A Time of Horror, A Time of Happiness:
An Interview with Rabbi Doron and Shira Perez
For Rabbi Doron Perez and the Perez family, the events of Shemini Atzeret have hit home in the most direct and painful way. Yonatan Perez, their oldest son, was injured in the fighting, and their second son Daniel is still missing, presumed captured by Hamas in Gaza. In an unbelievably complex emotional moment, Yonatan was due to get married just ten days after the atrocity, and the family had to decide whether to go forward with the wedding. Rabbi Aron White spoke with Rabbi Perez and his daughter, Shira, to hear about their experiences over the last few weeks.
You have been through an emotional rollercoaster over the last several weeks, but let’s start from the beginning. What happened on the morning of Shemini Atzeret?
Rabbi Doron Perez: We were at our home in Yad Binyamin – myself and my wife Shelley, our daughter Shira, and our oldest son Yonatan and his fiancée Galya. At 6:30 a.m. on Shemini Atzeret, the siren went off, so we knew rockets were being fired from Gaza. We ran to the mamad (safe room), and were going in and out of the mamad for the next hour. We thought it was a little strange, as there were more rockets than during previous attacks. Our son Yonatan is an officer in the paratrooper unit, and by about 8 a.m. his phone was pinging with messages pouring into WhatsApp groups from army officers, and so he felt he had to see what was going on despite it being Shabbat. It was hard to get a clear picture of what was happening – some people were reporting Hamas terrorists had broken in, there were pictures of Hamas with Israeli hostages, but the main word that kept repeating itself was “hazui,” “crazy.” Yonatan’s battalion commander put out a message that anyone with a weapon should come to Sderot. I said to him, “You have a fiancée, you only have your handgun, and there hasn’t been an official call up, just a general WhatsApp message. Are you sure you should go?” Yonatan said, “If my battalion commander said anyone with a weapon is needed, then I am going,” and he drove off. I was proud of him, but as none of us knew what was really going on, at that point I wasn’t so worried.
At around 4 p.m. our phones started ringing constantly from a number I didn’t recognize. I didn’t want to pick up on Shabbat, but after about 20 calls I picked up. “I’m OK, Dad,” said Yonatan at the other end of the line – the clearest sign that something had happened. “I am in Soroka hospital in Be’er Sheva – I was shot in the leg, but the doctors say it isn’t a serious wound., He had arrived in Sderot, and then gone on to fight outside of Sha’ar HaNegev Junction, Kfar Aza and Sa’ad before eventually fighting on the Nachal Oz army base – all in all, for 5 or 6 hours. He told me he had seen indescribable, unimaginable horrors, and he was worried about his fiancée’s family. Galya is from Sa’ad, and having seen some of the devastation in other kibbutzim, Yonatan was worried about her family.
This was also the first time that something was mentioned about our second son Daniel. Daniel is a tank commander, and was based on the Nachal Oz army base, the base that Yonatan had fought on. “I know where Daniel’s tank is stationed,” Yonatan said, “and it wasnt there when I got there.” Yonatan had seen tens of dead soldiers on the base, so we saw it as a good sign that Daniel’s tank wasn’t there. We assumed he was with it fighting somewhere, and naturally he wouldn’t have his phone on him in that situation. So as it came to the end of Yom Tov, I was with Galya, our future daughter-in-law, mainly worried about what we were going to find out from her family when Yom Tov ended.
Shira: I also wasn’t so scared when the sirens began, or when Yonatan went to fight. I spent most of the day with Galya, and she just wanted to speak to her family. When we heard Yonatan was injured I was sad, but I was just assuming Daniel would call us after Yom Tov. I remember going to sleep very late after Yom Tov, and the next morning when I woke up I asked my dad, “Has Daniel called yet?” When he said no, that was when I started to get very worried about what happened to him.
So at this point, at the end of Yom Tov, most of your attention was on Yonatan, who you knew was injured in hospital.
RDP: When Yom Tov went out, I made sure to stand by Galya as she called her parents, and breathed a sigh of relief when we heard they were OK – Sa’ad was one of the few kibbutzim in the area that the terrorists had not gotten into. We then drove to the hospital to visit Yonatan, and it was chaotic – there was ambulance after ambulance bringing in the injured and there wasn’t an available bed, or even crutches, for Yonatan. We decided to bring Yonatan home late that night, so he could recover at home, as he could get more treatment from our doctor in Yad Binyamin than in the overwhelmed hospital. I looked all around the hospital, in case Daniel had been brought in, and a number of parents were doing the same. I was dealing with Yonatan and his recovery, but started to get worried about Daniel.
