Omri from Maalot: North American Jewry on the Front Lines
When the war broke almost two weeks ago, a familiar feeling returned. The pre-aliyah feeling of wanting to do something to help, but not knowing exactly what. New friends, new friends' children, and cousins were being called up for service, but what were we to do? It's been several years now that our yeshiva has worked with Barbara Silverman, Shira Gilor, and "a Package from Home" on packing care packages for Israeli soldiers. It looked like we would not have the opportunity this year, as the financial situation has left the organization dry of funds.
I called "a Package from Home" thinking they might have renewed funding given the wartime situation, and I was right. They said we might be able to pack with them in about two weeks. Rav Reichel, our rosh yeshiva, insisted that we needed to do something sooner. Before our students went to lunch that day, he gathered them in the Beit Midrash to announce that we had 5 days to raise enough money necessary for funding 1000 packages. With the help of parents, students, rebbeim, and North American communities, we achieved our goal. Over the course of three hours yesterday, we packed nearly 1100 packages for soldiers in action and 70 injured soldiers in hospitals. Three different battalions sent trucks to pick up their packages. Paratroopers Omri from Maalot and Gonen from Ramle drove the truck collecting packages for the final battalion of the day. While we finished packing, they shared their battalion's story. Its commander, Itai, was injured severely in the Lebanon War two years ago. He lost both legs, and suffered internal damage as well. With unwavering devotion to "his boys", when the war began, Itai traveled to Gaza to speak with them before they headed out to battle. He then called Barbara, and told her that he would love for them to receive the special care packages, filled with everything from a warm stocking cap to fresh toiletries to chocolate bars and snacks.
Gonen and Omri were Itai's emissaries sent to pick up the packages from Jerusalem. They expected a few bags of goodies, and were shocked to receive 300 packages, enough for their whole battalion. They were visibly moved to learn that the packages were sent care of Jews across the Atlantic. As we conversed during the packing, both the quieter Gonen and the more outspoken Omri explained to us that these packages would provide a tremendous emotional lift to the soldiers. "Until now, we've felt that we're fighting together with the citizens of Medinat Yisrael, now we feel that we have Am Yisrael from around the globe with us."
As we bid farewell to the paratroopers, they asked to say a few words to our boys. Knowing that they were in a rush to return to their unit, we regretfully explained that we had already dismissed the students for a 20 minute break before mincha. After a brief discussion, the soldiers said they would wait. We told them that they could speak before we began to daven. To our surprise, Omri and Gonen said they would join us for tefilla. They asked us for kippot, and a student brought a sefardi siddur for Gonen and an ashkenazi siddur for Omri. Before Ashrei, Omri, a handsome, bearded 21 year old, two weeks shy of completing his service, addressed the boys. He surveyed the boys with a glimmer in his blue eyes. "I want you to know that we have all seen strange things on this tour of duty. As we prepared to enter Gaza, our battalion was told to expect severe casualties of up to a quarter of our manpower. During our initial incursion, we killed 40 Hamas terrorists, without a scratch on one of our men (except the guy who tripped on stairs inside a house and broke his arm). Unbelievable."
"Chanukah miracles" mused Gonen aloud.
"And I want you to know," continued Omri, "that you may not feel that you're a part of this, but I believe your Tehillim have protected us. We've said them ourselves. Before we entered, I looked around and this guy had a mini Tehillim in his shirt pocket and this guy had one sticking out of his pants pocket. Guys that I would never have expected it from".
After Mincha, our rosh yeshiva broke into a round of "am yisrael chai" (figuring the non-dati chayalim would be familiar). We danced around the beit midrash, and then the dancing came to an end. As we were about to "break ranks," Omri called for our attention. Putting his arms around the students next to him, he shared a description of the moments before they entered Gaza. "We stood in a big circle like this, prepared for battle. We put our arms around each other, and we sang the following song." Recreating their experiences of two weeks, we gathered in a large circle encompassing the beit midrash, and sang with them: "Yisrael b'tach bashem, ezram u'maginam hu. Anachnu maaminim bnei maaminim v'ein lanu al mi l'hisha'en ela al avinu shebashamayim." Yisrael, trust in Hashem! He is their help and defense. We are believers, the children of believers, and we have nobody in whom to trust but our father in Heaven.'"
As we sang with Omri and Gonen, it became clear to me that we are all with them on the battlefield.
I hope and pray that our paths will cross again, as they stroll in civilian clothing on the streets of Maalot, Ramle, and Jerusalem.
Am Yisrael Chai!
Dan and Dassi Jacobson
Neve Daniel, Gush Etzion