Trauma and resilience are the story of the Jewish people in the face of terror

The scene outside the bar where three people were killed in a terrorist attack, April 7, 2022. (Credit: Yael Machtinger)

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’ אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם הַגּוֹמֵל לְחַיָּבִים טוֹבוֹת שֶׁגְּמָלַנִי כָּל טוֹב

Baruch ata Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha-olam, ha-gomel l’chayavim tovot she-g’malani kol tov.

Blessed are You, Lord our God, ruler of the world, who rewards the undeserving with goodness, and who has rewarded me with goodness.

When I meet new people and tell them my address I often get oohs and aahs: 152 Dizengoff, between Gordon and Ben Gurion?! That’s the best block in Tel Aviv!

And it was. And so it remains.

I found the apartment by fluke on a Facebook group, I wired money in advance and prayed that it was not a scam. Thankfully, it wasn’t. Once I moved in, I quickly realized how blessed I was to be living here. I was close to the beach, on a vibrant, happy street full of cafes, shops, benches and a couple of relatively quiet bars. I moved into 152 Dizengoff—a bubble-gum-pink building in early March, just over a month ago.

I’ve actually remarked how much quieter it has been living on Dizengoff than it was on the Upper West Side of New York, where I’d been living prior to COVID.

On the street below, tourists from every country, old-timers, young families, lots of singles (like myself), and Arabs too (the grocer across the street, the bus driver, the construction worker, the pharmacist), mix and mingle. It reminds me so much of my life in New York. It was a true mosaic, not “apartheid.”

I sit at my desk, propped against my floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the street from one flight up, it’s my own little personal café-haven above the liveliness. I still teach remotely at John Jay College, CUNY in New York but I’m in Israel to begin the Azrieli Postdoctoral Fellowship I was awarded and deferred due to the pandemic.

 I’m in the early stages of my new project (some readers may know about my previous work on get refusal) examining the extent to which religion is used to rationalize, condone, or challenge domestic abuses in religious communities.

 In both projects, my research methods include semi-structured interviews with victim/survivors of a variety of domestic abuses. In other words, I’ve been studying and trying to understand peoples’ traumas that are often unspoken or misunderstood.

And now, I’ve experienced my own trauma.

Now, I’m the one being interviewed by a support worker at Natal: Israel’s national, non-profit, apolitical organization that specializes in terror-related trauma to advance the resiliency of Israeli society.

Thursday evening, I had finished teaching my classes in New York remotely. I was going to head out to a birthday party. My neighbor, also a young, Orthodox single and a new immigrant from France, coincidentally (or by divine providence) stopped me to chat about a leak in our shared hot water tank and about our busy week. Both of us were out every night- symphony, drinks on Dizengoff, pre-Pesach lecture.

 I was finally ready to head out the door, at around 9 p.m. I called my mum, in Toronto, to tell her good night and that I’d talk to her before Shabbat. As I was heading out and still on the phone with her, I heard the sound of gunshots. I’d never heard that sound before but it was unmistakable. Violent. Piercing. Jarring. Instinctively, we knew.

My neighbour yelled, “YAEL!”

We ran and met each other in our little shared hallway, away from our floor-to-ceiling windows, overlooking the best block in Tel Aviv, where we barricaded for the next five hours.

“That was a pigua (a terrorist attack), right?” I looked at him hoping he would tell me I was wrong. We were both in shock. Through the phone, mum in Canada heard it all too.

I don’t know exactly how many shots I heard. A lot. More than 10 I would say. Then, there was the sound of trauma—people yelling, screaming, desperation, chaos, terror. “Ambulance! Ambulance!” I looked at my neighbour, both of us feeling helpless, vulnerable, frozen with fear, terrified.

.”Where are the ambulances? Why aren’t they here yet. It’s taking so long!” I asked.

“Yael, it’s only been three minutes” he said, as we finally heard sirens starting to approach.

Those minutes felt like an eternity and to Eitan, Tomer, and Barak—of blessed memory, may God avenge their blood—they were.

Almost immediately, the police or security forces announced on loudspeakers: “Tenants! Barricade indoors, away from balconies and windows! The event is ongoing! The event is ongoing!”

We understood that meant there is at least one terrorist on the loose and we have no idea where he is. Lots of helicopters started circling overhead, for hours. And days later, I’m still hearing them, the sound jarring each time.

