It was at a one-week training exercise in miluim (army reserve duty) when I first met Yotam Lotan, a lieutenant, and the newest mefaked mahlaka (platoon commander) in the unit. He was 28 or 29 at the time, but the older, more seasoned guys in the unit teased this baby-faced “kid,” which Yotam took with a smile.

And with all the good-natured ribbing aside, it soon became clear in the actual tank exercises that the young officer had honestly earned his officers’ stripes. As a commander both of the tank and his platoon, Yotam was definitely a pro. He was also one of the kindest, warmest, most gentlemanly and most giving people I have ever met.

I had the pleasure of serving with Yotam for three years of miluim, until the IDF retired me for having reached the advanced age of 40 (for combat soldiers, that’s when reserve duty ends). By that time, Yotam was the deputy commander of the company and sported a captain’s stripes.

We teased him, and we laughed with him, but every single soldier in the unit would have gladly walked to hell and back for Yotam, and we all knew that he would do anything for each of us.

And that’s what happened. Two years after my release from miluim, Yotam, who by then had been promoted to major, and served as the company commander, was sent with his L Company of Batallion 294 (my former company and battalion) to fight in the Second Lebanon War.

This is a picture of me shaking hands with Yotam at my discharge party in 2004. (photo credit: courtesy Plugat Lotan/Gdud 294 website)

This is a picture of me (right) shaking hands with Yotam at my discharge party in 2006, just months before he was killed. (photo credit: courtesy Plugat Lotan/Gdud 294 website)

On Monday, August 7, at 9:20 a.m., Yotam and one other soldier (Noam Meyerson, who joined the unit after I left so I never met him) were killed when their tank was hit by a missile near the southern Lebanese village of Bint Jbeil.

Unfortunately, at the time I never heard about what had happened to Yotam. I only learned about it – quite by accident – this week, while celebrating the festival of Simchat Torah at my synagogue. (The blog post about hearing sad news at a happy occasion, and the diametric between the two emotional extremes, will have to wait for another time.)

So here I am, more than six years late, mourning the untimely death of a friend.

And it’s strange. How can I suddenly “miss” someone who has been gone for so long, just because I had no idea what had happened? If Yotam were alive and well and living on Kibbutz Beit Hashita, where he was born and raised, I wouldn’t “miss” him, even though I still would not have seen or spoken with him in eight years.

But I do miss Yotam. Perhaps it’s the sudden knowledge that I never can see him again that hits me so hard. Who knows if I would have ever seen him again anyway, but I have often thought back on my years in miluim and on the people that made it less awful than it otherwise might have been. And I often hope to see some of them again – either by chance meeting or by design. Yotam had been one of those people that I had hoped to see again.

My pride in having known Yotam swelled when I looked at the website that his family built in his memory. It confirmed all that I already knew about him, and added a lot more details of which I had been unaware, but was not at all surprised to hear.

Yotam was extremely active working as a madrih (counselor) with the teenagers on his kibbutz after his army service. He took very seriously his love of education and of working with kids, and was, by all accounts, very well loved and respected by all who knew him. Not unlike, I might add, those of us who served in the IDF with and under him.

I read through the comments that accompanied the virtual candles lit for Yotam on his website, and was touched by the tremendous impact he obviously had on those around him. I would imagine even someone who had never had the opportunity to meet Yotam, to share with him a laugh, or the milu’im staple game of shesh-besh (backgammon) and a late night cup of coffee, would still be moved almost to tears reading of the love that people had for him, and the void that his death has left in so many lives.

I never had the chance to attend Yotam’s funeral, or to pay my respects to his family when they sat shiva for a week after his death. Nor have I (yet) visited his gravesite. I have posted on his family’s website, and I will send them a personal note as well.

Yotam Lotan

Yotam Lotan (photo credit: via yotam-lotan.co.il)

Other than that, there are two ways in which I can honor the memory of Yotam.

One is to post this piece, and to hope that as many people as possible will read about this fine young Israeli, and know that for all that he gave to his country – our country – in his death, he gave so much more in his life.

The second is to always remember what I gained from him, his kindness, his selflessness, his humor, his love and acceptance of his fellow man. It is up to me share all of that with the people in my life.

In that sense, Yotam Lotan, z”l, will continue to live for a very long time.

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