In this episode of the 18Forty Podcast, we talk to Rabbi Doron Perez, executive chairman of the Mizrachi World Movement, about the sacrifices the Jewish People must make to preserve the precious gift of the State of Israel.
In a single day, Rabbi Doron Perez found out that his son Yonatan had been shot and injured in the Oct. 7 Hamas terror attacks—and his other son, Daniel, was “missing in action” and presumably held hostage. Only 10 days later, the family went on to hold Yonatan’s wedding, with Daniel’s status still completely unknown.
In this episode we discuss:
Tune in to hear a conversation about the tears of suffering that fuel our future tears of simcha.
Interview begins at 5:40.
Rabbi Doron Perez is the executive chairman of the Mizrachi World Movement, a position he has held since he returned to Israel in 2014 from Johannesburg, South Africa. He is the author of the book Leading the Way, and a sought-after speaker and scholar-in-residence in communities in Israel and around the world. At World Mizrachi, Doron’s major focus is on organizational transformation and invigorating the global Religious Zionist movement with its dual focus on Jewish and Zionist identity and destiny.
The Jewish State: From Opposition to Opportunity by Doron Perez
Pachad Yitzchak al Shavuot by Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner
Hi, friends. Welcome to the 18Forty podcast, where each month we explore a different topic balancing modern sensibilities with traditional sensitivities to give you new approaches to timeless Jewish ideas. I’m your host, David Bashevkin, and we are continuing our exploration of the war in Israel and all of its implications for the Jewish people. This podcast is part of a larger exploration of those big, juicy Jewish ideas. So be sure to check out 18forty.org, that’s 18forty.org, where you can also find videos, articles and recommended readings.
There is a phrase that appears in Hasidic literature, and it appears in other places as well, but it’s constantly repeated over and over again in the works of Rav Tzadok HaKohen of Lublin, who continues to have a massive impact on my thought and the way I approach Yiddishkeit and Jewish thought and Jewish practice. And that phrase, that Rav Tzadok quotes is: HaKadosh Baruch Hu, God, is the heart of the Jewish people, God as the heart of the Jewish people. Rav Tzadok actually sources this to Shir HaShirim Rabbah, the midrash on Shir HaShirim.
In Shir HaShirim Rabbah, in the fifth chapter in the second paragraph, we have the phrase, of course I’ll translate: Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba asks, where do we find that God is called the heart of the Jewish people? And they answer from the 73rd chapter in Tehillim—it comes from the following verse, where it says in Tehillim: God is the rock, is the anchor of my own mind and my portion, my place forever. A moving verse.
I’ve always wondered, what does that actually mean that God is the heart of the Jewish people? It’s a fascinating phrase. I have a few different approaches in how to make sense of that statement: God is the heart of the Jewish people. But I wanted to suggest one thing specifically as we introduce our next guest, and that is one of the unique characteristics of God is God’s ability to contain contradictions. Maimonides famously writes that God is able to be both all-knowing and also grant human beings free will. God, within the nature of God, you are able to subsume, you’re able to hold contradictory characteristics. God is the ultimate unified being, and within that unity is able to contain even deep contradictions that we have no way of understanding outside of the concept of God himself. God has divine foreknowledge, yet also makes room for our free will.
The mind of God, so to speak, is not like the way we function, but is able to contain contradictory characteristics. And I think in some ways when I think of the heart of the Jewish people, I think of the Jewish people throughout history, the heart of Knesses Yisroel, the heart of the larger body, the collective body of the Jewish people is able to hold within it, if we all band together, if we have that unity within that pulsating heart that animates the unfolding story of the Jewish people, we are able to hold contradictions. We are able to hold things that other nations, other narratives throughout history have not been able to hold such contradictory feelings and ideas.
And I think we see this in this moment now of having deep, deep vulnerability, deep, deep concern, deep, deep fear, while at the same time an incredible amount of strength, of unity, of inspiration. And being able to hold contradictory feelings in that same moment of having a heart that contains multitudes is something that I think we lean on collectively to that notion of HaKadosh Baruch Hu being Libbon Shel Yisroel, of that what resides within us is so much larger than any individual. What resides and animates the collective body of Knesses Yisroel, the Jewish people, is not the normal myopia that often descends on any individual processing history, processing urgency, processing crisis in great moments.
But the Jewish people, what pulsates inside of us, what animates our story is Libbon Shel Yisroel, which allows us to hold contradictions. And you just need to scroll on social media to understand, or look outside the window. Don’t go on social media. Look outside the window. And to be in a moment that is both so deeply vulnerable, so frightening in many ways, yet at the same exact moment to hold that strength, that inspiration, that enduring optimism of “Netzach Yisrael lo yishaker,” that our eternity is guaranteed. Our eternity speaks through every generation of world history. We are a people that can contain multitudes, and our guest today contains multitudes.
Our guest is someone you may know from his incredible organizational work as the chairman of the worldwide Mizrachi movement. Rav Doron Perez has done incredible work, both in the diaspora and in Israel, encouraging the centrality of Israel to the Jewish people. Yet we are having him on because his story is one that contains multitudes. As you’ll hear from within his very family, there is both deep vulnerability and incredible celebration, which is why I thought at this moment where we’re trying to hold all of the feelings that are associated with what it means to be a Jew in this moment, what it means to be a part of Klal Yisrael and the Jewish people in this moment. It is my absolute pleasure to introduce our guest, Rav Doron Perez.
It truly is a privilege to speak to Doron Perez. I feel like our paths have crossed 101 times for happier, easier, digestible emotions, but I thought it was very important specifically to center your voice and everything that you’ve been through both on a personal and professional level. And maybe we could begin by almost the broadest question ever, and I know the answer is not simple, but I want to ask a fairly simple question. On a personal level, tell our listeners, how have the terrorist attack, the massacre of October 7th, affected your life in Israel?
First and foremost, on one day we got the news that both of our sons who both serve in the IDF, they’re both officers in the IDF, our older son is an officer in the paratroop, he’s a company commander, and our younger son is a platoon commander, a tank commander and officer as well. So to receive the news that one son has been injured, shot through the thigh, the, leg and the other son missing in action is of course quite a difficult pill to swallow. And essentially my daughter, I was just talking to her a few minutes ago, and she was saying she feels like her life is… She’s 15 years old, our youngest daughter… her life until October 7th and her life after October 7th. Maybe that’s for a lot of people and a lot of families and maybe for Klal Yisrael as well that there’s something here which we hope will be a turning point for the positive.