We couldn’t watch the television live broadcast because the TVs are in our living rooms, by the floor-to-ceiling windows. Barricaded, I started to get texts from family, friends and on social media. Reports of five terrorists, then three. Reports of multiple sites—at Dizengoff Center Mall and the marina. Reports of terrorists in neighbouring buildings with hostages.

Total chaos. Completely terrorizing. Which is, of course, their goal when they teach their children, “From the river to the sea.”

My bubble-gum pink building recently got a facelift—new paint job and some other exterior construction. As in most construction projects here in Israel, the workers are Arabs. I had been greeting them with a daily, “Hi, good morning, how are you?” One of them showed me photos of his family in Canada.

In the last few weeks, I’d been thinking a lot about how pleasantly we can exist side by side, making small talk, going about our lives in peace. But on Thursday night, all I could think was: “Could they be the terrorists? They have the code to our building. They could have stored their guns among the scaffolding in the alley or in our lobby with their tools.”

This is terrorism—you don’t know who or when or where. And so it becomes everyone, always, everywhere.

My neighbour and I decided we had to make a run for it, to close our windows, blinds, and lights which had been open after a long, sunny day. My neighbor went first and said “try not to look. It’s very bad.”

He grabbed his largest kitchen knife and returned to our corridor. Then it was my turn. The scene was that of a dramatic war movie unfolding, on the perfect block in Tel Aviv. So many police officers, soldiers, and uniforms I didn’t recognize and many, many plain-clothed security personnel. Later we learned there were about one thousand.

After some time, things suddenly got very loud again, another single shot at 9:18 (inadvertently captured on a voice note) and a while later, another. We thought it was coming from inside our building, either the juice shop downstairs called Be Healthy, or maybe in our lobby.

Shortly after, some footage I was sent showed a suspect being apprehended downstairs. Apparently, it was a flash grenade, not another two shots but not much is being said about this part of the night and we still don’t know exactly what happened at the bottom of our building on the best block in Tel Aviv.

Eventually, my neighbor made us mint tea to calm our nerves, even though we were both scared to go into our apartments.

Suddenly, it got very tense again. There were very loud voices in the stairwell, yelling “open up, open up.” We looked at each other with dread, thinking it’s either the terrorists or security forces.

My neighbor clutched the knife, and whispered to me, “get back into your apartment.” I whispered, “check the peephole!”

Thank God, it was in fact security forces, unsure of what they’d find behind our doors. They were doing a sweep of the building, and all the surrounding buildings, checking every single apartment, we would learn later on. We heard the terrorists were hiding in residential buildings, had escaped using courtyards behind buildings, just like ours.

Two days later, I would listen to a press conference with one of the heads of the police who said they had over 900 calls claiming that suspicious people, maybe the terrorist(s) ran into random buildings all over the area.

The officer said, “I would not go to sleep knowing that potentially, in an apartment in the heart of Tel Aviv, there’s a terrorist with a civilian hostage. So we checked each and every lead, building and apartment, taking each one seriously.”

We showed the soldiers into our corridor. They were remarkable—a team with at least three different uniforms, working together.

I showed them the scaffolding which butts right up against my bedroom floor-to-ceiling windows. Every morning I can see the workers on the scaffolding and hear the Arabic while lying in bed. They usually start around 6 a.m. but hadn’t been around since the previous terrorist attack, the week prior, but oddly, they were back that morning and my window had been open.

My neighbor showed the soldiers his room which overlooks the courtyard. The soldiers assured us: ”We are checking every corner of the building, inside and out.”

And then they were gone. And we were alone again, in our hallway, with my neighbor’s knife. We started to say Tehilim (Psalms), when we were able.

Eventually, around 2:30 a.m., after more than 5 hours of hell, we decided to try to get some rest. We kept all our lights off and crawled to our beds, leaving the doors between our apartments open to one another, but the door to the public corridor locked and barricaded.  I also moved a piece of furniture to block my bedroom windows and piled the six cases of water I had added to my Pesach grocery shopping that morning, on top of the furniture, as if that could stop a bullet.

As I lay there, terrified, traumatized, in shock and all alone, I also felt the love of so many near and far: God—who rewarded me with my life, friends new and old, my amazing neighbour, the indefatigable security forces, and most of all, my incredible family. My mum, in particular, stayed with me on Facetime the entire night, even as I closed my eyes, she watched over me. How is it that while my parent, loved and cared and worried so deeply so close by, yet so far away. Yet, another parent, so close by yet so far away in his twisted ideology, a father, celebrates his son’s heinous act in the name of shaheed, a cold- blooded murderer?

