Bruce Mendelsohn was struggling to keep his eyes open in his Millbury home on the morning of Oct. 7 after spending the night as a shomer – keeping watch over the dead and reciting Tehillim (Psalms) – at a local funeral home.
He flipped on the television to wake himself up, turning to a news channel. Having previously worked with many soldiers in the Israeli Defense Forces and having family members serving, he had a pit in his stomach as he saw the news.
“I told my wife before I went to shul, I said, ‘I guarantee you that some of the guys I know are going to be killed,’” Mendelsohn said.
Later that day, he received a WhatsApp notification that his friend, Yigal Iluz, a police sergeant major and bomb searcher in the southern region, was dead. Mendelsohn, a U.S. Army veteran, had met Iluz on a police unity bicycle tour in Israel in 2017, and they had stayed friends since.
Mendelsohn soon found out that another friend he met on the tour, Superintendent Shlomo Moshe El, also was dead.
A few days later, Mendelsohn learned from one of his soldier friends that Roi Levy, an IDF colonel he had befriended when he brought him – along with a delegation of IDF soldiers – to the United States with Friends of the IDF, also had been killed.
“The only thing I could say about these three guys is that they were killed doing something for the love of their country and these guys genuinely loved Israel,” Mendelsohn said.
Reeling from three separate losses related to Hamas’ attack on Israel, he’s worried about four of his brother’s six children who are either actively serving in the IDF or are reservists.
Mendelsohn joins the growing number of Jews and Israelis who have had loved ones killed, injured, or kidnapped, either in the initial surprise attack by Hamas on Oct. 7, or in the following days.
Yael Magen of Marblehead, a dual-citizen of Israel and the U.S., shares Mendelsohn’s pain. Her friend from high school, Shlomi Mathias, along with his wife, Debbie – whose father was a Brandeis professor – were killed in their home on Oct. 7.
“He was a civilian, with his wife, and they were able to save their child,” Magen said.
“They jumped on the child while they were shooting and they were able to save their teenage son. He [Mathias] was one of the first people whose body was found and was actually identified.”
She said another person she went to high school with is still missing.
“There isn’t an Israeli who does not know somebody who was injured, or killed, or abducted,” Magen said. “I think every single Israeli and Jewish person have been walking around like emotional zombies.”
On Oct. 7, at around 2 a.m., Magen’s husband woke her up in a panic, saying “a war just broke out in Israel.” The two spent the night and morning staring at the news as updates came in and the death toll began to rise.
Magen, who was born in Beersheba and still has family in Israel, was terrified to send her three children to school amid the looming threats of attacks on Jews around the world.
“My grandmother was a Holocaust survivor. It’s part of our lives. It’s part of our history and our family,” Magen said. “And I’m literally sitting right now in Marblehead in 2023, talking to my children about being safe – ‘Should they wear their Magen David [Star of David], should we speak Hebrew in public?’”
Despite the current danger in the region, Elie Mazor, an Israeli-born Peabody resident who was on a trip to Jerusalem when the attacks broke out, wanted to stay in the country because of his deep attachment to the land, he said.
Mazor, who has been at his apartment in Jerusalem on vacation for the past three weeks, said his and his wife’s main bedroom is a mamad – a fortified room – so he has felt protected. He hasn’t heard too many missile sirens, he said, but is still on alert.
“Since I’ve been living abroad, I really have not seen, since my service, any war like this,” Mazor said in a phone interview from a car in Jerusalem. “I’m out, now. I’m going to the bakery. Initially, most of the big malls were closed.”
Other local Israeli-Americans, such as Rabbi Idan Irelander of Congregation Ahavat Olam in North Andover, have spent the past two weeks keeping in touch with family and friends in Israel.
Irelander, who was born and raised in Netanya north of Tel Aviv and served in the IDF, said that with the number of casualties related to this war, it was almost certain he would have friends and acquaintances die. As the death toll rose, Irelander kept hearing that friends of friends, parents of friends, and children of friends were among those killed or kidnapped.
“It’s heartbreaking. I really am speechless. I don’t know what to say,” Irelander said in a phone interview. “This is the deadliest pogrom against Jews since the Holocaust. We never, ever envisioned anything like that in the State of Israel.”
He said he hasn’t gotten a full night’s sleep since the initial attacks, as he’s been worried about his community in North Andover, as well as Jews abroad.
“I barely sleep now. You can probably hear it in my voice,” Irelander said. “It’s not just my family I’m taking care of. It’s my own community [at Congregation Avahat Olam], and I’m responding to their needs. They need some help and guidance. People are really upset about what’s happening.”
Rachel Jacobson of Swampscott, who was born in Jerusalem, said she was on the phone with her niece nonstop while her family took shelter in their mamad during the first few days of the war.
She said her niece brought snacks and water into the safe room since she and her children would stay there for hours at a time, many of which were spent comforting her young son who expressed intense fear throughout their stay.
“When I called my niece, one of her kids was crying and saying, ‘I can’t live in Israel anymore, I can’t live in Israel anymore,’” Jacobson said in an interview. “When she was comforting him, she said to me, ‘You gain this power you didn’t think you had.’”
When Jacobson first learned about the Hamas attacks, she realized that something was wrong because her phone would not stop buzzing at 2 a.m. on Oct. 7, she said. She finally picked up and noticed she had over 100 messages and a headline that said “Holocaust,” or “Shoah,” in Hebrew.
She did not leave her home for the first few days, she said, and felt guilty that her family and friends were in Israel and she was not there with them. Part of her soul is in Israel, she said.
Jacobson said that although she is absolutely devastated about the loss of life due to this war, she knows that Israel has the strength to go on.
“We survived during the Yom Kippur War, the Lebanon War, we survived Gaza through the years. We have to survive. There’s no other way,” Jacobson said, her voice breaking.