But certainly in our family it’s been one where we’ve been in Israel nine years from South Africa, and we have two boys and two girls, and the two boys both went to the army, and both continued to be officers. And for both of them in one day to be involved in the fighting, one injured and one missing, was really quite something. Both of these boys, Yonatan and Daniel, grew up in South Africa. They had their bar mitzvahs in South Africa. I was a community rabbi in South Africa and head of a school. And I just know the shock there just when people woke up after two days of Yontif and not only heard about the war, but here are two South African boys who’ve been affected, two South African boys who are brothers, two South African boys who grew up in the community and had the bar mitzvah in the community, and the rabbi’s children, it’s like almost how can it be? So I think for us as a family, to have two boys in the army and two boys affected, it was really, really quite something.
It’s really hard to find words to express just one family who has sacrificed so much to defend the Jewish people. But if you’ll allow me to dig a little bit deeper, who delivers the message to a family that no one ever wants to hear, that you have a child who is currently, to this day, missing in action?
So how it works, the army has very clear and strict protocols, and things work in a certain way. In fact, what was so complicated this time around was two factors: the volume of people, over 300 soldiers got killed in the first day. How do you handle… The army is not built, especially when they’re not at war, for such a scenario. What I’ve heard is that in every single alternative military option of what could have happened in Gaza, there was no such scenario of such a mass attack. And not only that, not only have you got 300 soldiers that have got to be informed or 300 plus, you’ve got over a thousand civilians. Now, the people who felt the most in the dark over here where there was no protocol for is civilians. There was certainly no plan whatsoever for, God forbid, in one day over a thousand civilians being killed.
So I think the people who really struggled to some level until this day is civilians because there isn’t that a simple thing as in the army, when you go into the army you have your fingerprints taken, you have DNA taken. So there’s a system built around the God forbid scenario of a soldier in captivity, whatever it is, that doesn’t exist for civilians.
So I would say on some level, I don’t want to say the word fortunate because that’s not the right word. There’s nothing fortunate about having a son missing in action. But as one who’s interacted with so many families and seen their pain and see how they’ve handled it, I can see how much harder it’s been for civilians on every level. How does work in the army? How it works in the army is there’s somebody called… The official term in the army is Katzin Ha’ir the officer of the city, meaning a katzin who’s responsible for jurisdiction of your city.
There is such a position of a person who comes to inform people of the normal scenarios of God forbid somebody’s been killed. There aren’t that many people other than literally in wartime like the last time in Yom Kippur. Look at the last 50 years of Israeli history other than Yom Kippur, how many people were taken to captivity? There’s Gilad Shalit, but it’s the same protocol where the Katzin Ha’ir, in our case it was two officers who came. Now my son who is missing, by the way, presumed taken captive. He was missing for two weeks. It’s now presumed taken hostage. There’s circumstantial evidence for that. What happened is there’s four members of a tank. My son’s an officer and three other members. All four were informed at the same time, meaning on the Wednesday morning after the attack at 7:30 in the morning, the army has the sensitivity, knowing that we are all a group of soldiers, we’re on a WhatsApp group together. So there are four of us. One family lives just north of Haifa, another one in Natanya, another one in Tel Aviv, and us further down south in Yad Binyamin. All four at the same time, within five minutes literally have officers waiting outside their house and we’re informed within… On our WhatsApp group, the first one around 7:25 said, “I’ve just got to knock at the door.” It’s the dreaded knock at the door, you know?
It’s literally someone is showing up live.
And they’re dressed in uniform, I assume?
They’re dressed in uniform. There were two officers, both high ranking, a major and a colonel, if I remember correctly, and it’s the so to speak dreaded knock at the door.
Who opened the door?
I opened the door, I opened the door. I was expecting it.
No, I wasn’t expecting it because I was expecting it that morning I was expecting it because five minutes before, two of the other families said, “We are currently being visited.” So I knew I was actually talking… It was funny, I was talking to somebody on the phone, a friend of mine and I said, “I actually have to go. The army’s coming to inform us of what’s going on,” because I could see on my WhatsApp that the other two… So that’s what happened. They sat and they sat down with us. I already actually knew what they were going to say because as it was happening, one of the parents is WhatsApping us and saying, “They’re basically just telling us that they don’t know where they are.” Maybe I’ll go back one step. I’ll say that we basically knew from informal sources that the three of them were missing. One was killed and three were missing. So I’d already known that from informal sources.
The reason I knew that was my son who got injured actually fought in the same place as my son who was there for Shabbat, meaning our youngest son Daniel. The one who’s missing, presumed taking captive was a tank commander based for Shabbat in his base on the Gaza border. All a sudden Yonatan, who was at home and engaged at the time, now married, left the house and arrived in Sderot at nine o’clock in the morning because he was told by his commanding officer that anyone who’s got weapons should come. Not knowing what he was getting involved in, he actually ended up fighting in the same base, Nahal Oz. He was injured in that base, and he knew all of the officers who fought in that area.
So he did all of his research before from people who actually had got to the tank. So he actually knew that they were missing. So we were expecting the army to come and tell us that. And then indeed when they knocked at the door, I’d already seen that on the group. One of the families put, “They’re sitting with us and just reading out a formal message saying that we are informing you that your son is missing an action.”
There’s something very familiar and very haunting about sharing a WhatsApp group. There’s something very familiar about that. We have WhatsApp groups for our bus rides. The bus is going to be late. Every class has a WhatsApp group. And here you have a WhatsApp group where one of the parents in the WhatsApp group has been informed of the news that no parent should ever hear in their lifetime. And now you’re here together, bound together in a WhatsApp group, and you still are sitting with news. What happens after you get that formal almost declaration from the army that your child is missing, they don’t know where he is? What happens next?
