By Regan Treewater-Lipes
(AJNews) – Edmonton-born Israeli, Jacob (Jake) Soifer, his wife Yael, and their three children, Geshem, Elul, and Kerem, went to sleep on October 6 just as they normally would; they intended to spend a quiet Shabbat together. Jake and Elul would go to shul, just as they had done each week since he began preparing for his bar mitzvah. Jake, a professional carpenter, and business-owner in Kiryat Tivon, had been working hard all week on several large-scale construction projects, and the rest of the family eagerly awaited the arrival of loved ones from the Edmonton-based Soifer family travelling to Israel for the upcoming simcha in a few weeks’ time. On the morning of October 7, Jake and Elul left for Shabbat services.
“We are accustomed to instability and upheaval,” explained Jake in a recent phone interview with Alberta Jewish News. “When we left for shul, we knew that something had happened, but the scale of it wasn’t really clear till after we got home. Then we started learning more about what was happening in real-time, and it was horrible. Everyone remembers where they were on 9/11. Our entire country stopped except for the security side of things,” Jake explained somberly.
The family’s discussions in the weeks leading up to October 7 were about caterers for Elul’s bar mitzvah, and plans for excursions with the fifteen or so family members flying in from Canada. Now, the family found itself frozen with shock and horror. “Actually, we had been talking about the bar mitzvah so much, and then, all of a sudden, it didn’t come up at all,” remembered Jake.
Understandably, with so much destruction and uncertainty, grief and catastrophe, celebrations were not on anyone’s mind. The family, Jake, Yael, and the children sheltered in place and tried to create a sense of calm and safety for the Soifer kids, the youngest only three.
Jake, who had earlier in the week been working to build elegant cathedral ceilings and fancy pergolas, now found himself thinking about what he could do with the skills and resources available to him, to support his community and country. “There is always something happening here – it’s life,” Jake began, thoughtfully. “Then the stories started coming out. We started to hear about people who had gone into their saferooms…” Jake proceeded to explain that although buildings constructed after the 1990s in Israel are mandated to have a saferoom (MAMAD), these were conceived with chemical warfare in mind. “These saferooms have been outfitted with proper ventilation, but they don’t lock from the inside. They are actually designed to be opened from the outside in case a rescue team needs to release a family that has been incapacitated.”
After a long pause, Jake continued: “We started to hear about people, families, that were under attack. They would try to find safety in their MAMAD, only to have to struggle to hold the door closed while Hamas aggressors continued to try to get in from outside. Some people were doing this for hours; some people weren’t successful.”
Jake knew of a way to easily make a MAMAD lockable from the interior. Those familiar with ‘The Club,’ a vehicle theft prevention device from a past generation, will understand the concept well. Jake was quick to clarify that the apparatus, which does not have an official name yet, is not his invention. However, as a carpenter, he is the ideal person to measure and outfit any MAMAD door with one of these custom-made boards to prevent the door from being opened from the exterior.
“It really is just a board,” Jake emphasized humbly. “It’s a piece of wood that is cut to fit the specific door, and it holds the handle firmly in place so that the MAMAD can be locked from the inside.”
Upon returning to work, Jake posted on social media offering these security boards to anybody wishing to obtain one. “I wanted people to know that if they wanted one, all they needed to do was call.” Jake hoped to be clear, that these would be free of charge, and customized to fit each individual door.
“I’ve heard of these boards being sold,” explained Jake. “But the sold ones are standard sizes, and so they aren’t necessarily going to fit each door the way they are supposed to. Just a few millimeters of variation can mean the difference between the system working or not working, and we don’t want to take that chance.”
Initially, Jake thought that maybe a couple of dozen families in the area would contact him, but the outpour of requests was staggering. For ten days straight, two teams drove from house to house, measuring, custom fitting, and showing families how to install these boards. “I would tell everyone – I hope you never have to use this, hopefully one day you’ll be able to throw it in the trash. But for now, there are older people, women at home with children while their husbands are away defending the country – these people need to be able to keep themselves safe.”
