Cover Story

Celebrating Life in the Face of Pain: One Son Married, One Son Missing

Yonatan Perez and his wife, Galya, married just ten days after the events of October 7.


Editor’s Note: It was with deep sadness and pain that we learned on March 17th that Captain Daniel Perez, H”yd, was declared a fallen soldier captured by Hamas. We pray for his return to kever Yisrael. May Hashem comfort the entire Perez family amongst all mourners of Tzion and Yerushalayim, and may we see every single hostage return home.

Jewish Action writer Toby Klein Greenwald spoke with Rabbi Doron Perez, executive chairman of the Mizrachi World Movement, whose remarkable story of resilience struck a chord with Jews all over the world in the weeks and months following the outbreak of war.

As of late February 2024, as we prepared to go to press, Rabbi Perez’s son Daniel, a tank commander, was still missing in action following the October 7 massacre and presumed to be taken hostage. His oldest son Yonatan, who was engaged to be married ten days after the massacre and was serving as a company commander in the 101st unit of the Paratroopers Brigade, suffered a leg injury the first day of the war. With Daniel missing, Rabbi Perez and his family decided to go ahead and celebrate the wedding of Yonatan and Galya. This is their story. 


Toby Klein Greenwald: These last few months have been very trying for you and your family. Can you please share with us moments of chesed or strength you experienced since October 7?
Rabbi Doron Perez: The biggest chesed from Hashem, which gave us tremendous strength, was the fact that Yonatan was not among the three hundred soldiers and eighty officers killed on October 7, nor was he among the many hundreds who were very badly wounded that day. A bullet entered and exited his leg without causing major damage. He was moderately wounded; it could have been so much worse. There are families that suffered multiple horrific losses. 

In that first week, our son Daniel, an officer and tank commander, was considered missing. We knew that he and the other members of his tank crew were in the Nachal Oz army base that Shabbat. The base was overrun by terrorists. He and his crew entered a tank—when the tank was located, one soldier, Tomer Leibovitz, Hy”d, was found murdered inside; Daniel and three others were unaccounted for. Shortly afterwards, Daniel was officially classified as “presumed taken captive,” which is his status as of now [late February]. At least he was not presumed dead, G-d forbid. 

Daniel Perez is presumed to have been taken hostage by Hamas.

A second chesed: Yonatan had planned on getting married, and the fact that we were able to make a wedding despite the pain and the difficulty . . . that we were able to somehow move on and celebrate life in the face of death, agony and uncertainty throughout the country was very life-affirming. For five or six days, we focused on a wedding. That was an incredible source of strength, despite the anguish. 

Three weeks after October 7, when the wedding was behind us and Daniel’s classification was officially changed from “missing” to “taken hostage,” the reality of dealing with the hostage situation came to the fore. 

TKG: Tell me how you and your family decided to go ahead with Yonatan and Galya’s wedding.
RP: For the first few days, we couldn’t really think about the wedding, and with Yonatan injured, we didn’t quite know what to do. But five days after the massacre, when it became clear that Yonatan would recover quickly, we started to consider going ahead with the wedding. 

Around that time, Yonatan’s commander visited and told us details about the battle. We realized then what kind of miracle had occurred to our son. Soldiers all around Yonatan had been killed. There was death and destruction all around. Terrorists carrying RPGs were everywhere. Every army vehicle had been destroyed. And Yonatan was only moderately injured. 

At the end of the conversation, the commander said to Yonatan, “Am Yisrael needs semachot now. You should get married tonight!” 

My wife Shelley was feeling adamant that Yonatan and Galya should get married, but, of course, we told the couple that it was their decision and we would support whatever they decided to do. They decided to go ahead with the wedding. We cancelled the wedding hall we had booked in Ashkelon but had the wedding on the date originally planned, October 17. Our friends in the neighborhood arranged the wedding at the local high school, transforming it into a beautiful wedding venue in five days. It was a small wedding, with only our closest friends and family.

TKG: How were you able to manage such conflicting emotions—joy at the wedding while experiencing the agony of having a son as a hostage?
RP: Shelley and I got through it. We cried briefly under the chuppah for the lack of Daniel’s presence, but then wiped our faces and transitioned to the simchah. The chuppah was very emotional. I have never experienced being so happy and so sad at the same time. 

