As Jews mark Chanukah around the world, many are unable to celebrate with their loved ones who are battling Hamas in Gaza.
“I bought eight presents for Chanukah. I wrapped them all up and as soon as I see Sam, we will unwrap them together,” Jacalyn Sank DaCosta, 57, from London, whose son Sam Sank is currently fighting in the enclave, told the JC.
“When the war started, Sam told me that he would be eating sufganiyot in Gaza. As far as I know, he is either in Khan Yunis or around that area.”
Born and raised in the British capital, Sam, an only child imbued with strong Zionist values, expressed at a young age a desire to make aliyah.
When he turned 18, Jacalyn and her late husband Michael agreed to sign a notarised document allowing their son to join the Paratroopers Brigade.
When he was a child, Sam's parents prevented him from playing with guns. However, Jacalyn felt no choice but to support his decision to join the IDF.
“When they are this driven and passionate, as a mother you cannot deny your child what they want, what they were meant to do,” she said. “We are so proud of him. We loved every moment of his service. We were living our dream through him.”
Sam was one of 360,000 reserve soldiers called up to defend the country after Hamas's October 7 massacre.
That morning, Sam called his mother to tell her to turn on the news. By lunchtime he was in the south with his unit. On 2 December, he was deployed to Gaza.
While Jacalyn receives regular updates from the military and the odd message from Sam, she is spending the holidays without him but will shortly fly to Israel with Sam’s stepfather Richard DaCosta.
“If there is any chance Sam can get out of Gaza, we will be there waiting with open arms for him,” she said.
For Jacalyn, Richard and Sam’s girlfriend Amit, this year's Chanukah is bittersweet.
“The reality now is that I can’t sleep. I dread every moment. If I receive a phone call from a blocked number, I freak out. I can’t believe that this could take his life, injure him or scar him mentally. He is my 33-year-old baby,” Jacalyn said. “Saying goodbye is so hard. After, you live for the next hello, to kiss and hold them tight.”
Charles, 25, who moved from London to Israel at the age of 18 and also serves in the Paratroopers Brigade, is probably spending Chanukah in Gaza as well.
“When the children were young, Chanukah was a big thing. This year, it is a very subdued celebration since we don’t know what is happening,” Charles’s father Robert, 55, told the JC.
“Our troops don’t carry phones for security reasons. We live in uncertainty for two weeks at a time, sometimes even three. We don’t know if they were injured or even killed. Just yesterday, I read about the death of a soldier in the same unit as Charles.”
Toria, Avichai’s stepmother, is very proud and supportive of his journey.
“Avichai says this battle is good versus evil. He feels it is his duty to protect everyone else in this world. It’s mindblowing how mature these kids are,” she told the JC.
“When he came to visit in the past, Charles brought his two stepbrothers Chanukiot. It’s his thing. Every year, we light them. Last night, it was bittersweet,” said Toria.
Robert is flying to Tel Aviv this week as part of a Nefesh B’Nefesh programme, in partnership with El Al, that provides free flights to parents of soldiers who are without family in Israel.
“There is no guarantee I will see him, but I will still be close," said Robert. “I am hoping that we will get to light the Chanukah candles together.”
Alex, 17, one of Charles’s stepbrothers, told the JC that he is not worried. “Avichai is the coolest guy. I’m very proud of him,” he said.