To date, Jake and his team have outfitted over three hundred homes with these MAMAD security boards. He still gets some calls now, although the volume has slowed down. “We even fit some of these boards for public shelters in the area,” said Jake. “It was interesting to see such differences in the saferooms we outfitted though. Some were extremely well stocked and prepared, and for other families, over time, the MAMAD had just turned into another room of the house. The government has a list of things that every MAMAD should be stocked with. Even though these boards aren’t officially on the list, no home should be without one.”
Providing this service free of cost was no small matter. It was not just the supplies that were needed, but the manhours, the transportation, the additional resources. Jake’s siblings, who were already enroute to Israel at the time the attacks broke out started up a GoFundMe campaign while in Europe trying to figure out what to do. This made all the difference. “We could not have possibly accomplished the number of installations we did if it hadn’t been for the generosity of donors,” Jake emphasized.
As Israel began to find what Jake refers to as “war-time normal” the bar mitzvah plans began to evolve. Elul – thus far Edmonton community members Randy and Jane Soifer’s, only male grandchild – needed to be recognized for his achievements and ushered into adulthood as dictated by tradition.
“My father, during his last visit to Israel, helped us pick the synagogue where Elul would have his bar mitzvah, it was so important that my mom and dad be able to share in this,” offered Jake earnestly. “We started thinking about going to Europe and meeting there. Our Rabbi was supportive of whatever decision we made, but he pointed out that Elul’s bar mitzvah during Thursday shacharit would make the service more festive and make it possible to film everything,” said Jake. “A man can be called to the Torah on a Thursday, so that is how we did it. Elul made his Aliyah to the Torah on a Thursday, and my family was able to join us by video call. It was very important that this took place in Israel.”
Elul Soifer also was able to observe a traditional bar mitzvah with a maftir and haftorah on Saturday accompanied by his parents, siblings, and Yael’s family. The local family members gathered on Saturday evening for a celebratory dinner, although Jake admits that current circumstances still loomed in everyone’s minds despite the simcha at hand.
“We have to mark these occasions,” Jake emphasized with conviction. “This is what we must do as Jews. If we stop our celebrations, if we don’t observe the traditions that define us as Jews, then we are weaker. This is the time to stand up for ourselves, and for everything that is important to us, because we are fighting for survival,” he paused for a moment of contemplation. “Everywhere else in the world Jews are a minority, a smaller piece of a bigger population. Here, In Israel, that isn’t the case, but there is a very real desire to destroy all we have built.”
The Soifer family is proud of their newest bar mitzvah boy, and following the small local gathering, Jake was very pleased that Yael and the children were able to meet up with two of his brothers in Greece for a few days of respite.
“It was the first time they got to meet our little daughter; she was born during COVID. My wife and kids returned to Israel to continue helping on the homefront – my wife, as a teacher, is helping with schooling the more than 150000 displaced peoples from the bordering Gaza neighborhoods and the far north. And my eldest daughter, along with her high school class, has been helping out in the agriculture industry with picking or harvesting – once a week since the second week of the war. Everyone is doing what they can.”
Jake is still happy to lend a hand and install security boards free of charge. “I’ve heard of some of these things being sold for up to 450 shekels. I want to make sure people have them no matter what. And thanks to all the donors, we can make sure that keeps happening.”
Edmonton’s Jewish community should be infinitely proud of Talmud Torah alum Jacob Soifer, and the GoFundMe efforts of his siblings. What he has done is a noble mitzvah. Humble through and through, he would be the first to bashfully downplay his impact, but Edmontonians should ponder for a moment, how many Jewish lives he has helped to protect, and how many people are sleeping more soundly and peacefully tonight because of Jacob Soifer. Yasher Koach!
Regan Treewater-Lipes is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter.