When I used to work at the JNF-Alexander Muss High School in Israel program, teaching Jewish History and Modern Israel through lessons in the classroom and field trips around the country, our last site visit on the last day of the program was to Har Herzl, Israel’s national cemetery.
There I would tell stories of various Israeli heroes who died serving and protecting the Jewish people and the Jewish state. Some of these stories were very difficult for my students to hear and for me to tell. By the end of the visit to Har Herzl there were usually many tears flowing, including my own.
At some point on our walk back to the bus, which was waiting to take us to Ben Yehuda Street for one more visit and one more dinner before going to the airport for the students’ flight back to the U.S., I would stop, turn around, face my students and tell them this:
“You’re probably thinking right now, ‘Thanks Akiva. How in the world are we able to go to Ben Yehuda Street right now and enjoy ourselves after hearing all of those painful stories? How can we have fun with our friends on our last night in Israel when our hearts are so broken?'”
And then I would tell them this:
“All of these soldiers buried here in this cemetery, and in all the military cemeteries around Israel, if they could speak to you right now, if they could say anything to you right now, they would absolutely say this:
‘ENJOY BEN YEHUDA STREET! GO HAVE FUN WITH YOUR FRIENDS! THIS IS THE REASON WE SERVED IN THE IDF! SO THAT ALL JEWS IN THE WORLD COULD ENJOY THIS LAND, OUR HOMELAND, OUR ONLY HOMELAND IN THE WORLD. AND THIS IS WHY WE WERE WILLING TO RISK IT ALL, RISK OUR LIVES, FOR THIS PLACE AND FOR OUR PEOPLE. SO…FOR US…PLEASE…BE HAPPY, GO HAVE FUN AND ENJOY YOUR LAST NIGHT IN ISRAEL.”
I said something like this to Omer Balva’s class as well, one of the last classes I taught before leaving the school.
I never in a million years thought that he would be one of those soldiers I was talking about.
Omer was hands down was one of the sweetest students I’ve ever had during my 20+ years working in Jewish Education.
Omer was that guy that everyone loved. The students. The teachers. Everyone. He always showed up with a smile on his face no matter what and was a natural leader who inspired others because of his contagious positive attitude.
During those three months Omer was in my class, I had so many good conversations with Omer about life, spirituality, Judaism, and Israel. His love for Israel and for the Jewish people was unwavering and tangible.
Omer lived in America, born to Israeli parents, and, after finishing high school, moved to Israel and joined the IDF. He was visiting the U.S. when the war began and cut his trip short to join his unit which was called up for reserve duty.
Omer was murdered in an attack by Hezbollah terrorists on Friday, October 20th fighting Hezbollah terrorists along Israel’s border with Lebanon.
But I have no doubt in my mind, that if we could ask Omer why he did what he did, why he left the U.S. to join the IDF and why he cut his trip to the U.S. to join his fellow soldiers, he would absolutely say he did all of that to ensure that each and every single Jew could feel safe in, feel connected to and enjoy the only homeland the Jewish people have in this world.
Omer, you are not a hero because you died. You are a hero because of how you lived your life. You followed your dreams and lived aligned with your inner sense of meaning, purpose and mission.
May your memory be a blessing for your family, for your community, for the Jewish people and for the entire world.