The fallen warriors of Israel have names like Yoni, Ro’i, Hadar… and Mahmud, Zidan and Kamil. This past Tuesday, Yom Hazikaron (Israel Memorial Day), 90 Jews joined Yakir on an emotional journey to the Galilee villages of Arab heroes who sacrificed their lives in defense of the Jewish State. At a time when Israel is reeling from both enemy-inflicted terror and painful infighting, Yakir embraced the diversity, resilience and faith that power the still-unfolding miracle of modern Israel.
Yakir’s Yom Hazikaron initiative drew inspiration from our recent 8th Annual Jews-Druze Shabbat Yitro, celebrating the unique partnership of the Jews and the Druze, a 150,000-strong Arab community that reveres Yitro (Jethro) as its founding prophet and that proudly sends its sons to serve in the IDF. This year’s events honored the life and valor of Mahmud Kheir Al-din ob”m, an IDF Special Forces commander, who was killed four years ago during an undercover mission in Gaza, just months after celebrating that year’s Jews-Druze Shabbat with Yakir in Tel Aviv. Insight gained from February’s Jews-Druze Shabbat Yitro altered our approach to last week’s Yom Hazikaron.
On that chilly Shabbat morning, three-time Medal of Valor recipient Col. Nazye Dabur and dozens of community activists from 7 Druze villages accompanied the family of Mahmud ob”m to Yeshivat Hakotel in Jerusalem’s Old City. Yakir’s distinguished guests were riding on an emotional high. The previous evening, following Kabbalat Shabbat at Jerusalem’s Agnon Synagogue, 500 local Jews had risen to their feet, as I invited Mahmud’s young sons, Ahmad and Ram, to stand before the open Ark for the recitation of a prayer in their father’s memory and for the singing of the Prayer for the IDF. Dozens of Druze families were then welcomed into Jewish homes to share a Shabbat Eve meal, followed by a community “Oneg Shabbat” desert reception at my home.
Sweet memories from the night prior were fresh; still, participants, including me, wondered what type of reception the group would receive at this storied educational institution, which has combined Torah learning and IDF service since its founding shortly after the Six Day War. The Yeshiva was at full capacity that weekend, the regular students joined by active-duty IDF soldiers, who were granted leave to spend a “Soldiers Shabbat” at the Yeshiva. Arriving just in time for the reading of the Torah portion, our group was quickly ushered to seats in the expansive study hall, which overlooks the Western Wall. Students distributed Chumashim to their Druze guests, who followed along as the story of Yitro’s reunification with Moshe was read from the Torah. Rosh Yeshiva (Dean) Rabbi Baruch Wieder welcomed the Yakir delegation, highlighting Am Yisrael’s indebtedness to Biblical Yitro and to his present-day spiritual heirs, who continue to stand by their Jewish brethren. After services, the entire yeshiva – students, soldiers and rabbis – danced with the Druze, hoisting Mahmud’s orphaned sons onto their shoulders. Nahed, Mahmud’s widow, smiled broadly.
The heartwarming experience at Yeshivat Hakotel put on full display the thirst of young Israelis to heal and strengthen Israeli society. And it prodded Yakir to think bigger. Yakir’s community-based programming model has proven successful in bringing together Jews of diverse backgrounds in (the regrettably uncommon) common cause of honoring and befriending the Jewish State’s non-Jewish patriots. But now I wondered – wouldn’t enlisting idealistic student-soldiers from across the country as Yakir activists greatly expand our reach? To further explore this thesis, we prioritized the army-age demographic for Yakir’s Yom Hazikaron project. And so, early Tuesday morning, 20 mostly middle-aged Jerusalemites and 70 pre- and post-IDF students of Yeshivat Otniel headed north – our first stop, the Druze Military Cemetery of Yanuh-Jat, for the official Yom Hazikaron Ceremony. The students were recruited by my son, Binyamin, himself an Otniel student; the Yeshiva leadership was enthusiastically supportive, with one senior educator, Rabbi Yakov Nagen, joining the group. The level of student participation was astonishing. Subtract active-duty soldiers and those students asked to represent the yeshiva at the graves of its fallen soldiers, and the positive response rate was nearly 100%!
