I’m not a crier, but this month I’ve cried more than I ever have in my life. To type that last sentence took a lot actually. Anybody that knows me knows that that sentence could not be more true, I’m a tough kid, hell, I was a Golanchik, to every extent. I was a sprinting, shooting, never stop no matter how much weight was on me, no matter what obstacle was in front of me animal, that had fire in his eyes and saw only that Golani tree and the Israeli flag. But this month, I cried.
I cried out of sadness, I cried out of hope, I cried out of inspiration, and at the end of it all I cried out of pride. My first tear was shed at Ezra Schwartz’s funeral.
Back in May, I was released from one of the greatest highs of my life, a high called the IDF. A phase of pride, of intense bleeding Zionism, and feeling that I was doing the right thing and going down the right path toward giving my life some meaning but more importantly giving myself and establishing myself as a die-hard Jew. No matter what, I was Jewish thick and through, proud of it, and anyone that would threaten Israel, was threatening all the Jews of the world, and they’d have to go through me.
During this phase, I made the best of friends a man can ask for, people that would do anything for me and I’d do anything for them. Taking a bullet for each other was an expression we took seriously because we meant it. I found myself and grew into the man I am today, a man that humbly knows I have much more to learn and grow, that hopes to forever grow. So when it came to deciding on whether to go back to America or not for a year, my heart said no, but my mind said yes. I had too much to gain from America in one year to not go. And so it was, with heartfelt goodbyes and what we call in the army “shvizut,” I got on a plane, and took off, leaving everything behind that defines me and who I am: my home, my new family, my brothers and sisters.
Since the day I cut my Choger (Soldier ID), I immediately regretted leaving. I got back to America, and all I thought about was my friends and if they had to go to war, I wouldn’t be with them. If they needed an extra guy to take some of the Shmira (guard duty) to split up more evenly for some extra sleep (a thing which doesn’t come at all), I wouldn’t be there to take it. I felt like I was breaking some sort of promise to them. I even texted my officer a long paragraph saying I didn’t care if he agreed or not, if something happened, if another war broke out with Hamas or any other terrorists, I’d meet him there, so he’d better keep an extra gun ready.
As time passed, I decided to use the tools the army gave me, and stayed busy. I had to or I realized I was going to go a little crazy. So I starting playing ball again, got into my studies, worked, and hit the gym on daily basis. But every night it’d cross my mind. How I longed to smell that Israel air, to be there in the middle of the night, standing at attention waiting for our team tasks, speaking and hearing Hebrew. But I kept going. But soon, things got more hectic for Israel, attacks broke out, and all I had on my mind was Israel. All. The. Time. So one could guess that when an offer came from Rabbi Dov Oliver, the rabbi of the Hillel at the small college I go to, to go to the ZOA Gala Dinner, I of course said yes. It was a night to support Israel and stand there listening to the inspiring words of other supporters. The date was set for the night of November 22nd, a month away. But a few days before, I found out news that would have changed everything.
You see, every death of any Israeli ruined my day, any terrorist attack made me uneasy, always had me saying “I gotta go back, if only I was there,” as if I was some sort of Rambo. But this…This one hit me differently. I had never regretted leaving the army more than I had when I heard the news that overtook me with shock. A kid from America, a kid from the same place my friends were from, a community that I had been to for Shabbat, had been murdered. This was too far. I was so torn about it that that night, while at a close family friend’s wedding, I was not myself. I couldn’t fully enjoy the simcha.
Back in Tzuk Eitan (Operation Protective Edge), 40,000 people went to Sean Carmelli’s and Max Steinberg’s funeral. This is what Israelis do and I considered myself one. I wasn’t a solider that couldn’t go because I was busy dealing with the war anymore, I was a civilian now. I would’ve gone if I was back home. I should do it here. I was going, that’s it. The next day I woke up, and my father informed me that Ezra had been at Ashreinu for the year, my alma matter. I was on the road. I made a stop to pick up Ralph, another classmate who was in Ashreinu and we made our way from New York to Boston.
It was cold and cloudy when we arrived. We parked on a side street not too far from the shul where all the speeches and memories were being re-told of Ezra. There were cars and buses parked everywhere that belonged to people that came from near and far to pay their respects. When we got out of the car I realized something: I had never been to a funeral before. My idea of a funeral was usually that they for someone who had lived a long time. This kid was only 18. ONLY EIGHTEEN. The thought echoed in my mind.
Ralph and I made our way to the shul where we were met with a huge crowd of people standing outside of the shul listening to Ezra’s family, teachers, and friends speak of him in the highest degree anyone could be spoken of. They painted a picture of him so vividly, that I could just picture him exactly. This mischievous, good-willed, loving, kid with such a spark to him when it came to sports. As they spoke, it started to rain. The universe really was mourning Ezra Schwartz. I moved my way through the crowd a bit, and when I got to the front I realized there weren’t people outside speaking at the front, what I heard were speakers that were wired to the microphone inside where the speeches were being made. The reason we were standing outside was because there was no room left. I was in awe. There were easily 1,500 people there to pay respect to Ezra.