The next day, we began to feel that something was wrong. Yonatan started making calls to his peers in the army. After a while, we got an update from someone. This was not an official report, but Yonatan had been told that Daniel’s tank had been found, with one of the four soldiers dead inside of it, but not the officer, so we knew it wasn’t Daniel. It became clear that Daniel was missing in action. This was a very painful moment that we will never forget. I gathered the kids at home and together we went to share the news with my wife – we hugged, we cried, and it was a very hard moment.
On Thursday morning at 7:30 a.m., we got a knock on the door from the IDF, who officially told us that Daniel was missing in action. The army assigned a colonel to our family, who would be our liaison to provide us with accurate information, as in these situations there is fake news swirling around everywhere. The colonel in reserves Yossi Shemesh has been unbelievable, in touch with us every day, and he spent hours with us on that day.
Shira: I can still remember exactly how I was in my room, and Galya came and sat next to me. “We have unofficial news about Daniel.” I broke down when she and Yonatan told me, and it was the first time I have ever seen my dad and Yonatan cry like that, they were so heartbroken. I genuinely felt like my heart was aching and sore, my whole body was sore, it was the first time I ever felt that level of pain. We were all feeling like that. It’s the hardest thing I have ever been through. We have so many pictures of Daniel all around the house, and just seeing them was another stab in the heart.
Between those days and the official update from the army, I was numb and kept myself busy. I don’t remember those days; it was all a blur. I remember one thing – that I would go to sleep very late, because I didn’t want to hear bad news the next morning.
Around this time, while dealing with the news about Daniel, the question of Yonatan and Galya’s wedding came to the fore. They were due to get married just 10 days after the massacre. How did you deal with that?
RDP: On Tuesday October 10th, Yonatan’s commander, who he fought side-by-side with, came to our home to tell us about the battle. It was only then that I realized it was a miracle he survived. Yonatan could easily have been killed, G-d forbid. To his left and right, soldiers were shot in the stomach, in the back, hit by RPGs. I came out of that meeting feeling so proud of his courage and so appreciative to Hashem that he was safe. Around 300 soldiers, including tens of officers, were killed on October 7th, and many were injured. At the end, the commander said to Yonatan, “Am Yisrael needs a lot of smachot now. I think you should get into your uniform and get married tonight in your garden. Your dad is a rabbi, he knows what to do!” From that conversation, I realized that continuing on with the wedding might be a healthy response.
We had to make a decision. My wife was adamant that they should get married, but we told Yonatan and Galya that this is their decision, and we would support what they want to do. “But dad, what do you think, it’s your son who is missing?” Yonatan said. “He is your brother,” I said, “and we will support what you choose.” They decided to go ahead with the wedding, supported by us and Galya’s parents, the Landaus. We canceled the wedding hall in Ashkelon but decided to have the wedding on the date originally planned, Tuesday October 17th, in a much smaller format according to the limitations of the military circumstances. Our friends in our community of Yad Binyamin organized the wedding on the local high school premises, transforming it into a beautiful wedding setting within five days.
The army had told us they thought it would be a while before Daniel’s status changed, but I was still worried about the nightmare scenario of us discovering there would be a funeral the day before the wedding. I asked Rav Rimon if I was allowed to tell the army not to tell us any information if they heard it until after the wedding, and he gave us that heter.
Shira: The wedding was very hard at the start. The hardest part besides the chuppah was the photos. My sister Adina was taking photos of Yonatan, and I joined the photo. It was a photo of Yonatan with his sisters, but then it hit me hard that Daniel wasn’t there.
RDP: After Yonatan waddled his way to the chuppah, still limping from his injury, the first thing he said to me was, “Dad, I could never imagine a scenario where Daniel was not at my wedding.” For me, the hardest moment was when our very special rabbi, Rav Hillel Merzbach, spoke under the chuppah. He began emotionally and said that we have to acknowledge the one person who is not here. I broke down then – I had been trying so hard to put Daniel out of my mind for the chuppah to focus on the simcha, but the mention of Daniel broke me down. It was absolutely the right thing to mention Daniel, but it was really tough. He spoke about it and we davened for Daniel. It was 2 or 3 minutes of very hard emotions. But my exceptionally brave wife Shelley and I got through it, wiped our faces and transitioned to the simcha.
Shira: It was hard when we said Tehillim, the chuppah was super emotional. It was very powerful, but it was also happy. I have never experienced being so happy and sad at the same time. That was one of the most spiritual experiences I have ever had, it was so holy and beautiful. The idea that we could still be happy during this unimaginable situation, and do what the Jewish people always do, and appreciate life and celebrate another bayit ne’eman b’Yisrael – it was hard but beautiful.
