And his name shall be Avishai…

Reflections on a visit to the Mt. Herzl military cemetary

Shira spent her first summer as a member of our Israel delegation in 2006. Tall, energetic, and charismatic, Shira was the type of young woman who seemed to run instead of walk, always with a bounce in her step. She was and remains a passionate young educator, drama teacher, and baseball player.

Maddy was in camp that summer as well. Already a veteran shlicha, an emissary from Israel, Maddy led the Israeli delegation and was responsible for many Israel-based programs at camp. That summer she lost her friend Roiee Klein in Lebanon.

Maddy didn’t bother knocking on the night of August 1…she simply entered my room and told me that I was needed on the public area we call the migrash. The sobbing, somewhat muted by the throngs of people now surrounding Shira, was pierced every few second by her screams. Michael Levin, her best friend, had just died in battle. Together we packed her bags, drove her to the airport, and helped her get home for Michael’s burial the next day on Mt. Herzl. Though her shlichut was cut short, the impact she had on the community and the story of Michael’s passing endures.

Maddy, Shira and I remain in touch and I’ve had the opportunity to watch them transition from adolescents to adults. They are extraordinary young women and dear friends of mine.

Over the years I have returned to Har Herzl to visit the graves of Roiee and Michael. Roiee, a commander and father of two babies, was responsible for saving his soldiers by throwing his body over them. Michael, born and raised in the Philadelphia suburbs, was on an army vacation and visiting Camp Ramah when the war broke out. He cut short his vacation, immediately returned to Israel, and died a few days later.

I returned to Har Herzl last week, this time to visit the freshest graves dug this past summer. Meandering through Har Herzl and not certain where to find this newest gush of agony, we found  a platoon of new recruits with their commander and asked for directions. The commander invited us to follow as they were headed to the same area. The boys, many of whom had not yet started shaving and still gunless, had a look of seriousness and determination. Just a few weeks earlier I imagine they were acting like boys.

And then we were there. A father hunched over one grave reciting tehillim, a sister sobbed at another matzeva. The commander made his way through the various graves telling stories of heroism, making certain that these new recruits understood the meaning of sacrifice. He paused to talk about Roiee and guided his soldiers past Barkai Shor’s grave. Barkai died this summer; his first cousin Hadar was on our mishlachat several years ago. When we arrived at Michael’s grave the commander told his story: an American Jew, someone who did not need to join the IDF, but did so because of his passionate commitment to the land and people of Israel. The commander commented on the hundreds of visitors to his grave evidenced by the pictures, sport gear, and even Ramah insignia left along with traditional stones. Pausing, he asked his new recruits if they had any reflections they wanted to share. The soldiers remained quiet and I asked if I could speak.

I spoke about Michael’s commitment to Israel, those lucky enough to call him a friend, and his parents and family who travel across the country inspiring teens and young adults with his story. I spoke about Shira and that evening. And, I thanked them.

Even though it was eight years ago, even though our Ramah community has endured another summer war with its personal losses, there is something about that night and its piercing screams that still haunts our migrash.

We left Har Herzl and headed back to town. Shira’s baby Avishai was born the same day. Maddy is due on Purim.

May they know no war.

About the Author
Amy Skopp Cooper is the National Associate Director of the Ramah Camping Movement and the Director of Ramah Nyack, a position she has held for 18years. She is the recipient of the 2011 Covenant Award.