When my Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Yudin got up to speak, I knew that for him, it was like being at his own son’s ceremony, because he really treats all of us like his own kids. He immediately broke down. My stomach got tight, heck it got tighter with each one of Ezra’s family members that spoke, but this hit me hard. A man that had guided me through a lot in my life and showed me the way of Zionism and Judaism, was there, just unable to hold it in. Sobbing, begging G-d to stop this, “When will it end? Enough please. ENOUGH. Please.” Those words rang in my ears, I had been asking the same question and still do today.
At the end of the speeches, we made way toward the cemetery. Fifteen hundred people took to the streets of Sharon, MA in silence, mourning, tearing, for this young man. I started in the back, searching to walk with my Rosh Yeshiva, to walk with the rest of the Ashreinu family. Suddenly the whole crowd stopped, and I lost my breath. In front of me was a car with the casket. Inside was Ezra. This was all too real. His friends, his classmates, the kids who had grown up with him, all went to take the casket out, and to carry it up the hill to be laid to rest. These kids had just graduated high school a few months ago, and now at eighteen they’re carrying the body of their best friend. No one should ever have to experience that. Especially a bunch of kids. I was stopped in my tracks fixated on the scene ahead of me. My knees were weak, I couldn’t move. But just then, the crowd started moving again, and the shoes behind me starting scuffing on the back of mine, shuffling me along, along with this one big body of Jews, shuffling moving forward with this burden. A nation of shufflers, forever shuffling. Shuffling. Shuffling.
When they finally put the casket in the grave, there were people crying all over. Ezra’s friends and family took the shovel, and starting filling the grave with dirt. With each sound of the shovel reaching into the pile of dirt to grab more, with each sound of the metal hitting the dirt, I winced. I prayed silently for him, his family, his friends, and Israel. I saw Rabbi Yudin and walked over, we embraced and held each other for a while. He handed me the shovel, telling me “Ash, ya gotta do it.” I took the shovel and placed dirt a few times. I was angry. I was so angry that this happened, never have I ever regretted not being a solider more than at this moment. Why must these people be in pain? I just didn’t get it. And why wasn’t I crying? I walked back to my spot next to Rabbi Yudin and stood there for a while.
Out of nowhere I looked up and saw Ezra’s youngest brother there. The kid couldn’t have been taller than my hip and his shoes were so small. He couldn’t have been more than ten years old. He was just standing there, over his brother’s casket, too little to really understand that his oldest brother was never coming back. That he would grow up never having an eldest athletic brother to look up to. To look out for him, to be there for him and talk to him. He was just simply too little to be standing over his own brother’s casket. I lost it. I was shaking, tears were coming down my face. I didn’t remember the last time I had cried, but all I could keep thinking was, I love you Ezra. I have never gotten a real chance to meet you, but I love you, kid.
I’ve been through some tough times in my own personal life. We all have, it’s what makes us who we are. Many times I’ve wondered and asked questions about the world that, well frankly, no one can answer. No rabbi, no priest, no Buddha, no one can give us a real answer. If there’s something in my life I’ve learned, it’s that sometimes there won’t be an answer. It’s up to us to take the situation we are given, no matter how bad it might be, and deal with it in our own way and continue forward, giving ourselves whatever we need for comfort. Whatever that consolation might be. On the ride back, I was asking myself and G-d why, why were all these attacks still going on every day? I had no idea that the next week would be completely extraordinary and give me another memory for the rest of my life. Most of all, it would shed some light and give some consolation during a very dark time.
The drive back was a long one and I woke up the next day still angry. I stopped by the Hillel to speak to Rabbi Oliver, and we spoke about the funeral a bit and what was going on in Israel. I told him I hadn’t been sleeping well the past few weeks because of everything that was going on and now especially with this. I told him I needed to be there. He responded by asking me if I heard about the raffle that the Hillel was having to send a kid from the school on an anti-terror solidarity mission. The winner would be sent on a four-day trip to Israel with a few other students from various schools on a project through Chabad and would go to the Litman wedding in Jerusalem (the wedding of the bride whose brother and father were murdered weeks prior to her wedding), as well as visit shiva houses of the families of victims, and victims in the hospital recovering from attacks. I told him I had not heard of such a raffle, and he said he’d just take the money I had given him for the dinner that I had missed to go to Ezra’s funeral and put it toward a ticket for this raffle. I thought it’d be a good source of Tzedaka in Ezra’s name. He also wanted me to pick the ticket out of the hat. I agreed.
