Former Squirrel Hill couple returns from Jerusalem to talk about Israel-Hamas war
search
Israel at WarConversations with Friends

Former Squirrel Hill couple returns from Jerusalem to talk about Israel-Hamas war

Dr. Laurie Wasser and Yisrael Klitsner visit Pittsburgh, deliver heartfelt message to friends

Dr. Laurie Wasser and Yisrael Klitsner speak to Pittsburghers on Jan. 30. (Photo by Adam Reinherz)
Dr. Laurie Wasser and Yisrael Klitsner speak to Pittsburghers on Jan. 30. (Photo by Adam Reinherz)

A couple who bridges the Diaspora and Jewish state returned to Pittsburgh to describe the interpersonal challenges spurred by the Israel-Hamas war.

Seated inside the JCC Katz Performing Arts Center on Jan. 30, former Squirrel Hill residents Dr. Laurie Wasser and Yisrael Klitsner described fundamental changes wrought by Oct. 7.

The couple explained that nearly 18 months earlier, they and their four children moved from Jerusalem to Pittsburgh so that Wasser, an ophthalmologist, could conduct research at the UPMC Vision Institute.

As Wasser focused on her fellowship, the family adjusted to life in the States. The children attended Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh. The parents made new friends. The family hosted parties and transformed their rented home into a space for  gathering, watching television and spending hours talking about peoplehood, childrearing and the inconsistent play of Klitsner’s cherished Green Bay Packers.

The serenity of a newly created life was short lived, however. Days after Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack, Klitsner, like tens of thousands of Israelis living abroad, returned to Israel. While the Duvdevan reservist and former adviser for Diaspora affairs to the prime minister of Israel, rejoined his IDF unit for undercover operations, Wasser remained in Pittsburgh with their children ages 2-11.

“I was beautifully taken care of here,” she said.

WhatsApp groups became hubs for meal plans and babysitting. Community members helped Wasser and her siblings raise thousands of dollars for their brothers and fellow soldiers.

More than a month passed and “I don’t think I felt alone for a minute of it,” Wasser said.

Dr. Laurie Wasser speaks during an Oct. 19 vigil for Israel. (Photo by Adam Reinherz)

During those six weeks, Klitsner served in the Judea and Samaria Area. But nearly 45 days into the war, Klitsner and Wasser learned that he would be entering Gaza.

Wasser decided it was best for the family to return to Jerusalem — where the children’s grandparents could offer help — and messaged the principal of an elementary school in Jerusalem to say the family was returning home.

What should have been a six-month process of registering with the municipality became a 10-minute WhatsApp exchange, Wasser said.

The expediency with which Israelis are working to preserve the normalcy of life for children is a testament to a people’s character, she continued: Israelis are so often known for their “tough love and abrasive approach, but I think the flipside to chutzpah is resilience.”

Wasser and the children readjusted to life in Jerusalem by becoming one of numerous families with relatives at war.

Sirens, shelters and absent loved ones made for a strange confluence of fear and calm, she explained.

When asked about her children’s understanding of the situation, Wasser said, “To be honest, I haven’t totally asked them what they know. I think I’m scared to ask because it’s a scary question, especially since this war is not over. We have no idea what is to come. We still have hostages somewhere in Gaza, in tunnels somewhere. I’m pretty scared to know the full answer.”

Klitsner was quick to say that while he was away, Wasser and others were “really fighting the battle.” When the country is at war “and the people are on the home front, all they can do is read the news, and follow it and be very, very worried.” For soldiers, though, there is an element of escapism in surrounding oneself with a bunch of “smelly human beings who crack obscene jokes.”

Reverie ends when reality arrives, however.

“There are moments where it hits you — that underneath your feet it is very possible there are tunnels that you don’t know about that will either blow you up or are holding hostages — and you just get sent back to that reality of both extreme fear and a tenseness that I didn’t know beforehand,” Klitsner said.

Combat has spurred other sentiments, he continued: “There is also this sadness and emptiness of how horrible the world we live in can turn out to be.”

Wasser offered a glimpse into that void.

After Klitsner returned from Gaza, Wasser met him at the train.

“He’s got a backpack, and all this equipment, and guns, and he’s standing there. We got in the car, and no one really told us on the home front how to break bad news to the soldiers when they came out of war,” she said. “I had to tell him about the people that we knew whose funerals I’ve been to over the past month — and I don’t even think I said it sensitively — I had to go down a list of funerals that our siblings had been to, our parents had been to, I had been to.”

“I do worry that one of one of the many evils that Hamas was able to thrust upon Israel was not just sowing terror, not just creating a lot of bereaved families all over the country and not just making sure that life as Israelis knew it stopped, but it’s also the optimism and the ability to dive into the real issues that were separating and dividing Israelis from within,” Klitsner said.

Approximately 21% of Israel’s population is Arab. Another 13% is ultra-Orthodox.

Fraught relations between these segments and the state have existed for 75 years, but pre-Oct. 7, people had finally pushed the government to address the chasms. Momentum generated by conversations regarding social contracts was undermined by Hamas’ attack, Klitsner said: “Today’s news is how do we stay alive.”

Dr. Laurie Wasser and Yisrael Klitsner are joined by Brian Schreiber during a Jan. 30 conversation with Pittsburghers. (Photo by Adam Reinherz)

By the time Wasser and Klitsner spoke to Pittsburghers, 116 days of war had passed.

The casualty toll in the Jewish state, based on figures from the Israeli prime minister’s office, includes at least 1,200 people killed and another 6,900 injured. According to the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry, more than 26,000 people in Gaza have been killed and 65,000 injured. Israel says about a third of the dead are combatants.

“There’s a lot of folks back in Israel who are still very much dealing with this,” Wasser said. “Like everyone here, we are exposed to a constant barrage of news, and bad news, and worse news, and it happens to get worse and then it gets worse like the disaster last week.”

On Jan. 23 the IDF said that 21 Israeli soldiers died a day earlier after a building in Gaza exploded and collapsed.

“We lost so many soldiers in one day and you keep thinking, ‘How can it get worse,’ but there’s also a lot of hope. I think for those of us who are raising young children through this, they are our biggest hope,” Wasser told attendees. “I think Yisrael said it well. I don’t feel like I’m ever going to be quite the same after Oct. 7 — I think probably a lot of people here feel the same way, I would imagine — but the children will be OK. I do believe they’re going to be OK. And that bit of hope has kept me very, very strong.”

Jason Kunzman, president and CEO of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh, said Wasser and Klitsner have “dedicated their lives to service.”

“This is a distinguished couple who both individually and collectively embody the values of courage, resilience and commitment to a safe and enduring state of Israel,” Kunzman said: “Each in their own right they have stood tall in the face of adversity and demonstrated strength of character that has long defined the Jewish people.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

read more:
comments