So here again, the army is very sensitive. The protocol is, certainly in the case of someone missing, I don’t know other scenarios, as soon as they left the mayor of our regional council, the head of the regional council who actually accompanied them, meaning they came in with a mayor. And the mayor said to me, he said, “Doron, as these two leave, there’s another officer waiting outside who’s going to be the one handling your case. He’s going to be now your army liaison for the process going forward,” meaning the two who came are just here to inform, they’ve done their job, he’s your guy so to speak. And literally the two guys, there might have even been an overlap. As they were finishing, the other officer came in, the mayor of the city brought him in. And this particular guy now over the last month has been our liaison, and he has been nothing but incredible.
There isn’t a day that goes by, Rav David, that he isn’t in this house. And he said for two reasons, two reasons. He said, “What you hear from me is I promise you will be the truth. You’re going to hear lots of things in the news. You’re going to hear lots of fake news and lots of… All the time, negotiations and hostages. He said, “What I tell you is everything that we know for sure, so therefore I’m your anchor to know what’s true and what’s not true, number one. And number two,” he said, “whatever you need from the army, I’m your person.”
And I can say that’s what he’s been from the therapies that the army offers, the updates in the status of our child. The intelligence officers who are working every single case of one has been taken hostage or missing, has a digital file which is a interactive intelligence data of every element, from the Mossad to the Shabak to analyzing every camera that they’ve got, civilian cameras and every type of technology that there is to gather data to inform us of what’s going on with our son, and of course the army, so they know, please God, to find them.
So that’s what happens. So the formality is, the formal process is that after the knock on the door and the terrible news, the army provides you with somebody. I can’t talk for other people, other families of soldiers, but our person, his name is Yossi Shemish from Shoham. He’s a colonel in reserves. Before he left the army, he was actually head of the department for the missing and hostage. So having a person who’s A, incredibly sensitive, and B, so knowledgeable in the process… He said “Doron and Shelly,” to me and my wife, “I’m not involved in the analysis, in the investigation regarding your son. There’s a clear distinction between the analysis and the communication and the person to hold your hand. I’m the guy who they tell me what’s going on. I only know what they tell me. I’m not involved, but I can tell you how the process works.” And he literally has held our hand every step of the way. He’s been unbelievable. Every day he is here with something else. It’s really quite something.
Mi k’amcha Yisroel, to know that there are Jews supporting one another through such unimaginable circumstances does provide a comfort of sorts. We all wish we were never in this situation, and your strength, frankly is really unimaginable. One of the things that I found most astounding, and again on a microscopic level, it is something we are all dealing with. There’s been a protracted war, and we have the daily routines of our lives and learning how to balance both, for most people they figure it out because the extremes are not that extreme. Their saddest moments and what is at stake, it’s not quite as urgent as families like yourself, and their happiest moments are not quite as extreme, and the last three weeks after Yontif is anyways a quieter time. This has not been a quiet time for you and your family on either extreme. Aside from the fact that you have a son who is currently in captivity, or we are unaware of his whereabouts-
… presumed captivity, your other son Yonatan, in this period, got married, which has a swelling of all of the emotions. As Jews, we’re used to bringing these emotions together. We always sing Im Eshkachech. We always mourn Jerusalem for a moment underneath a chuppah. Never have I ever heard in these extremes to have these two emotions coexisting together. Tell me a little bit about the decision to move forward with a wedding when a child is missing, and not just the decision, the experience of a wedding when somebody integral to the family is unaccounted for. We’ve all been at weddings where we recognized grandparents or great-grandparents. We talk about people who couldn’t be there. I have never in my life been or even been able to imagine a wedding where someone in the immediate family is unaccounted for.
Yeah, so as follows, for the first three days until the army came to speak to us, three, four days, essentially we had this situation of one son injured and at home being treated, and another son unaccounted for, as you say. And around the Wednesday we said, “We actually need to think what we’re going to do about… We got a decision to make.”
Because this wedding date was already set.
Yes, our son was scheduled to be married on Gimel Cheshvan, which was the night of the 17th of October, eight, nine days after Yontif, Tuesday night. They were supposed to be married in Ashkelon. Our daughter-in-law, his fiancé then and daughter-in-law now, is from Kibbutz Saad in the south on the Gaza border. They were going to get married in Ashkelon, which is equidistant between the south and where we are in Yad Binyamin. So they were to be quite a large wedding. They’ve got a very big family, and we’ve got quite a big family as well and lots of friends, of the chatan and kallah. It was going to be a pretty large wedding.
Now, it was clear to us that if they were going to get married, it wasn’t going to be in a wedding hall in Ashkelon. That wasn’t going to happen. But we hadn’t yet a chance to think about it. We were just dealing with the shock of Daniel and the injury. So it was in the back of our heads that we need to make a decision. Came Wednesday, it was, “Hang on, look, the wedding is six days away. We’ve got to decide what are we doing.”
I think, Rav David, what happened for us is the following. When the army came to sit with us and explained to us that he is formally missing, and when Yossi, our representative from the army, because of his experience, shared with us that if he’s missing it means that we have no information, meaning there are people… He said, “I’m accompanying another family that from 7:25 AM on Shabbat we knew that the person had been taken captive because there was unequivocal eyewitness reports and camera footage. So I sat with that family already on the morning of Shabbat to tell them that their son is taken captive. So in your case, there isn’t that. There’s zero camera footage, zero eyewitness account, and therefore this definition of missing in action means that there’s going to be a process of circumstantial evidence over here until we can change that definition.”
I said to him, “Yossi, how long is it going to take?” He said, “It’s going to be weeks if not longer.” That was, I don’t want to use the word bracha, but that was a type of bracha in that it was the first element of an anchor of stability in the crazy, unstable, painful reality of the unknown, which said, what was worrying my wife and I and our son as well was even beginning to plan a wedding, where the day before, we might be sitting shiva, God forbid. We couldn’t even think about it. But what that did for us was basically explain to us… He said, “This is going to be weeks until this definition changes.”
So that at least gave us the head space to think in terms of more than what’s happening the next day. We said to my son, and my wife was very clear. She said, “Yonatan, Galia, I would support you getting married. I think it’s the right thing for you. You’re a frum couple. How long can you keep seeing people look into their eyes? This is the time you’ve done this. Yonatan is going to go back to the army when he recovers. Life’s got to go on. As painful as it is for me,” and my wife said, “I think it’s the right thing for you guys.” My son asked me, “Dad, what do you think?” I said, “I actually don’t have an opinion. My opinion is that if you want to do this and Galia want to do this, I will support it.”
