Yom haatzmaut | Yom HaZikaron: A nation pays its respects

Some 22,000 Israeli soldiers have died since the esta-blishment of the Jewish state, including 40 soldiers between March 2013 and March 2014, according to the Israel Defense Forces.

“We in Israel are fighting, and dying,  on behalf of every Jew in the world. … We are maintaining a safe haven for every Jew to escape to. Jews in the diaspora live safer lives and hold their heads higher because Israel and its army exist,” said Chantal Belzberg, executive vice chairman of OneFamily, an organization dedicated to the rehabilitation of Israeli victims of terror attacks and their families.

On Yom HaZikaron, the fourth day of the Hebrew month of Iyar (beginning sundown on Friday, May 4), Israelis will pay tribute to the country’s fallen soldiers in a solemn day of mourning. On its official Memorial Day, Israel also mourns the loss of civilians who were killed as a result of terrorism.

Among the soldiers killed during the past 12 months was 20-year-old Gavriel Kobi, a combat soldier in the Givati Brigade, who was shot and killed Sept. 22 by a Palestinian sniper while on guard duty outside Hebron’s Cave of the Patriarchs. Also killed were 18-year-old Eden Atias, stabbed in the neck Nov. 11 while on a bus in the northern Israeli city of Afula, and 31-year-old Shlomo Cohen, a petty officer 1st class in the Israeli navy, who was fatally shot by a Lebanese sniper while driving near the Israel-Lebanon border fence in an unarmored military vehicle. Cohen was on operational duty Dec. 15 at the time of his death.

OneFamily’s Belzberg said that when a young soldier is killed, it has a “radically shocking, traumatic and debilitating” effect on the soldier’s parents and family.

“Siblings suffer tremendously, but not as deeply as a mother losing her son, the son she bore, nursed, dressed, walked to school, took to his school’s football practice and whose game she watched proudly,” she said. “Siblings suffer because they don’t just lose a brother; they also lose their mom and dad. … They wallow in their grief and have no energy to care for the living. The dead child occupies a lot more time than a living one.”

Yehudit Rotenberg, whose son Sgt. Nadav Rotenberg, 20, was killed January 7, 2011 by a stray IDF mortar shell near the Gaza border, still remembers the day she learned of her son’s death. The family had seen a report on a border incident in which four soldiers were injured.

“It was a Friday night,” Rotenberg recalled. “We learned of the incident at around 6:10 p.m. I was worried, but I didn’t believe he could have died. They said there were injuries on the news. Eating Shabbat dinner was very stressful; it was hard to eat the food. … We kept thinking he would call, that he would tell us he was OK. … Then there was a knock at the door, and we saw an army uniform collar through the window.” She said the hardship, the emotion, came quickly.

Avital Yahalomi has a similar story. Her brother, 20-year-old Cpl. Netanel Yahalomi, was killed  Sept. 21, 2012 while on patrol along the Israeli border with Egypt. Yahalomi was a deeply religious solider and a Zionist; three Jewish books were found on his body after his death. His family knew he was on the Egyptian border and assumed he was safe there. “In general, we have peace with Egypt,” Avital said.

On the afternoon of his death, his family was preparing for Shabbat. Then an IDF representative came to deliver the news. “We all just sat on the couch and we cried and cried. This is something that never goes away. It will never go away,” Avital said.

“When you say goodbye to your son as he gets on the bus with all of the new soldiers, you’ve offered up your son as a potential sacrifice to the country,” said Belzberg. “Your heart sinks. The worst may happen. But most parents say to themselves, ‘It won’t happen to me.’

 “Then, in the middle of the night, there’s a knock at the door.  …  Your worst nightmare has happened. Your son is dead. You scream and your whole body shakes. You collapse.”

But you have no choice but to go on.  “These are brave children,” said Yehudit Rotenberg. “Even though I lost a child, I still believe the army is very important and we have to support it.”