I have just had the privilege of guiding a very special “Amazing Israel” Birthright “Extreme” group. Our time together was packed with emotional and meaningful moments, all of which helped forge a connecting bond between the American and Israeli participants to our land, traditions and people.
One particular defining moment stands out. It took place towards the end of our trip amidst the grassy quietude of the Mt. Herzl national military cemetery in Jerusalem. This moment was a stark reminder of both the price we pay to keep our Zionist dream alive and the fragility of life.
Birthright is an intensely powerful and enriching educational phenomenon for the Jewish American participants, made all the more enriching in recent years, by the inclusion of a mifgash (informal meeting) element in the 10 day trip. This is when eight soldiers join the trip for five (or sometimes the whole ten) days and travel together with the American participants. They stay in the same lodgings, participate in the same activities, which include hikes and discussions and, perhaps most importantly, enjoy a lot of unstructured downtime with the group. The mifgash provides opportunities for Jewish adolescents from the Diaspora to interact with their Israeli counterparts, and vice versa. Such interaction creates a more representative encounter with Israel.
I was surprised when on the first day of our Mifgash only seven soldiers, rather than the usual eight, came to meet our group. Five days later, on Mt. Herzl we paid our respects and honoured the deeds and memory of the young boys and girls buried in the new section of the cemetery, including Michael Levin z”l and Roi Klein z”l, as well as fallen comrades of some of “our” mifgash soldiers. As I was turning to leave that section I noticed one of our soldiers, who served in the navy, crying quietly on the side. She whispered something to another soldier who informed me that the latest grave, added to Mt. Herzl just two weeks ago, was that of Hanan Mamam z”l – who was supposed to be the eighth soldier on our trip!
I was stunned! When I managed to convey this information to our participants there was an outpouring of emotion. We had just spent the last five days with these special Jewish young people who come to give and not to take, and who represent all that is good about the miraculous times we live in. We had hiked with them, laughed with them and learned from them. Now we learned that the Eighth soldier, Hanan, who had been so excited to join us, according to the other soldiers who had met him at the preparation seminar a few weeks before the trip, was buried in the holy ground in front of us having died during his national service. It was a stark reminder that we did not receive our State on a silver platter and how grateful we are for these young boys and girls who give the best years of their life, and sometimes their very lives themselves, and are the people who step forward to keep our Zionist dream alive!
I will devote all of my strength, and even sacrifice my life, in the defense of the homeland and the freedom of Israel.
– From the Induction Oath to the IDF
This article is dedicated to the memory of Hanan Maman, age 20