A Horror in My Lifetime: The New Meaning of ‘Survivor’

As I heard my wife, Rina, pick up the phone in Pennsylvania, I noticed the dust accumulating on my shoes as I casually walked towards the bus.

“Hey, we are fine,” I said. “We just finished talking with a survivor.”

As I uttered that last word, I watched my feet come to a halt. I lifted my eyes and turned back around to glance at the place where I had just been standing. It was a dirt lot full of cars. Each one was burnt down to its frame beyond recognition. They were what was left of the cars from the Re’im music festival that occurred right nearby. I was there on an Emergency Solidarity Rabbinic Mission through the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.

In elementary school, I knew who “survivors” were. They were people with numbers tattooed on their arms. They were people I read about in books. The early Holocaust films I saw as a kid convinced me that survivors were people who lived in a world that was black and white. I knew the word “survivor” meant something different to me than it did to my friends who were not Jewish. So I guess it could have stung when Beyonce’s first music group, Destiny’s Child, released their third album called “Survivor” in 2001. Or I could have cringed when CBS released the series “Survivor” in 2000. But I didn’t.

But now, in the moment that I spoke the word “survivor” referring to the massacre of Oct. 7, 2023, it took my breath away and stopped me in my tracks. I took one last look at that collection of horrors before me. One more mental note of the evidence of devastation and destruction that I saw. One more peek at the men searching through what was left of the cars for any sliver of human bones in the hopes of giving relatives a shred of relief to know that there was proof that their loved one was not missing but, for certain, dead. I had to take in one more reminder to never forget.

As a child, the word “survivor” meant something different to me than it did to my friends who were not Jewish.

The survivor I told Rina about was Rafi Bibian, the head of security at the Sdot Negev Regional Council. He wasn’t at the party in Re’im, but when he heard what was happening on the morning of Oct. 7, he got in his car and drove towards the massacre. Rafi told us about what he saw, about the people he saved — the ones who, like him, became survivors. We also heard about the people who didn’t make it out alive. In my mind, Rafi was way too young to be a “survivor.” I needed to reorient myself. I had to glance back at the wreckage. I had to remove myself from the comforting tale I told myself back in elementary school – that times were different now. That Jews were safe now. I had to remind my eyes and comfort my heart as I confronted the fact that a Jewish pogrom had just taken place days before, in Israel, in 2023.

As I stood in the city of Ofakim, listening to stories from another survivor, I stared at the bullet holes in the side of the house of overnight Israeli folk hero, Rachel Edri. When Hamas terrorists showed up in her living room, she served them tea and Moroccan cookies. It saved her life. Days later, outside her home, I was there taking in the aftermath of the unspeakable violence and the unfathomable miracle of Rachel’s survival all at once. Once again, I found myself having to recalibrate my sense of history. Bullet holes in a wall? My immediate assumption, based on decades of experience, was that they were from 1967. I wanted the markings on the walls to be from a time long ago. They so reminded me of the bullet holes I had seen on previous trips to Israel while walking through the Old City of Jerusalem. I so wanted them to be remnants from a bygone era — an era when Israel was David, threatened by the collective Goliath that was Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. I had to consciously tell myself that this building’s wounds were fresh. Just a few days old. A horror that happened in my lifetime.

I am approaching the midway point of my ninth year in the rabbinate. I’ve written enough sermons and articles to recognize the feeling I get when it’s time to start wrapping things up. When it’s time to get to the point and teach the lesson I’ve been building towards this whole time. I had that feeling when I typed the word “lifetime” at the end of the paragraph above. But once again, I find myself trapped in time.

This time, it’s not a milieu of 1940s’ Germany, nor are they the scars of buildings from the 1967 Six-Day War. This time, it’s my eyes rising above the screen of the laptop I’m using to type these words, and once again, find my feet. I’m looking at them as they are resting on my living-room coffee table. I am home but not completely. In part, I’m still on that dusty path between the lot of burnt cars and the bus waiting to take us to meet more survivors. So many Jewish people are still in this time warp that is eternally Oct. 7, trapped with horror and helplessness and fatigue. My pain and sorrow is but a small fraction of the pain felt by the victims of the Hamas terror attack, the horror that the hostages and their loved ones are experiencing.

Had I written this at any time in the past nine years or in my five years in rabbinical school before that, I would have tried to find the perfect prayer or poem. I would have tried to find inspiration from generations past or write hopeful words for the future. But in this post-Oct. 7 era, I will end this essay frozen in time as I am, as the blood of Jewish people cries out to us from the ground. From the cities of slaughter, from the 1940s in Europe, from 1967 in Jerusalem, from all of Jewish history, and now from this seemingly unending moment — the seventh of October, 2023.

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