The arriving coaches were met by Yanuh-Jat Mayor Modi Sa’ad and Sheikh Taufiq Salameh, and our group intermingled with the many hundreds of locals for the 20-minute march from the town outskirts to the cemetery. Yakir’s custom Israel-Druze flags were enormously popular with the villagers and helped create instant connections between strangers. The ceremony, as at military cemeteries nationwide, commenced with the sounding of a siren at precisely 11 AM. Standing at attention, an IDF honor guard of mostly Druze soldiers was joined by a navy seaman from our group, his white uniform and payot (Hasidic style ear locks) unmissable. A bereaved father lit the remembrance torch, a Sheikh chanted a prayer in Arabic, a soldier recited Yizkor in Hebrew, the Mayor and other dignitaries spoke of the village’s painful losses, and wreaths honoring the fallen of the IDF, the Israel Police, and the Fire Department were laid by senior officers from each. Bereaved families were invited to place wreaths on the graves of their loved ones.
Seated with the Sheikhs, I was asked to address the crowd, the ceremony’s only Jewish speaker. A wreath was prepared for my wife and me to lay at the ceremony. These gestures, explained the organizers, were an expression of how touched the Druze community was that a group of Jews traveled 3 hours in each direction to remember and to cry with them. Perhaps the most touching – and the most human – moment for me immediately followed the ceremony, when the mayor and his wife introduced me to their daughter with special needs and asked me to bless her.
Hatikvah brought the ceremony to a close, and most townspeople headed home; among those who stayed behind to speak with our group were the relatives of Yanuh-Jat native, Zidan Seif ob”m, the policeman killed while battling the terrorists of Jerusalem’s 2014 Har Nof Synagogue massacre. Zidan’s widow, Rinal, was flanked by Zidan’s younger brother, Adnan (who has since married Rinal), and father, Sheikh Nuhad; they shared stories of pain and pride. Rinal’s lips quivered as she described how Zidan, a traffic cop without anti-terror weapons or protective armor, rushed to the scene – “he was the first to arrive at the synagogue, and he didn’t think about himself, his wife or his then 4-month-old daughter, Lorain; he was driven to save innocent lives, and he was willing to sacrifice everything for what he believed in.” Zidan ob”m engaged the terrorists at point blank range, drew both away from further victims, neutralized one, but was shot and killed by the second.
A short drive brought us to the Druze village of Hurfeish, where we visited the families of two fallen Israeli heroes. Nahed, a speech therapist and widow of Mahmud Kheir Al-din ob”m (above), described her life as the young wife of a commando leading dangerous, secret IDF missions behind enemy lines. Shortly after their wedding, when Mahmud was dispatched on one such mission, he told Nahed that “I will be back next Wednesday, I cannot communicate with you while I am away, and please do not, under any circumstances, tell anyone that I am on an IDF mission.” When Mahmud did not return on Wednesday, “I just stayed home and cried alone for two days, until Mahmud belatedly returned.” On November 18, 2018, an IDF officer, joined by Nahed’s father, arrived at her front door bearing the bitter news that this time Mahmud would not return.
The home of another Hurfeish local, Border Officer Kamil Shinan ob”m, was our final stop. Former Member of Knesset Shachiv Shinan, showed us a film with graphic footage of terrorists murdering his son Kamil five years ago, as he stood guard on Temple Mount. Kamil’s mother stayed in another room during the video, which she has never watched. At Shachiv’s urging, participants engaged him in stimulating dialogue about the challenges facing Israel’s Druze minority. A brilliant raconteur, Shachiv shared personal tales, exuding love for Israel and for Jerusalem. His parting words – “Know that Israel is not only the best place in the world for a Jew to live, but it is also the best place in the world for a Druze to live. We will always stand by your side to protect and build our country.”
Earlier, following the ceremony at the cemetery, in addition to the Seifs, Mayor Sa’ad addressed us. The entire town was moved by our presence, he said. He then turned to me with a challenge: “Why don’t we spread these types of programs across Israel?” I was prepared. “In honor of Israel’s 75th birthday,” I announced, “Yakir is launching ‘Shabbat Yitro 75’ – a nationwide expansion of our trailblazing annual Jews-Druze festival of unity. Druze families, sheikhs and students will be hosted over Shabbat Yitro at 75 different locations across Israel! Druze leaders and community activists are up for the challenge. The response from rabbis and lay leaders has been exuberant. Our newly inspired student-soldiers are stepping forward to volunteer in their hometowns.
A lot of work and generous support from Zionist partners will be needed, but the journey to Shabbat Yitro 75 has begun! Our destination: A Jewish State that is more authentically Jewish because it reaches out in gratitude and friendship to all who serve and sacrifice.
Yahuh-Jat Mayor Modi Sa’ad: “Count me in!”
What about you?
“Shabbat Yitro 75” – February 2-3, 2024. Strength. Unity. Kiddush Hashem.