The next day the raffle was held, I picked a name from the hat, and it ended up being a woman who could not go, and so we had to pick again. There were fifty people crammed into this tiny room, waiting to be picked. I put my hand in once more, felt a ticket, and starting moving to take a different one when something took my hand to the original ticket. I announced loudly “And the winner is…”. The crowd was dead silent, as I turned over the ticket slowly, and my name appeared. In shock, I managed to whisper, ”…Me.” With tears in my eyes, I was given information and was on a flight twelve hours later.
We arrived in Israel at Ben Gurion Airport, and headed straight to the Old City where we would be staying to shower and dress for the wedding. When we got to the wedding, we had a quick introduction to the other students, and off we were. Rabbi Oliver somehow managed to get us into the chupah (some things only Lubavitch people can pull off). As we entered, I was slapped right in the face with Israel’s warm atmosphere and acceptance of all Jews. There were people of all levels of religion there, dancing arm in arm; some with guns, some with bongos, but their unilateral mission was simple: to make this the very best wedding for this couple in the name of the bride’s brother and father. I joined the dancing, seeing exactly what I had been missing this whole time, arm in arm with these strangers, I felt more at home than I had felt in a long time. We danced and sang the bride and groom all the way to the chupah where they recited the blessings. Both the bride and groom were crying the whole time. It truly was a bittersweet moment, being in one of the most monumental times of one’s life without a father and a brother.
The time came for the groom to stomp on the glass (signaling the official marriage), but before he did, he yelled the following with tears in his eyes “. אם-אשכחך ירושלים– תשכח ימיני”, “If I forget you Jerusalem, let me forget my right hand”. These words seemed to have echoed through the sky, and then the sound of broken glass, ending one of the most powerful moments I have ever experienced in my entire twenty-one years on this earth and leaving everyone with tears in their eyes, including mine.
The crowd poured in to dance with them, to help them celebrate their simcha, and it did not stop. Over thirty thousand people poured into the hall that night. There were lines so far out the door you couldn’t even move or see the entrance. Security was freaking out, and just kept letting large groups in at a time for an hour at a time only to kick them out to replace them with the next large group. The funny thing about security in general is that they can keep terrorists in line, but they can’t keep Jews back. When people got in, they got together to dance around the groom, the girls with the bride, little children, adults, elderly people, all came from near and far to celebrate.
Everyone in that room was there for one reason — to let the Litman family know that they were not alone, that the Jewish nation was standing right there with them, that a loss of a Jewish life meant a loss not just for the immediate family, but for the whole family. That when you mess with one of us, you get all of us. This was the ultimate “screw you” to the terrorists that had attacked, that will attack, to any nation that seeks our destruction, and any person that underestimates us. No matter what you do, no matter what you throw at us, you will not slow us down, you will not stop us, you will not break us. We will keep celebrating and living our lives and fighting back. That night was the epitome of us as a nation.
The next day we left to visit the families of Ziv Mizrachi, a soldier who was shot and killed fixing a military blimp that is used for security, and Hadar Buchris who was stabbed waiting at a bus stop near Gush Etzion. We stopped first at the home of the Mizrachi family. The scene was not easy. We all said something and wished them our condolences and the kids from the other schools said inspiring words. They were in awe to see that a bunch of kids from America traveled from so far just to see them. I responded by telling them to please not think for a second that when something happens here in Israel, we don’t feel it in America, we are one nation and family no matter where we are.
While sitting there, the father mentioned something interesting. While telling us about his son and a little bit about himself and his family, he mentioned it wasn’t the first time he had lost a family member to terror. He said “This is the price we pay for living in Israel.” This is the price we pay for living in Israel. It stuck. We said our goodbyes and were off to Netanya to visit Hadar’s family.
When we walked into the Buchris home, it was a totally different scene. I’ve never seen a family be so strong. In fact, they were smiling and laughing. I was in shock. Recently I had been around so much sadness and grief from losses, that to see a family laugh and smile while they tell stories about their loved one was, well…odd. While sitting there, it hit me. They were remembering her in the way she was: happy. Hadar was this happy, positive person who loved to laugh. Acting like this was just the way she would have been. Another example of these people being strong, not letting these terrorists dictate how they will live or whether they are happy or not.
We left back to Jerusalem, but unfortunately on the way back a friend called and informed us a few of his friends had been in an attempted attack. This time it was a bunch of Lone Soldiers who had just drafted days prior. One of them named Daniel was hurt retaliating, punching the terrorist in the face and trying to escape. He was rushed to the hospital in Jerusalem where he would be staying for Shabbat. It was decided, we were going to visit him.
