IDF Cantor: ‘After the Funerals, I Would Just Fall Apart

    IDF Cantor Maj. (res.) Daniel Colthof. Photo by Yossi Zeliger.

    Four days after Oct. 7, hundreds of people stood huddled together in the small cemetery of Kibbutz Kfar Etzion as they escorted the body of Staff Sgt. Roey Weiser, 21—a combat soldier in the Golani Infantry Brigade who fell in the battle to defend the Nahal Oz post on the Gaza border.

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    This writer stood by Weiser’s friend, who had come directly from the hospital still wearing bandages and dressings on his arm and head. I watched the bereaved father as he parted from his son, and next to him stood Maj. (res.) Daniel Colthof, the cantor for the Israel Defense Forces, his eyes brimming with tears as he ran from one funeral to the next.

    “On Oct. 8, I conducted my first full funeral service,” he tells me. “It was the funeral service of the commander of the Nahal [Infantry] Brigade, Col. Yonatan Steinberg, at the Mount Herzl Military Cemetery in Jerusalem. The funeral took place at the second grave in a freshly opened plot. Since then, the entire plot has been filled. On that day I led three funeral services. Since then, I have taken part in dozens.”

    Of all the military professions, cantors are hardly ever the subject of discussion. Nor do we hear much about their incessant activity during those dark days at the beginning of the war, the considerable psychological challenge that their work involves, running from one funeral to another, taking in the grimness of death and bereavement in all its severity while trying to reach out to the families and help them.

    ‘Not something we usually deal with’

    Colthof, 38, grew up in the mainly ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Har Nof in Jerusalem. He now resides with his wife and four children in Petach Tikvah, a city in the Tel Aviv suburbs.

    He began his military service after meeting the current chief military cantor, Lt. Col. Shai Abramson, at the Tel Aviv Cantorial Institute, the school of cantor studies, and then became his right-hand man in the IDF’s Military Rabbinate Corps, at first as part of regular service and now as a reservist.

    Just like all the other residents of central Israel on that Black Shabbat in October, Colthof woke up to the sound of sirens. He would end up conducting the first funeral of the war on that very evening, the funeral of the Nahal Brigade commander, and this was to be followed by a non-stop stream of more and more.

    On several occasions, the funerals were held in the Gaza border communities under rocket fire from the Gaza Strip.

    “During the second week of the war, we traveled to one of the Gaza border communities wearing helmets and bulletproof vests. This area had now become a veritable ghost town with a whole battalion to secure the perimeter, us and the family of the dead.

    “With all due respect, we are not the story here. There are bereaved families whose lives have been turned upside down and IDF wounded whose lives will never be the same again. OK, so we attended many funerals, it was very difficult, but this really pales into insignificance in comparison,” stresses Colthof.

    Campaign has not yet come to an end

    The most agonizing funerals have been those of soldiers who were fathers or had small brothers or sisters. “Do you have any idea how difficult it is to perform kri’a [the ritual rending of a mourner’s garments immediately before the funeral service] on a 9-year-old boy? It is excruciatingly difficult. Listening to eulogies delivered by innocent children is just as hard.

    “There was one boy who said a few words and then asked to recite a psalm dealing with Techiyat HaMetim, the resurrection of the dead. I cried out together with all those present at the graveside.”

    This campaign has not yet come to an end for Colthof. Though he has finished that long stint of reserve duty and returned to a full working routine at his law office, he might be called up again at any moment.

    “Since January, we have been called up as needs be. They divided us up into companies, and each company was on standby for a given week. There was one case where I was in the office, I had just begun to work and one minute later, I received the phone call. I am grateful that our office has really embraced the reservists and provided much help and assistance. We never know when we will be called up again,” he says.

    “Unfortunately, we were called to duty, but we were able to perform our tasks in the best manner possible. I have heard stories about what occurred during the Yom Kippur War, and I just couldn’t believe it. And then, all of a sudden, we, too, shared the same experience; we saw precisely how it all unfolded,” Colthof says.

    “I think that despite all the chaos, we did succeed in putting things in order and enabling the families to part from their beloved ones. I hope that we have succeeded.”

    Originally published by Israel Hayom.

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