He said, “But what do you think?” I said, “I don’t know what I think. I just know that I back you in whatever.” He said, “I can’t make the decision if I don’t know.” I said, “If you push me on it, my gut feeling tells me it’s the right thing to do if you want to do it.” Her parents felt the same way. I will also tell you something which happened, which is really incredible. On the Tuesday, the day before Yonatan’s commander, battalion commander, came, who he fought shoulder to shoulder with for the five or six hours until he got injured. And two incredible things came out of it for me. This was my turning point, where something shifted to allow me to get out of my personal angst and space and actually lift my head. My son’s very humble, as all Israeli soldiers are. They don’t tell you what’s going on. They certainly don’t want to upset their parents and cause any additional angst of what could have been.
But his officer, for one and a half hours took me through what happened. And basically two things became clear to me. This boy, like so many others, and I’ll say: It will be told of the incredible, incredible gevurah, courage and self-sacrifice, which will not be less than the times of Bar Kokhba and the times of the Hashmonaim in Biblical times. It’s just unbelievable how many people put themselves on the line with incredible self-sacrifice, absolutely remarkable.
But when I heard my own son, the decisions he made, not told to me by him, by his officer, and at every step of the way, gun battle after gun battle where the jeep in front of them was hit by a RPG, killing three officers from Maglan, and my son’s Jeep that the RPG flew right over their heads. And he didn’t a have gun when he left the house. He only had handguns because he had left his M16 in the base because it was Hakafot and Hakafot Shniyot and Yontif and he didn’t want to walk around with… And he never leaves his gun behind. But he literally went to battle with two handguns. Only when his friend got shot in the stomach did he take his gun. Somebody from Sayeret Matkal was injured. He took his helmet. And he literally was picking up military paraphernalia as he was going along.
He described the decisions made in real time, and I was so proud of my son. And he then said, “When we got to the army base, which just happened to be the one where the other son was, that he was the only one of the soldiers… It was an inorganic group of people, of five police, special forces like SWAT, and my son, a retired general, a battalion commander and two other officers of the paratroopers who went into the base.
My son was the only one who knew the base because he had visited his brother many times, and he himself had been based there a year ago. So he actually drew up a battle plan for them, explained to them exactly the base, where he thinks people will be hiding. And literally he led the battle for the next two hours until he was eventually shot in the leg. And by the way, he was shot in the leg, and the person next to him shot in the back, and the person the other side shot in the stomach, and many tens of chevra killed. But the point that I wanted to say was is when I heard the incredible gevurah and the incredible miracle that Hashem had saved this boy… A friend of mine, Rabbi Slotki, had his two sons, Noam and Yishay, killed in the same day.
And God forbid a million times over, the fact that my son came out with a relatively moderate to light injury when so much different around was unbelievable. So for me, I realized the chesed of Hashem in Yonatan’s case, and I realized the gevurah. And then the turning point for me regarding the wedding was when his commanding officer, a traditional guy from Tel Aviv says, to Yonatan, “Yonatan, you’re supposed to be getting married next week. What do you think?” So he said to his commander, “What do you think?” He says, “I think you should get married tonight in your uniform here in your garden. Your father’s a rabbi, he knows how it works. Let him bring a few witnesses. Am Yisrael needs a simcha.” He said, we are having such difficulty now. A simcha would be a good thing.
Am Yisrael needs a simcha.
Needs a simcha, yeah. What was so, for me, invigorating about that, it was almost like a visceral, natural, raw response from somebody from the outside saying that’s what you should do. Because what are you supposed to do when there’s so much pain and suffering nationally and personally? And here comes a guy and just says, “That’s what you should do.” So for me, it gave a certain context and a certain impetus. We knew the next day that Daniel was missing, and that status wouldn’t change. And I think those two factors together, we sat down, and it seemed acceptable and logical for a marriage, if they wanted to get married. It felt like the right thing to do for them. They wanted to do it. We went ahead.
And I almost felt, Rav David, that the decision made itself. It almost wasn’t a dilemma, meaning we hadn’t had a chance to think about it. And once we started thinking about it, especially after the status was clarified and what he’s commanding officer said, I almost feel that the decision made itself, if you know what I mean. And what you just said now is actually the first time I’d thought about it. I hadn’t thought about what you just said. That’s the first time that you’re imagining an unimaginable situation of one son getting married with a brother who’s unaccounted for as opposed who’s passed away or whatever. It’s just an unusual scenario. I can tell you that the wedding itself, I didn’t know how we were going to handle it because nothing prepares you for this.
Did you have conversations in advance? Did you have a game plan for how you were going to talk about your son who’s unaccounted for at the wedding? How did you create that space, that moment to kind of recognize, or it didn’t even need to be created?
It happened on its own. Let me tell you how it happened, and it happened in a way that I didn’t expect. Just remember when we decided on the Thursday to go ahead with the wedding, it was not going to be in Ashkelon. It was now going to be in Yad Binyamin. They’re to be reduced down to a hundred, 150 people from five or 600. We had to now not uninvite, but tell three or 400 people that can only join via Zoom or via livestream. The kallah herself, she’s one of eight siblings, has six brothers and brothers-in-law in the army. She didn’t know if one of them would be able to attend the wedding. And the ladies of Yad Binyamin, my wife’s friends, literally just dropped everything and within five days put together an incredible, incredible wedding from scratch. So my answer to you is that we didn’t even have a chance to think about that, if you know what I mean.
You’ve got this missing son, this injured son, this wedding, creating a livestream, creating wedding from scratch. I wanted to talk to the rabbi. The officiating rabbi is our rabbi from Yad Binyamin, but he himself has been in the army in Miluim because he is a divisional rav. He’s been up in the north. I didn’t have a chance to speak to him. So the truth is when the chuppah came along, there had been no conversations of what was going to be. So I’ll tell you that my coping mechanism was I’m putting Daniel out my mind for the chuppah and the wedding. It’s the only way that I feel that I can be present for my son.
That came crashing down because the rabbi did what he should have done. He started speaking, and he was very emotional. And he said, “We cannot begin this wedding without acknowledging the one person who we all feel the lack of his presence.” And at that moment I broke down. I had tried so hard to avoid that thought. There was no game plan. Everything was happening quickly. And I and my wife, I don’t know if there was a dry tear with everyone. My wife and I just couldn’t hold it together. I was crying. I was sobbing. I had my son holding me on the one side. I had my mechuten on the other side.
Your son, the chassan, was holding you?
Yeah, my son, the chassan, was holding me, saying, “Dad, it’s okay. It’s going to be okay.” He was holding me and the mechuten was just holding me. We were all crying. And the rabbi then said, “We are now going to say Shir Lama’alot. We’re going to daven for Daniel. And we davened for him. And I’d say those two three minutes for me have been the most painful in the last five weeks. But you know, what happened was we wiped our faces, he changed the mood, and we had a simcha. The elephant in the room was acknowledged, or the elephant not in the room was acknowledged. He took me by surprise because I wasn’t thinking through. I mean it would’ve been wrong had he not been mentioned, but I didn’t have the head space even to think about it. So he’s got tremendous EQ, and he knew as painful as it would be, it was the right thing to do.
And then the chuppah happened. And I can tell you, we wiped our faces. My wife was even stronger than me, which I couldn’t believe. And we had a simcha. There was one or two other tears. Family pictures were hard, which we didn’t want to have, but then we did. And seeing one or two people who are friends of my son who hadn’t yet seen, one or two soldiers who got out, but I can tell you that it was 95%, meaning the background music was the absence of Daniel. As my son Yonatan got to the chuppah, he said, “Dad, the only person I wanted at my best man that I wanted with me today was Daniel. And there was no scenario that I ever imagined standing under the chuppah without Daniel.” We acknowledged that, and we had a simcha. We really did. We celebrated. All her brothers and brothers-in-law managed to come out the army because the ground invasion hadn’t happened.
I’ll also tell you that many of my closest friends from overseas who were not going to come for the chuppah because two of them are aveilim and somebody else had some big overseas trip and that all got canceled because of the situation. I had my closest childhood friends and friends from South Africa around me and somehow we had an unbelievable simcha. By the way, Yonatan Razel came to the chuppah as well. He sang “Vehi Sheamda.” It was very subtle and he just started singing it. And he sang “Vehi Sheamda.” It’s not often you have a chuppah where you’re singing Vehi Sheamda at the chuppah.
And I didn’t choose the song, I wasn’t involved in any of that. I suppose others were involved in making those decisions. It was beautiful, as painful as it was. But I will tell you that somebody said to us at the chuppah, she said this was the holiest, saddest, happiest, most inspiring chuppah she’s ever been to. And it was all of those things together. And we danced, and there were soldiers and there was officers and our close family, and all the close family managed to come. It was unbelievable. It really was a simcha, meaning I did see that even when you say somebody is unaccounted for, or God forbid a close family member had passed away, I can tell you that we had a simcha and it was a proper simcha. The pain was given its place, the loss was given its place, the angst was given its place, and then the simcha took place.
It is really moving and inspiring to hear about the expansiveness of your heart, and that a heart can contain multitudes. And it really feels like you expanded your heart in a way that no one should have to stretch that far. But there is a comfort in knowing that the heart can stretch that far. I’m wondering if in the time since… You have a child who just got married and there’s Sheva Brachos, and you have a child who is missing. And you have on the other extreme, a lot of families in Israel who are in mourning. There are a lot of shiva calls happening in Israel. And thank God you are not one of those families. And I’m wondering in this moment where you are living with the deepest ambiguity that a parent could ever live with, are you able to participate? What are the feelings, and what is your ability to go into a beis aveil to pay a shiva call to continue to kind of go with the Jewish people when you are still existing in this existential ambiguity that is so painful?
Are you taking care of yourself to specifically retreat and to be together with your family? Are you able to go out? What has been your ability and capacity to participate in the larger mourning that is taking place while you are still left with existential ambiguity over a child? And on the other hand, a simcha, a Sheva Brachos, a newly married couple in your family, where does that leave you in the last two or so weeks?
So just before answering that, I just want to just make one comment about this expansiveness of the heart and this ambiguity because-
…For me, that has been certainly initially the most profound experience, that if you would’ve asked me before this, how’s it possible to take two such contradictory sentiments and feelings, and how can they coexist in a way without one totally overwhelming the other or causing confusion, I wouldn’t have known. But I have seen something I’ve mentioned a lot. My first interview was straight off the wedding on the Wednesday. I didn’t do anything, do interviews media, just the first 10 days we didn’t know what was going on and then we had to focus on the wedding. And the day after was the time to start unpacking. And I will say to you that the most profound thing that I felt the day after having been at the wedding is that the human experience is more profound than people’s rationale. The end of the day when you’ve go to machloches, you don’t know what it’s going to be or you’re not sure how it’s going to work out. Well go out and see what actually happens, what happens in reality.
And I will say that life is stronger than rationality, and I did see, I did see, that it’s possible to hold both. And I will say that we had just read Kohelet. And Kohelet was read over Sukkot. And the most profound feeling I had was like a mindset shift. When we read Perek Gimel that we all know, I always thought that that was different periods in your life. And Shlomo HaMelech said, you just got to know that in every season and every period there’s certain appropriate feelings. I realized for me that maybe the peshat is not that. The peshat of the most knowledgeable of all people, Shlomo HaMelech, the wisest to say you’ve got to know that the wisdom of life is that all of these things often happen at the same time. The wisdom is which of these to give expression to and which of these to compartmentalize.
And in a beit aveil no matter what simcha you’re in, if you have to contain and you have to be b’aveilut. And in a time of simcha, you’ve got to be able to take the angst and the difficulties and all of those things and even sometimes death and all of these things and put them in their place. And I felt, having been through this wedding, that it’s possible to go through this with the words which sort of in my head were playing over, the two Hebrew words were charadah and chedvah, that you can have such trembling, but at the same time such happiness. And they’re both present, but we were able to put the charadah in its place and have a simcha where the chedvah was the overwhelming feeling.
