Going to a shiva for someone you know? That’s hard. And for someone you don’t know. Not just nearly impossible, but wrong.
Inserting oneself into a stranger’s life during their most painful moments? That violates privacy. Yet over the past two weeks, I paid two shiva visits to families of fallen IDF soldiers whom I didn’t know personally, and I don’t regret doing it.
The first fell upon me in the guise of a favor. The soldier had been the daughter of a friend of a friend—two degrees of separation from her and three for me.
“I haven’t seen them in thirty years. I want to go, but I feel funny,” said my friend.
“I’ll go with you,” The words slipped from my mouth before I could grab them back.
Days went by, and my friend said nothing. Maybe she forgot. Maybe I was off the hook. Then, suddenly, she said, “We’ll leave at 6. Does that work for you?”
No, not really. I stifled my initial reaction, but the reluctance was real.
The apartment and the mourner’s tent in the garden were packed with young adults, the deceased soldier’s high school classmates or army buddies. It seemed like a party.
Everyone was a native-born Israeli. Everyone was Sephardic. Everyone was speaking in Hebrew. I was the only American, the only Ashkenazi, and the only one who didn’t even know the deceased.
At the entrance to the tent sat Shirel’s father, a ruggedly handsome Israeli, probably a seasoned war veteran himself, his eyes red with tears.
Shirel had been his baby and the only girl.
On the morning of October 7th, she’d been off duty, nearly done with her military service, yet when she heard the news, she ran to help and saved many lives.
“You fought until your last drop of blood in this war, and that’s the greatest sense of pride you can give your parents, your family, and the nation,” said her brother Barak at her funeral.
At some point, Shirel entered the IDF base war room, supposedly a safe one. When their bullets failed to penetrate the reinforced concrete, Hamas terrorists set the building on fire. Shirel and the others who were with her were burned alive.
Though she died on October 7, it took three weeks until her charred remains were tracked down.
How could one live with that story?
I looked up at Shirel’s parents, and our eyes met.
This was my time to speak.
“My grandmothers died in Auschwitz. Your daughter is like them, a Kadosh, a holy martyr.” Shirel’s father offered a broken half smile, but her mother opened her arms in an embrace. For a moment, we felt like sisters, and perhaps we were.
I left feeling broken and also oddly comforted. What heroes walk among us? The spirit of our people, even when broken or perhaps especially when broken, is so strong. What a privilege it is to be a part of this nation.
As elevated as that shiva had been, it wasn’t an experience I wanted to repeat, and yet a week later, there I was again at a shiva for a stranger, another female IDF soldier.
Rose Lubin had been my landsman, a fellow American immigrant to Israel. Born and raised in Atlanta, she volunteered for the IDF to serve the Jewish people.
A rumor had spread on social media that the shiva was empty, and the mourners were alone.
That felt like tragedy on steroids. How could I not go? So early one Friday morning I made my way to the Jerusalem courtyard, where Rose’s family was mourning her loss.
Social media had been wrong. The shiva was beyond full. The family received one thousand visitors each day, some of whom had flown in from other countries to honor Rose’s memory.
Like Shirel, Rose had been a heroine. On Oct. 7, she fought to secure the gate of the Kibbutz Saad, the Gaza envelope farming community that had become her home in Israel, preventing the terrorists from entering and saving many lives. Tragically, Rose’s own life ended a month later when terrorists attacked as she stood guard duty in Jerusalem’s Old City.
Her parents described a deeply principled young woman who avoided negative speech, observed the Sabbath, and loved art, music, horse riding, and her own quirky brand of fashion.
“When she joined the IDF, her hair color went back to normal, and her socks matched,” said her father.
Rose also helped fellow soldiers deal with the rigors of army service. In a time when depression and anxiety are endemic, especially among the young, Rose loved life.
“She sang all the time,” recalled fellow border policewomen at the shiva.
And now Rose and Shirel, whose name means song of the Lord, are singing together in the holy space where those who die because they are Jews spend their eternal rest.
May their memory be blessed.
Dedicated to the memory of Rose Lubin and Shirel Haim Pour.
Carol Ungar is a writer who loves to share her observations of Jewish life.