasure” to Israel, when Hamas inevitably resumes its firing and its tunnel construction.

Hundreds of young soldiers – of countless skin tones, ethnicities, and countries of origin – coming and going from the front, joined hundreds of yeshiva students to celebrate – and I MEAN WOW, CELEBRATE! – Shabbat.

In the middle of Kabbalat Shabbat, they hoisted soldiers recently engaged to be married onto their shoulders, dancing and bellowing out joyous wedding songs. Their backpacks, weapons, and sleeping mats transformed the yeshiva grounds into a makeshift army base. The sounds of their singing the Sabbath hymn, Shalom Aleichim, Malachei Shalom [Peace unto You, O Angels of Peace], resounded throughout the yeshiva courtyard as they snaked in enormous lines to receive their Shabbat dinner. Active duty soldiers singing about angels of peace! Which nation is like Your people, Hashem?

The dancing and powerful singing went on and on, during services, meals, havdalah, and more. Hundreds of voices giving thanks for life, praising and beseeching Hashem to protect His people and land, and expressing faith in the eternal destiny of our people, returned to our homeland after millennia and generations of longing.

The Rosh Yeshiva, the always amazing Rabbi Dovid Fendel, originally from West Hempstead, NY, led the festivities. One of the themes he touched upon was from this week’s Torah reading, which includes laws pertaining to accidental murder. These laws, he noted, are founded upon the centrality and sanctity of each human life and the corresponding obligation of all to preserve and safeguard it. He specifically referenced that value in the context of the lives of Gaza residents — as if soft-hearted IDF soldiers and yeshiva students, nurtured on Jewish Torah values, need such reminders!

Sderot Mayor Alon Davidi, addressed us and the assembled crowd at Shabbat dinner. He described the Kassam rocket shells which decorate the city offices, each of which is inscribed with Al Quds [Arabic for Jerusalem}. Hamas wants Jerusalem and to obliterate the Jewish presence here. In their mind, Sderot is just a little obstacle in their way. Davidi is a man of vision, working to build 3,000 more housing units in the area, to strengthen Israel’s border region.

Rav Shmuel Eliyahu, prominent Religious Zionist rosh yeshiva of Tzfat and son of the former Rishon leTzion, Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, was present as well to strengthen the troops. He added tremendous spirit and words of Torah. One of his talks mentioned how, decades ago the Golan Heights (NE Israel, bordering Syria), was as tense as Sderot – a “little Jerusalem” – is now. Addressing the yeshiva students as they ushered out Shabbat with an hour of powerful singing, he told how concentrating on learning Torah under such distracting circumstances was of course difficult, but also how such Torah has heightened spiritual power due to Hashem’s closeness to Jewish military encampments. Hashem walks in the midst of your encampment, the Torah teaches us.

Rabbi S. Binyomin Ginsberg, Dean of Torah Academy in Minneapolis, MN, and columnist for the Yated Ne’eman newspaper, and I had Shabbat lunch with Rabbi Yaniv Chasan, his wife Rivka, and their eight beautiful children. They told us how one night a Kassam landed outside their home, destroying a neighbor’s car. Their son, just past bar mitzvah age, showed us his destroyed siddur with shrapnel still inside, and his tefillin box, also disfigured by shrapnel. He had left them in that car overnight.

R. Yaniv told us how in 2006 he and Rivka stood in their home in Gush Katif (Gaza), in disbelief that IDF soldiers would force them from their homes. In his view (shared by most Israelis) that evacuation led directly to the current battle against Hamas. Instead of building wholesome lives of productive goodness, Hamas and its many supporters remain intent upon destroying and uprooting Jews from the entire land of Israel.

Rivka told us how many neighborhood women are too terrified to leave their homes, anxious not only for their own lives, but also because they do not want to have to face the possibility of having to decide which of their children to pull to safety in the 15 seconds they have between hearing a Red Alert and the landing of a Kassam rocket.

Their children listened with obvious astonishment as I explained why our OU group had come, how so many others were turned away due to lack of space, and how many thousands and millions of Jewish and other Americans are with them, wishing them well. I told them how a boy celebrating his bar mitzvah this Shabbat in Philadelphia told his rabbi — another member of our group — that the rabbi should skip his bar mitzvah in order to spend this Shabbat with the residents Sderot, and the other Israelis and soldiers on our trip.

Their incredulous eyes and replies told me that this group can say – at least in part: OU Mission Accomplished!