So I do feel that part of the complexity of life, as you said, we all have this to some extent, but in an extreme it brings it out more. But I think it’s the extreme which teaches about the klal that perhaps life is about managing these contradictory feelings. So that’s just a reflection that I have felt very, very profoundly. To what you said about capacity, my priority first and foremost is to look after my family, my wife, myself, obviously my children. If we don’t look after ourselves… So there has to be capacity first and foremost for that. That’s number one, number two, number three. At the same time, at the end of the day even that’s the inbuilt tension in life that you have to worry about yourself. But if that’s all you’re worrying about, what does that say about you? Egocentric at the end of the day, even if it’s couched in all types of glorious emotional and spiritual terms.
So it’s managing that dichotomy to say “I have to and we have to look after ourselves, but we are part of a broader people and community.” So I’m also involved in community leadership position, and so many people have… I think the story, Rav David, of people wanting a story of hope. The story for the first two weeks was, he has a simcha, baruch HaShem, but there’s a child missing. And on the one hand we go forward, but on the other hand we’ve got this challenge.
So I think people were craving for something to hear good news, but also to struggle with the struggle. And I felt that it’s the right thing to be able to give chizuk where I can, and share the story of hope where I can. And I found a lot easier to sit opposite a screen and share it as to do in person. I found it particularly difficult to give shiurim in person and speak about it in person. I found that hard, but I have done it. There are a lot of groups which are coming over, so many solidarity… Today I spoke to 70 to 80 people in two different groups, and it’s so heartwarming. It’s so many groups from all around the world are coming. It’s unbelievable.
Going to a shiva house is difficult. I would’ve gone to the shiva house of Daniel’s soldier, but it was on the same day as the wedding. We are going tomorrow, my wife and I, to sit with the family in Tel Aviv, of Tamar Lebovitz, who was killed. Next Wednesday is the shloshim. I’m going to Tel Aviv to be there.
So I feel for that. I have to have capacity for, because that’s part of our family now, so to speak. There have been one or two other funerals and shiva houses that I didn’t feel I had the capacity to go to. It’s not that I was expected to be there, meaning it’s not one that I was expected to be there. It’s just one that I might’ve gone to had we not been going through what we’ve been through. I’ve also had a number of weddings of friends have happened and there’s one that I went to because there’s one neighbor of ours whose son I’m particularly close to. He had his wedding as well. And I just went for the chuppah. I must say I found it very hard, but I was glad I went for the chuppah, and that was my capacity, to dance at the chuppah and to dance into the chuppah, and to wish a mazel tov, but it was too much to sort of stay for the whole wedding.
So I think it’s this ongoing sensitivity to look after yourself and also be around my wife. I’m working mainly from home. Things change on a daily basis, and I’m really trying to take things on a day by day basis and just make sure that I’m getting the balance right between being present for my family and myself and doing what I can at Mizrachi and also giving the x. I see that people are getting chizuk. I’m not going to people. People are coming here. And therefore I just have to manage that correctly to do it in a way that there is capacity.
Because I must say, today particularly, I’m feeling very, very heart sore today. It’s been a very difficult week. On Sunday, it was very, very hard. Yossi, our officer, he brought two boxes of Daniel’s possessions, some from the tank and some from his room in the army. He had essentially been living in that base. And just to see these containers, and then to… He shows the list that I have to sign off and I just started looking at glass. It was too much for me. So that’s how the week started.
For his possessions, his actual possessions-
His actual possessions. His kippot, his socks, his uniforms, the books that he’s reading, his glasses, whatever was not taken because many things from their rooms were taken. But these things were not taken, and that was very hard. So literally what I did was… Normally how that works, there’s a protocol in the army that’s two or three officers come and deliver it. I said to Yossi, our liaison, I said, “Please do me a favor. I can’t have any formality yet. Let them please give it to you. You sign it, just bring it to me. Put it outside the house.” He came, I said, “I’m going to make sure my wife is not…” If I know how much pain I’m feeling just at the thought of delivering this, I can’t imagine my wife.
And so I literally just took it, I signed it, and I put it in his room under a blanket, and we’ll go through that when we are ready for that. So it’s just this ongoing, and so therefore you have to have the kochot to deal with that. But at the same time, the overwhelming feeling is: You have to get that right, and I think it’s another built-in tension of the personal and the public at the same time.
I want to talk a little bit about your work in Mizrachi. I’m not interested in this moment of all of the incredible work that Mizrachi does and people should check out online. You do incredible work. You’re one of the most important leaders in the Religious Zionist movement. What I really want to understand is how this has affected what you want to see from Mizrachi’s constituents. How do you think the events of October 7th and everything that you’ve gone through on such a personal level, what do you want to see? I mean, there is a very beautiful rallying around and unity.
Are there things that you wish you got to see more of? Are there kind of whispers in your own head that you’ve always had too much diplomacy to say out loud of the effect and the draw to Israel that maybe as a head of an organization that is servicing the diaspora, you have to play it maybe a little safer, a little bit more diplomatic, a little bit more… What do you want to see the response from worldwide Jewry right now?
And I’m saying that acknowledging so much of the amazing global efforts that are taking place to support Israel, and not diminishing that for even a moment. But you are also a professional and you are a professional in the world of promoting Religious Zionism abroad that has not had a lack of headwinds in being able to achieve success. It is not always an organization that is welcomed in open arms, and people are like, “Oh, Mizrachi like we saw on the sixties and seventies.” How do you feel the events that took place on October 7th should or can change this conversation and the larger efforts, not just organizationally, but the larger efforts of Religious Zionism in the diaspora?
Yeah, look, I think if we distill religious Zionism to its core, it’s the centrality of Israel in the story of Jewish destiny. It’s the centrality of the return of the Jewish people, Kibbutz Galuyot, the centrality of Israel, which during our diaspora life of course was just a pining for it. But in our lifetime, in the last 150, 170 years or more or less, but the returning of Jews to Israel, the rebuilding of a country in the last 75 years, the largest Jewish community in the world, the rebuilding of the Torah world in Israel, and essentially that Israel is front and center in the story of moving Jewish history forward and what we might call geulah, certainly in terms of the students of Rav Kook, this sort of process of redemption. So for me, that’s what Religious Zionism is. It’s that the centrality of Israel and the return to Israel is deeply rooted in Torah.