After Shabbat we headed to the hospital to visit Daniel. When we got there, there was already a line waiting to enter the room to visit him. When we entered I noticed right away that there was another man wearing an army shirt in a wheelchair, with an Arabic-looking couple standing near him. While we spoke to Daniel it came out that the man in the wheel chair was indeed a Druze and the two people beside him were his parents. He was a high ranking officer that was also in an attack, except one thing was different. He wasn’t attacked, he saw the attack and ran to help, fought the terrorist and beat him, but got injured in the process.
To those of you who don’t know what a Druze is, a Druze is an Arabic-speaking individual who wanders with his large family, and strongly believes in loyalty to the country that houses him. There are high ranking officers in the army that are Druzim, all amazing people. This man had a similar story. He believed in Israel and felt a certain loyalty towards Israel, which is why he had been in the army for about ten years at that point. This man was obviously a strong Zionist.
One of the members of our group decided to cheer the room up with some jokes, and got up on a chair and put on a show. The whole room lit up. We were all laughing, together. He was the light in the dark for these guys. It was the first time I had laughed in a while.
After the show a few of us approached the parents of the officer and made some conversation, asking them where they were from, them asking us what we were doing here. We explained we came on a mission to visit victims of terror. What came out of this woman’s mouth next, was something I have only read on the internet, something I would have never thought I’d hear in my lifetime. His mother, an Arabic-speaking Israeli, turned to us and said “There is something about this country, but more specifically the Jews. Ever since we came here we noticed it. It is something I have never seen before in any nation nor in any other place. You guys are the most giving, merciful, amazing people I have ever met. The amount of care and love you people have is beyond words. You guys are truly something special. We are honored to be a part of Israel and be with such amazing people. Through thick and thin.” I could barely mutter the word, “Wow”. Tears filled my eyes. I started to cry. For the fourth time that week I cried. But this time I wasn’t crying out of sadness, I wasn’t crying out of grief, I wasn’t crying from watching other people’s pain, I wasn’t even crying out of happiness. I was crying out of pride. Proud to be a part of that nation that was spoken of on such a level of admiration and respect.
We as a nation have been through the toughest of times. We as a nation have been through holocausts, persecutions, pogroms, through losses of our loved ones due to terror. No other nation in the history of the earth has been targeted the way we have been. All for the same reason. The same reason that resulted in the deaths of Ezra…Ziv…Hadar… and so many others. Ziv’s father said that this was the price we pay for living in Israel, but the truth is, it is the price we pay for being JEWISH. We are a nation that kvetches, we are a nation that says “oy vey”, with good reason. When any other nation has been through the things we have, they would also be the same way. But this is what also makes us the toughest.
We are the toughest nation in the world. No other nation has come out of the ghettos of death and scattered to make empires. To stay in Europe or spread to America, and be the entrepreneurs of the century, to go from rags to riches, to go from beggars on the street to bosses on Wall Street. Or to flock to Israel, a land of swamps and within sixty-seven years turn it into a paradise, with a booming economy full of technological and medical advances that are changing the world. The descendants of the same people that were in the ghettos, that could barely fight back, are now one of the strongest armies in the world, an army which is the only one that accepts volunteers from other countries all over the world.
We are the nation that in the face of terror stands up as one, challenging it. A nation that will not let it slow us down. That will still celebrate marriage in the same month we mourn death, that will not let a man whose mission is to break us down, ever succeed. The same nation that will show up at a wedding, making it a humongous target for an attack, just to show we are not afraid and will not let terrorists cause terror. Because if we do that, if we do let our lives be determined by them, those monsters, they win.
The people that Druze woman in the hospital spoke about – that is us. That nation that has so much love and care – we are it. I saw it myself in two separate countries within a week. The same nation that travelled from all over to escort Ezra’s coffin to his grave, whether they knew him or not was the same nation that danced the Litmans to their chupah, whether they knew them or no.
The three events collectively gave me the following epiphany: Our unity is our greatest strength. It is what defines us. It is what makes us the toughest nation, because without it, what are we but the dirt we hailed from? United, we create a unique symphony, a song that if it were to be missing one note, it wouldn’t be the same.
We are Jews, we bear a burden thousands of years old, a burden that grows with events like the loss of Ezra. We weren’t made the toughest nation from only happiness and good times, but we hold these burdens together, and together we are what makes ONE nation, the nation of Judah, a nation of fighting lions. When one grieves we all grieve, whether near or far. The most important thing we can do is stick together, as we have, but more than ever while continuing to grow more united. We will never forget Ezra, Ziv, or Hadar, or anyone else whose life was unfairly taken from us. We will always remember and love them.
As the year 2015 comes to an end and 2016 begins, I take each of these tragedies, these losses to our family, and I join the rest of our nation, carrying this pain of a nation forever shuffling forward, but knowing I have my brothers and sisters shuffling beside me, to support one another in the face of whatever comes our way. עם ישראל חי. Forever.