Israeli soldiers visiting a local day school offered stories of heroism and sacrifice that contrasted sharply with accusations that Israel had responded with “disproportionality” during last summer’s war against Hamas in Gaza.
On Dec. 11, a group of young Israeli officers who served in the recent Gaza War visited Abrams Hebrew Academy in Yardley, Pa., and shared some of their war experiences with the students.
The school’s director, Rabbi Ira Budow, said he was excited about cosponsoring the two-week visit of these young soldiers to the United States — which was organized by Magen David Yeshiva in Brooklyn — but wanted to make the Abrams event more interactive than a lecture and more intimate than a visit to an army base in Israel.
“I’m promoting something for our students to meet people who are leaders in the IDF and for them to make that bridge between Israel and our school,” he said.
A presentation of donations from parents and students was followed by a dinner with the soldiers sitting among the students.
Naftali Gross, 25, described the physical pain he and his fellow soldiers felt during an 80-mile training march carrying 30-45 pounds of equipment and how that changed when they crossed a highway. Drivers “saw the brigades, stopped in the middle of the highway, and people got out and started cheering,” recalled Gross, who is in his third year of medical school at Hadassah Hospital. “I started crying, and I said to myself, ‘What won’t I do for my fellow Jews?’ At that point I stopped feeling pain.”
Gross, who wears a yarmulke and tzitzit, also recalled a Shabbat shortly before the war broke out in early July. “Guys, this Shabbos we’re training because we don’t know where you’re going to be sent,” a rabbi told the unit. They spent Shabbat practicing shooting, throwing grenades, open field warfare, and urban warfare. Judaism values life above all, even on Shabbat, explained Gross.
Bentzi Gross, Naftali’s younger brother and a member of the Golani brigade, said he had 40 soldiers and four commanders under him, including some who had just finished 12th grade. They were ordered to conquer a building in Gaza, clear it, and then defend their position from inside it.
He explained how Israeli soldiers do not go into a building entrance, because it may be mined, and instead make a hole in the building’s side to enter. “It was a nice house — TV, toys, nice bedrooms. It had pictures on the wall and Hamas scarves all around.
“These kids are not educated like you,” in acts of hesed, or loving-kindness, he said. “They don’t do good stuff, most of them.”
After they had cleared the building, he said, it took a hit and they had to feel their way out, but when Bentzi counted, he realized that two soldiers and one officer were missing. He described “the feeling when you have responsibility for soldiers — their moms and dads depend on you to bring them home safe.” A rescue team was able to save them all.
Nadav Kadosh, 23, also in the Golani brigade, said he teaches in the officer training school, but volunteered to be with his soldiers in Gaza. Although he had no medical training, he was assigned to be commander of a medical squad.
He was asked to go with one of the medics to treat a soldier, but to get to him safely they had to move from house to house down a street. On the way, they found a soldier who had been shot in the shoulder, and his medic was shot in the neck. But when Kadosh tried to bandage the wound of the medic, because it looked the most serious, the medic waved him over to the soldier.
“He had a wife and children; he was on reserve,” Kadosh recalled. “His job was to be medic and treat other soldiers, and he was ready to sacrifice himself for the other soldier. He didn’t know the other soldier, his name, or how old he was. At that time I learned a message about life and about real friendship and real bravery.”
The students were clearly moved. Ethan Schuman said, “When I hear the stories about those people who got hurt or killed, I feel the pain — and how they fight every day for the safety of Jewish people in Israel.”
Eighth-grader Maya Neuhaus said, “It brought everything into perspective. When you think of a soldier, you see them as a normal person. But they are something more. They are fighting for you, and you feel very close to them even if I don’t know who they are.”
Her classmate Nira Dayanim said, “Everyone in Israel has to do this. It is completely normal for them. All of them have to do it because it’s so hard to live in Israel. They’re protecting their country, and Israel still exists even though they have so many enemies. It’s so inspiring.”
For K-1 Hebrew teacher Sonia Arusy, the talks recalled her own experiences during the war. A native of Ashkelon, she was visiting Israel and had difficulty getting a plane home, so she decided to stay and open a camp in a shelter for children of all ages. “There is a reason for everything in life,” she said. “I can’t forget this — one summer I did the right thing; one summer I did something good.”