Shlomo Hamelech says in Kohelet, “A season is set for everything, a time for every experience under Heaven” [Ed note: trans. Sefaria]. One way to understand this is, there are different times for different feelings. But I think Shlomo Hamelech, the wisest of all people, is really saying—often tragedy and joy happen simultaneously, and it requires wisdom to know which of these to give expression to and which to compartmentalize. Throughout this time, two Hebrew words kept playing over in my mind: charadah and chedvah. You can have such trembling, charadah, but at the same time such happiness, chedvah. We were able to put the charadah in its place and have a simchah where chedvah was the overwhelming feeling. I saw that despite the enormous pain, it is possible to have a genuinely happy celebration.

TKG: How is the rest of your family doing? 
RP: There’s a lot of evidence in [the psychological literature] that people are a lot more resilient than we would have thought; resilience is part of the human spirit. All of us [in my family] are somehow, with all the pain and difficulty, able to deal with it in one way or another. 

Born and raised in South Africa, Rabbi Doron Perez, fifty-three, made aliyah at the age of eighteen. He studied at various yeshivot and served in the IDF as part of the Hesder program. After he married, he returned to South Africa, where he and his wife Shelley were on shelichut for fifteen years. In 2014, Rabbi Perez returned to Israel with his family so he could accept the role of executive chairman of World Mizrachi. Photo by Hadas Parush/FLASH90

TKG: How has the fact that you’ve always played more of a leadership role impacted your family’s current situation?
RP: I am not only a spouse and a father. I fulfill a leadership role, and part of this role is aspiring to give chizuk, putting life in a context where there’s always positivity and hope.

Shelley is a more private person. It’s also much harder for her as a mother. Over the last four years, she had two sons who were officers in the army and she was in touch with them all the time. I never worried about what my sons were wearing or what they were eating. But Shelley did and always does, so the connection is deeper, and that’s what makes this particularly hard for her. 

She has very close friends, some of whom have come from overseas to be with her at this time. Her friends in Yad Binyamin have been unbelievable; they don’t leave her alone for a minute. And, thank G-d, she’s very strong.

For Yonatan, it’s difficult, because many of his friends were killed; he’s been to a lot of funerals. Right now he’s still recovering from his injury, but he’s back on his base training new recruits. 

Our two daughters are also coping well. Dr. Erica Brown of Yeshiva University and Rabbi Tully Harcsztark, principal of SAR High School in Riverdale, New York, heard my younger daughter, Shira, who was fifteen at the time, speak when they were here on an Israel mission, and they decided to bring her to the States to deliver [words of chizuk] to high schoolers. She spoke to teens at five or six high schools and to students at Stern College as well. She and I are able to share our feelings in a public forum, getting chizuk and giving chizuk, while my wife and my older daughter are processing it more privately with their close friends. 

TKG: Tell us about the group of families whose sons were in the tank with your son. Are you still in contact with them?  
RP: Yes. We have a WhatsApp group for the parents of the soldiers who were in the tank together, including the parents of Tomer, who was killed. We communicate all the time, and we’ve become like a family. We have another WhatsApp group for parents of soldiers taken hostage; we update each other on a daily basis. 

TKG: It seems that Yonatan was very intent on returning to fight on behalf of the Jewish people.
RP: Yonatan is very humble, as generally all Israeli soldiers are. [When they are fighting] they don’t tell you what’s really going on. They certainly don’t want to upset their parents and cause any additional worry.

That Shemini Atzeret, when Yonatan’s battalion commander sent out a call for all soldiers to go to Sderot, Yonatan left immediately. For six hours, he fought terrorists—he left with a handgun only—and emerged a hero. We found out that he acted with tremendous mesirut nefesh; Yonatan, like all our soldiers, is a “gibor b’Yisrael.” I felt incredible pride in the gevurah, the courage and strength, with which Yonatan fought. 

Since October 7, our family has received tremendous strength from the outpouring of love, tefillot and acts of chesed. . . . We feel the incredible embrace of the Jewish people, not only in South Africa and in Yad Binyamin, but all around the world . . .

When he had recuperated enough, Yonatan returned to the army. Anyone whose sibling was killed while serving in the IDF or taken hostage is exempt from any infantry role and can be assigned to non-dangerous duty. Yonatan is in the infantry. While he’s not fighting on the front line, his position on the base where he’s training recruits, is still considered a battle position. He needed a special dispensation to take on this position. He wrote to the army general who is head of human resources and asked for an appeal of their decision so that he could return to active infantry duty. He asked us to sign the appeal because parents’ signatures are required. He said to me, “Dad, I know it’s difficult for you [to allow me to take an infantry role], but I’m just asking you to think of the following: did we learn in this house to think of our needs as individuals, or to think of the needs of Klal Yisrael?” I said, “That’s a bit harsh.” He said, “No, no, that’s what you taught us.” And I asked him, “What about your mother?” And he said he would speak with her. In the end, we both signed the appeal. 

