We live in a world that seems to become more divided every day. In spite of all the conflict and difficulty, Chabad works extremely hard to bring Jews together. It seemed abundantly clear that they are succeeding when I attended the 2016 Philly Shabbaton. The event was organized by Rabbi Chaim and Moussia Goldstein, who run the Chabad of Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
The Shabbaton brought together students and young professionals from all around the region for a weekend of learning, praying, making new friends, and of course, eating. Chabad rabbis from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware and New York were all present as well, ready to share their knowledge and love of Judaism. It seemed like any time someone asked a question, a rabbi would come around a corner or pop his head out from another room with an answer, which was both enlightening and entertaining. The highlight of the weekend however, was when we got to hear from a true, modern day Maccabee.
Jewish history is full of strength and bravery. The Maccabees, Bar Kokhba, the Bielski partisans, the Haganah and the IDF all have carried on a tradition of Jewish resistance to persecution. It is an oft-forgotten aspect of a history most associated with great scholars and sages, but nonetheless, is vital to understanding the Jewish spirit. I have never encountered anyone that exemplified that spirit of bravery more than Izzy Ezagui. His resistance wasn’t only against enemies of Israel and threats to the Jewish people, but also against personal circumstances that would make most people break down for good.
I’ve been interested in people’s stories before. I’ve been impressed, and I’ve been moved, but seldom have I been as captivated as when Izzy Ezagui told us his story of perseverance and courage. He told us how he discovered his love for Israel, how he made his decision to join the IDF, and what his experience was like as an American in Israel’s army. There’s a big difference between Izzy’s story, and the stories of other American Jews that have joined the IDF though. Izzy Ezagui’s left arm was blown off by a mortar shell while he was guarding the Gaza border in 2008 during Operation Cast Lead.
Many Israeli soldiers are injured in the line of duty, but Izzy’s story is special, because he didn’t let this brutal injury stop him from eventually returning to the IDF as an active combat soldier. He underwent tremendous hardships while recovering from his wound. He knew that he wanted to return to the army upon recovery and took himself off of the painkillers he’d been on, despite phantom limb pain, and withdrawal symptoms.
He had been left-handed before his injury, so he had to relearn how to do everything with his right. It wasn’t only basic tasks like tying his shoes and writing that he had to learn over again. He learned how to handle and fire weapons, and how to clear them if they jammed under pressure. He even had to get used to pulling grenade pins with his teeth. As I heard him tell his story, I realized that I was in the presence of a living example of why, after thousands of years of persecution, the Jews are still here.
Izzy Ezagui’s story was one of pride, pain, realism and hope. Most amazingly though, was the fact that he also told his story with humor. For a person to lose his arm, and then still be able to make jokes and smile as he tells his story is a remarkable thing. I think that in a way, there is something very “Jewish” about being able to make jokes while talking about even the darkest of times. It comes from a sense of hope and faith that have kept the Jewish people from the depths of despair, even in the worst moments of our history.
I wasn’t the only one who was spellbound by his story either. The entire tent was fixated on Izzy as he told us about his life and IDF experiences, (although they may have been paying attention to his puppy, Punch, who was also a big hit over the weekend). I think we all realized just how important it was to hear the story, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard a Shabbat table get as quiet as I did when Izzy was speaking, which makes it all the more impressive. If you’ve ever been at a large Shabbat dinner, you’ll know exactly what I mean.
Izzy Ezagui’s story had the potential to be very sad and very depressing, but his outlook on life and the courage he showed in the face of adversity made it one of hope and inspiration instead. I think I speak for everyone in attendance at the Shabbaton when I say that we felt tremendous pride in being able to say that he’s one of ours. He made incredible sacrifices and overcame seemingly impossible odds in the service of the State of Israel, and the Jewish people. He continues to do so to this day, and I for one am grateful that a man with his character is defending our ancestral homeland.