RDP: Somebody said to me that it was the holiest, saddest, happiest chuppah she has ever been at. I feel the wedding was a happy occasion. The lack of Daniel’s presence was there, but we were so happy and it was a small wedding, with our closest friends and family. Some of my closest childhood friends flew in especially from South Africa and England to be with me. I danced a little with the flag of Chativa 7, Daniel’s brigade, which was a subtle way of acknowledging his ever-present absence. There were a lot of Israeli flags. Yonatan was injured with many stitches, he danced on one leg, hopping and hopping, but it was very special. Galya has six brothers and brothers-in-law in the army, including Neria, who had been Galya and Yonatan’s shadchan, and all of them managed to get out to be at the wedding. There was a tremendous amount of simcha and joy.
For a few days the wedding was the center of your attention. After the wedding, what happened next? How did you both deal with the new reality, and return in the coming weeks to any sort of regular life?
Shira: It dawned on me after the excitement of the wedding was over – it’s reality now. Before the wedding, I had been having Zoom school, but I hadn’t been to one class, because I just couldn’t. I started realizing I would have to continue on with real life. I have been blessed with an amazing school, with amazing teachers and principal, and they visited me during those days. Within a couple of days I started to go back to school. I thought it would be hard, but the first few days were easier. I wake up, go to school, but then something reminds me of Daniel, and then I get an ache in my heart. That’s when it really hits you. I come home from school, and the door to his room is closed, as we can’t bring ourselves to go in. There are those little moments throughout the day which are hard. Besides that, what keeps me high most of the time is sensitivity and support of the people around us. Each of us have our own friends, we have our family friends, and all the davening and love from Am Yisrael keeps me hopeful and positive and able to continue to have a normal life. One day I said to my mum that my life has split into two – before October 7th 6:30 a.m., and after. The little things don’t matter, there are so many bigger things. You get up, you continue, that’s who we are as a people. My parents are role models in that way.
RDP: I didn’t do any interviews until after the wedding. I just needed time to process what we were going through and to get through the wedding in one piece. All requests were deferred until after the wedding. I did an interview at 8 a.m. the day after the wedding, and I started to see that people wanted and needed to hear stories of strength and hope at this challenging time. This wasn’t only the story of a missing soldier, it was also the story of his brother getting married and the angst and turmoil of tumultuous conflicting emotions, all together. For me it started this new routine of so many requests to tell the story – radio and television interviews, many missions coming to Israel, and Zoom requests from around the world. I found it significantly easier talking to a screen than in person. The first shiur I gave at Midreshet HaRova, I spoke to the whole school, live-streamed as a Mizrachi event. It was the first live one, the girls were singing “esa einai,” and it was very emotional for me as I came in. It was probably the hardest shiur I have ever given, I couldn’t even look at the camera. But it became a little easier.
My number one priority is obviously to be present for my wife and family as we navigate these uncharted and challenging times together. My amazing wife Shelley has a very strong connection to Daniel and was in constant daily contact with him despite his rigorous years in the army. Secondly, there have been so many requests and I couldn’t cope with the volume of requests to speak. Rabbi Mirvis, Deputy CEO, has been running things at Mizrachi and I am doing as much as I can. He has helped me screen the interviews as well, as I can only deal with so much. I am not traveling overseas right now, and am trying to work as much as possible from home. I am trying to balance being present for those closest to me with and giving chizuk wherever I can to others. The new normal for me is finding a sense of routine, making sure I am taking care of myself and my family, while trying to give chizuk as much as I can.
Shira: One thing that I realized is that talking and telling our story brings people hope. We continued, we had a wedding. It’s one of thousands of stories in Jewish history that captures who our people are. This is how we continue. Telling the story, meeting people who want to know what happened and feel close – it gives a lot of chizuk. Not only saying the horrible things that have happened, but also the light, the hope that has come out of it. It’s a reminder that there is still light in this horrible situation. For me, that is who the Jewish people are. This is in our DNA.
RDP: Yonatan and Daniel grew up in the Mizrachi community in South Africa. After two days of Yom Tov, the community received the news that these boys who grew up in the community and who had fought on Shemini Atzeret – that one was injured and one was missing. Thousands turned out the next evening for a communal tefillah in the same shul where both boys had their Bar Mitzvah celebrations and where I had served as community rabbi. The Chief Rabbi told the story and there was a tremendous feeling of the South African Jewish community rallying together. Our incredible community in Yad Binyamin has done the same, as have so many of our friends and partners connected to World Mizrachi from across the globe. We are tremendously grateful for the outpouring of love, support and tefillot at this time. As we navigate tempestuous waters, this support gives us the strength we need to keep pushing through and to give strength to others. We are tremendously thankful for the support.