The trilogy that always Mizrachi and then Rav Kook would speak about was Am Yisrael, Eretz Yisrael, Torat Yisrael, that you’ve got the story of the Jewish people deeply linked to obviously their destiny of keeping the Torah and mitzvot and fulfilling it in Israel. I came across the Abarbanel in Parshat Re’eh where he says, “That’s what the three Chagim are.” He says Pesach is Am Yisrael, the formation of Am Yisrael. Shavuot is Matan Torah of course Torat Yisrael. And he says Sukkot, he connects in various ways to Eretz Yisrael.
And therefore, the three national experiences where Klal Yisrael, Am Yisrael comes together in Yerushalayim around these three things. So the fact that in our lifetime and our generation we’re seeing this incredible return, Kibbutz Galuyot, to Israel and the rebuilding of Israeli society, I think today it was clear up until October 7th, it’s even clearer today, that the center of Jewish life is the Jewish people, and the whole world is rallying around Israel. The fact that you’re seeing ultra-Orthodox people, Charedim wanting to just go to the army and openly doing so, something has shifted.
The fact that we’ve seen many progressive people who perhaps have been a little bit circumspect about, especially of the government of the last year, everybody dropping everything and saying, “We’re rallying around, as the Jewish people, around Israel,” … And for me, it’s first and foremost about Am Yisrael. The one thing serving as a community rabbi in chutz la’aretz for many years, it really gave me a sense of community building, chutz la’aretz. And it gave me a deep, deep respect that as much as I am a farbrente tzioni and believe in aliyah and everyone coming to Israel, and I myself have made aliyah twice, going back to South Africa and being a rav of a community made me realize that you cannot prioritize Eretz Yisrael over Am Yisrael, meaning I believe in aliyah with all fiber in my being, but also believe that there’s responsibility to communities in chutz la’aretz because I was a rav of a community.
I’ll tell you one thing that I never did, Rav David. Whenever there was crime and difficult things in South Africa, I never used that as an impetus for aliyah. I felt it was the wrong thing to do. I do not believe right now is the time to pontificate and say to people, “Now’s the time to make aliyah now.” I don’t believe ever we should be pontificating, and I don’t think it’s our responsibility to tell other people what they should be doing. But I believe absolutely in the pulse of Jewish history and Kibbutz Galuyot and educating towards it and people making aliyah. But at the same time, there are communities around the world which do so much for the Jews who are there.
When somebody once said to me in South Africa, “But Rabbi Perez, aren’t you justifying Jewish communities in South Africa as a Religious Zionist?” I said, “I actually am not because nobody’s come to ask me for my justification. They are there.” If I was going and initiating a community in some far-flung—that would be a shaila. I’m simply coming to a community where Jews exist, and I’m trying to be relevant to them. But if you’re involved in building the community, does that mean you’re compromising aliyah … ? The more we built the community with the flavor of the centrality of Israel and the love of Israel, and going to study in Israel and aspiring to live in Israel, the more it happens. So I think this dichotomy of the centrality of Israel and aliyah, but not losing sight of Am Yisrael.
And I think for me, the biggest thing that has happened post-October 7th Simchat Torah, and that’s, I think, is our biggest opportunity and something I feel very strongly about. I wrote a book which came out on Yom Ha’atzmaut. It’s called The Jewish State: From Opposition to Opportunity. And it really was an opportunity for me to sort of cull 20 years of thinking and learning about Zionism and putting them into a Torah perspective. It’s called From Opposition to Opportunity. Why is there so much opposition to Jewish statehood? Why has antisemitism reformulated itself into anti-Zionism in our generation? And I found an incredible Gra in Habakkuk, which blew my mind. And the first six or seven chapters of just trying to unpack what the Gra is saying, how he analyzes history through Tanakh and the different nations.
The Vilna Gaon’s commentary on the Book of Habakkuk.
That is absolutely incredible and people should go out and buy it. It feels, for me, I’ve been to Israel more times than I can count. My parents have an apartment in Israel. I have a sibling in Israel. But what I am feeling is that for the first time ever, a generation both inside and outside of Israel, saw with our own eyes and confronted the possibility that for good reason we never think about of losing the State of Israel, and that that was even conceivable. And we have an entire generation rising up and says, “We are not going to be the generation that loses the State of Israel. We are not going to be the generation that loses this gift.” And everybody banding together and saying, “This is something that we are going to nurture and cultivate.” And the sacrifices you have made and the Jewish people have made, particularly in the Land of Israel, is incomparable.
And I think we’re all seeing the preciousness of what the State of Israel is and what it means to the Jewish people. And it’s people like you who really highlight that. So I really cannot thank you enough for joining us today. It means the world to me on a very personal level. And I think really your message to Amcha Yisroel throughout the world, being able to have that heart that contains multitudes is something that I think all of us are expanding our hearts and seeing how literally big, how great—mi k’amcha Yisroel—the Jewish people can be.
I really believe, for me, the most important thing which has come out of this, unfortunately through pain and suffering, has been the unity of the Jewish people. We’ve craved it for years. Israel has been incredibly divisive in the last five years. How many democratic countries have had five elections in four years? And that was only the warmup to this last year of such disunity, both within Israel and around the world. And somehow, what happened in October 7th, for reasons we don’t understand and know, but the pain and suffering has brought us—mi k’amcha Yisroel, goy echad ba’aretz—and we are one for the first time, certainly, in my lifetime. The fact that everybody just wants to do for everybody else, the people who six weeks ago were the total opposite sides of the political spectrum are sitting today. Literally, I heard from my friend who represents us in the national institution saying that he’s at the moment initiated something involved with the World Zionist Organization that anyone who has an apartment in Israel can make it available for people from the north and the south.
And he’s working with Achim Laneshek, which is one of the most vociferous anti-reform groups, anti-judicial reform to furnish all of them. He said, “Everyone is sitting together, k’ish echad b’lev echad, people coming from all around the world.” So I think the shaar ratzon is not as you’ve said, what Israel means to us, and a younger generation now having to rally around it and fight for it, but also with the antisemitism and with what’s going on to really feel that we are one people and we have each other.