I awoke around 5:30 to find the nightmare was in fact, reality, and it wasn’t over yet. I couldn’t imagine leaving my apartment. How would I even descend the steps, exit the building, walk down the street? In each place I would picture and replay this night. And I am.

The only thing I was able to do was pray the police would catch whoever was still out there.  I grabbed my siddur, opened my floor-to-ceiling window (now that our block was finally cleared) and looked at the now empty and blocked off scene of terror. Police tape and medical gloves littered the street. And, as I said the Modeh ani, the morning prayer of gratitude thanking God for returning my soul to me, I began to sob.

Soon after, I finally heard that the terrorist was neutralized and around the same time the police began to remove some of the tape from the scene so that my building was now no longer sealed. As I stuck my head out the window to take a deep breath and break free from this terrorizing night, I witnessed a sight that is so emblematic of the Jewish people; I’ll never forget it.

A father with his young child arrived at the scene. The father handed the child a single flower and they begin the symbolic ritual of memorializing a makom kadosh, hallowed ground.

My first thought was… how crazy is that! Nowhere else in the world would you see this, no parent would take their toddler to a brutal murder scene—where young, innocent people were murdered simply for being Jews

But, I realized that for Jews in Israel—like for Jews throughout much of our history—it’s just the opposite.

Trauma is ingrained almost from birth. It is a fact of life here and children are exposed to it and not sheltered from it. However, they are also exposed to resilience and so this too becomes a fact of life here.

Trauma and resilience. The story of the Jewish people.

I said the blessing, birkat hagomel, in synagogue in front of the Torah and the entire congregation in a Tel Aviv synagogue. It is a special prayer to thank God for allowing me to survive a potentially life-threatening episode. The congregation answers to my blessing: מִי שֶׁגְמַלְךָ כֹּל טוֹב הוּא יִגְמַלְךָ כֹּל טוֹב סֶלָה

Mi she-g’malcha kol tov, hu yi-g’malcha kol tov selah. May He who rewarded you with all goodness reward you with all goodness forever.

Trauma. Resilience.

Meanwhile, an online support group of people impacted by this attack was started and it’s already at 382 members.

We are sharing our stories and will meet in person in the coming days. Some of us are triggered by loud noises: sirens, motorcycles, screaming, barking, and loudspeakers and there is even talk of no fireworks on Yom ha-Atzmaut, Independence Day. Some of us aren’t sleeping or eating. This is what terrorism does: it utterly terrorizes.

It also has brought people together in empathy and understanding. Every store and many apartment windows are now flying Israeli flags all along Dizengoff, including my own, from my bubble-gum pink-trimmed windows overlooking the scene.

I’ve seen a group of medics who were first on scene lighting candles, and another group putting on tefillin with the help of the local Chabad rabbi. Another local rabbi wearing a knit kippah and a hazzan in a black hat walked over after Shabbat and lead a Havdalah service. I have witnessed shifts of people coming, paying their respects, mourning together, often singing together, until the next shift arrives. It’s national trauma and national resilience—just like the tagline of the helpline I called. The streets and cafes are full. We keep going. Together.

It’s 11 p.m. on Sunday and I can hear the beautiful songs of strangers at the holy site from my desk in my apartment on the best block in Tel Aviv. It is now a huge, and growing, memorial, with, hundreds of candles, flowers, notes and prayers.

They are singing words from the haggadah:

וְהִיא שֶׁעָמְדָה לַאֲבוֹתֵינו

שֶלֹא אֶחָד בִּלבָד עָמַד עָלֵינוּ לְכַלוֹתֵינוּ,

עָמַד עָלֵינוּ לְכַלוֹתֵינוּ,

וְהַקָדוֹשׁ בָּרוּך הוּא מַצִילֵנוּ

מַצִילֵנוּ מִיָדָם

That which stood for our patriarchs​

It was not only one person who stood up against us to kill us.

They want to kill us.

And God saves us

Saves us from their hands.

On the eve of Passover and Holocaust Remembrance Day, this is our story. Egypt, Auschwitz, Tel Aviv. This is the story of the Jewish people: trauma and resilience.

Dr. Yael C.B. Machtinger is an Azrieli International Postdoctoral Fellow at Bar Ilan Law School and a Law and Society professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. Contact her at [email protected]