I come from a very Zionistic family. Both sets of my grandparents lived in Israel. My maternal grandfather, the founder of Jewish sports in South Africa, brought Jewish groups to compete in Israel in the Maccabiah Games, and had been part of the South African delegation to three Olympics, including the one in Munich in 1972 [where eleven Israeli athletes were murdered by Arab terrorists]. 

TKG: What is the most important outcome that you have personally felt from this immense catastrophe? 
RP: Since October 7, our family has received tremendous strength from the outpouring of love, tefillot and acts of chesed. We are the recipients of so much care and concern from our entire community of Yad Binyamin, as well as from the Jewish community of South Africa, where our boys both grew up. There have been so many different activities there on behalf of the hostages, including thousands of kids wearing bracelets with the words “Bring them home.” 

We feel the incredible embrace of the Jewish people, not only in South Africa and in Yad Binyamin, but all around the world, plus the endless tefillot on an ongoing basis by people who feel “imo anochi b’tzarah—I am with him in distress” (Tehillim 91:15). 

This has supported and buoyed us. And because we’ve received strength from so many, we’ve been able to find within ourselves the ability to give strength to others. 

TKG: How do you think Israeli society has changed as a result of October 7?
RP: I’m a big believer in the unity of the Jewish people. And we’ve lacked it for the last five years. We’ve had five elections in four years—that’s almost unheard of in the democratic world. Israeli society was, until now, very divisive. And this weakness was sensed by our enemy as well. What has come out of this, unfortunately, is enormous pain, but also tremendous unity, an awe-inspiring togetherness. We put all the squabbles aside, and we stand together. We understand that it doesn’t make a difference to our enemies what type of Jew you are, whether you are left or right, or what religious stream you belong to. It brought us together, and our challenge is to maintain that sense of unity. 

TKG: Do you have a final thought for our readers?
RP: The Hagaddah describes the four sons, one of whom is a rasha who removes himself from the klal. He is so removed that the Haggadah says, “Had he been there [in Egypt], he would not have been redeemed.” This rish’ut is not being part of Klal Yisrael, not feeling the pain of Klal Yisrael, and therefore not experiencing the geulah with Klal Yisrael. Pesach is about the formation of Am Yisrael, and Am Yisrael must have everyone together. If there are people who don’t want to be part of the klal, are not invested in the klal, and do not see themselves as part of the destiny of the Jewish people, it leads to tremendous destruction. 

Another thought: If you look at the story of the Haggadah, you’ll see that there is a lot of pain in the story. We say Avadim hayinu l’Paraoh—you haven’t fulfilled the obligation of sippur Yetziat Mitzrayim unless you tell your children that we were slaves in Egypt. We have to eat maror. Whoever does not speak of the maror has not fulfilled the obligation. The story of Pesach is not only one of matzah and freedom. It’s one of bitterness and servitude and blood and suffering, but the chiddush is that that’s not the main story. The central story is a story of freedom and redemption.

And that’s why the plot of the Haggadah is mat’chil b’gnut u’mesayem b’shevach, it begins with the derogatory and ends with praise. The plot of the Haggadah starts with Avadim hayinu. That’s the beginning of the story. But it’s not the story itself. It ends with shevach, praise, geulah, redemption and yeshuah, salvation. It ends with good things. Life is a package deal. We tell our children it’s not so easy being a Jew. There’s avdut, slavery, and merirut, bitterness. There is pain. But we overcome, we get through it. The enduring taste in our mouths, the taste of Judaism, is the taste of freedom, the taste of the korban Pesach, the taste of the love of life, the taste of a better future. It’s tempered by the lechem oni, which is the bread of both freedom and affliction, and by the bitterness of the maror. And sometimes, says Hillel Hazaken, it’s all together—you eat the korban Pesach together with the matzah and the maror. But the good news is that the final taste in your mouth, after which nothing else should be consumed, is the taste of korban Pesach, the taste of freedom, the taste of laughter, joie de vivre, the taste of overcoming challenge.

And I think that’s the story of the Jewish people. Ultimately, we will prevail.   


Toby Klein Greenwald, a regular contributor to Jewish Action, is a journalist, playwright, poet and teacher and the artistic director of a number of theater companies. She is the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award from Atara—the Association for Torah and the Arts.


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This article was featured in the Spring 2024 issue of Jewish Action.
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