And you spoke about expansiveness of heart. To me, what drew me to the teachings of Rav Kook, which is the second part of the book, which is called “A Vision for Unity in Israel and Why The World Needs It,” that Rav Kook taught me, whose writing has deeply impacted my life in when I was in yeshiva, is how Klal Yisrael needs to make space for all elements of the klal.
The unity of the Jewish people, the oneness the Jewish people is the key. And without that, we are at a loss spiritually. And I think for me, the fact that we have an opportunity today to come together with a little less self-righteousness, a little bit more humility, a lot more empathy, that we’re in this together… For God’s sake. We’re in this together. And perhaps if we’re in it together deeply, we won’t need external enemies to remind us that we’re in it together because we are so good at coming together in times of tsuris. We’re not as good as coming together when we don’t have that. And our hope and prayer is that… My parting comment is this, that long after this war is over, the great lasting impact of October 7th Simchat Torah should be that the Jewish people stand together.
As one of my friends said, the fact that we’re not able to dance together at Simchat Torah in a circle … The fact now that through the difficulty, we’ve created a machol which is a round circle of all of Am Yisrael together from every community around the world … b’ezrat Hashem. If that is the basis for our communal and political interaction going forward, please God will usher in a new era of unity, a new era for the Jewish people.
And b’ezrat Hashem, with that, I think it can only be a zechut for all of our hostages, including our son, Daniel Shimon. If you could daven for Daniel Shimon ben Sharon amongst all the other hostages and missing. For all of our soldiers, there isn’t a home in Israel and around the world, there isn’t a family member on the front line. And b’ezrat Hashem, in that zechut, of that togetherness, the tefillot, the oneness, that, what I believe, is our spiritual iron dome, should be that thing that ultimately enables us to not only be victorious and celebrate, but hopefully create a platform for a new era in our generation of Jewish history.
Rav Doron Perez, I cannot thank you enough for your courage, your sacrifice, and really the shining example that your family is of the strength of the Jewish people. It’s an absolute privilege to have you join us today.
Thank you very much. And I really, really appreciate the opportunity of being on 18Forty and the incredible work that you do bringing forward thoughtful people, so many of the issues facing the Jewish world, and it’s an honor and privilege to be part of it. And thank you for hosting me.
Listening to the incredible resolve, the incredible strength, the courage, the bravery, the inspiration and the vulnerability of Rav Doron is really just so incredibly moving. And my mind immediately went to one of the most fascinating passages that I think has ever been written. It’s the introduction of Rav Yitzchak Hutner, who was the rosh yeshiva in Chaim Berlin, who was held captive. He was a hostage when the plane that he was on and many Jews was on during Black September in September of 1970, when the PLO orchestrated to hijack a bunch of airplanes throughout the world. There were many Jews on these planes, which they were held hostage ultimately. And one of the more famous victims of this hijacking was Rav Yitzchak Hutner.
With Rav Hutner at the time, he had to rewrite one of his seforim. The manuscript from the sefer was lost, and that was the sefer that he was planning to publish on the holiday of Shavuos. Each of his works is on a different holiday, and the manuscript that he had planned to publish on the holiday of Shavuos, Pachad Yitzchak on Shavuos was lost and they had to rewrite it from scratch, which I think has its own very powerful, very moving imagery to it.
But in the second paragraph in the introduction, you can read, he writes something that I think is incredibly moving and almost a brachathat we all are looking to feel aspirationally in this moment right now. He quotes from the verse in Jeremiah, in the 31st chapter, in the ninth verse says as follows, talking about people who are coming from captivity out of captivity. The pasuk writes, the verse writes: “They shall come with weeping, and with compassion. I will guide them.” And Rav Hutner asked a very basic question. “Why are they crying if they’ve just been freed, if they’ve just come out of captivity? You would expect someone to cry when they’re taken into captivity. Why are they crying when they’re being taken out of captivity?”
And he writes in Hebrew, “The joy, specifically the joy that emerges following suffering, following crisis, following difficulty, that is specifically what contains the potential and power to bring one to tears of joy. The salvation that comes from within the crisis, that is what generates our tears of joy. Even though the actual crisis may already be completed, nonetheless, the gates of tears within our souls have not yet been completely closed, and they burst forth.” And I’ve seen this in my own eyes, the times that bring people to tears most during times of joy is when there is a backstory, when there is some difficulty, some suffering, some pain that we had to get through to get to this moment.
And I think in our Doron’s story, and in a larger part, the collective story of the Jewish people right now, somebody who’s able to have both demaos shel simcha and demaos shel tsa’ar, but at a simcha, to be able to contain the multitudes of feelings that we have now. I think within all of us, we still have emotional processing that is still left to confront. The shaarei demaos of the Jewish people has not yet been closed.
Yet our collective wish, really inspired from the courage of Rav Doron, is that we should be able, each of us and every single hostage and everybody in suffering, everybody who’s still been injured, we should be able to experience collectively that moment, that they will come with weeping, but the tears should not be tears of suffering and pain, but the tears should be collectively of the Jewish people that have been welling up inside of us since October 7th, the tears of joy to finally see this chapter of the Jewish people close and allow us to collectively open that next chapter of joy, of connection, of salvation for all of the Jewish people and for all of the world together experiencing peace, tranquility, and love in each of our homes and for all of those who we love.
So thank you so much for listening. This episode, like so many of our episodes, was edited by our dearest friend Denah Emerson. If you enjoyed this episode or any of our episodes, please subscribe, rate, review. Tell your friends about it. You can also donate at 18forty.org/donate. It really helps us reach new listeners and continue putting out great content. We’re doing our best and your support means so much now, more than ever. You can also leave us a voicemail with feedback or questions that we may play in a future episode. That number is 516-519-3308. Once again, that number is 516-519-3308. If you’d like to learn more about this topic or some of the other great ones we’ve covered in the past, be sure to check out 18forty.org. That’s the number 1, 8, followed by the word forty, F-O-R-T-Y.org. You can also find videos, articles, recommended readings, and weekly emails. Thank you so much for listening, and stay curious my friends.