An estimated 180 people filled the gymnasium of Shalom Torah Academy in Morganville on Aug. 14, as the solemn holiday of Tisha B’Av drew to a close. The attraction was an appearance by Sasson “Sassy” Reuven, a veteran of Operation Thunderbolt, the daring 1976 rescue of more than 100 mostly Jewish hostages from the airport in Entebbe, Uganda.
The program was organized by Chabad of Western Monmouth County.
In about 60 minutes — which is about two-thirds of the duration of the actual rescue effort itself — Reuven told a story of commitment, danger, and heroism that had audience members on the edge of their seats.
The date of the raid was July 4, 1976, America’s bicentennial, so American Jews rode an emotional rollercoaster that week. The hijacking of an Air France flight by two Palestinian and two German terrorists had occurred on June 27, thrusting Jews into suspenseful waiting to see what would happen.
The rescue — widely seen as one of the boldest efforts of its kind in history — was a successful triumph of planning, training, and courage.
The plans were developed in only one week. Transport planes carried 100 Israeli commandos over 2,500 miles to Uganda to carry out the operation, which lasted 90 minutes. Five commandos were wounded and three hostages died (a fourth had been killed by the Ugandans after being hospitalized during the standoff). Tragically, the unit lost its commander, Lt. Col. Yonatan Netanyahu, older brother of Israel’s current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. The mission’s code name, “Operation Thunderbolt,” came to be known as “Operation Yonatan” in his honor.
Working with slides, Reuven showed his audience how the raid was planned and executed. He was the first combatant to leap from a taxiing plane to the airport runway, he said, despite having hurt his knee during air turbulence on the long flight from Israel to Uganda.
Today, the 61-year-old former IDF soldier lives in Calabasas, Calif., where he operates a construction business.
“I was not very religious,” he confessed. “I was an Israeli, and we know everything. But I met a rabbi, Eli Friedman, who invited me to a Chabad Shabbos service. He texted me two weeks in a row, and I ignored him. Then he called on the telephone, said he was coming to my house, and would take me to the service. I said OK.”
Friedman also jump-started Reuven’s speaking career. This year, the 40th anniversary of Operation Thunderbolt, he has been averaging about two appearances a week.
“Once he knew my story, the rabbi got in touch with Chabad rabbis all over the country and the world. I have spoken at dozens of places. One of the highlights was a trip to Australia,” said Reuven.
Marlboro resident Michael Friedberg called the program “inspiring” and “a great opportunity to meet someone who was there and had risked his life to save others.”
Friedberg said that when he was a youngster he had read a book called 90 Minutes at Entebbe and seen a movie depicting the mission. “I wanted to come here to show my respect for the bravery of Mr. Reuven and his fellow soldiers.”
Hal Crane of Morganville said, “It was the greatest rescue in history. Nothing has matched it before or since. And it had special meaning for me because my brother was a paratrooper with the IDF at the time.”
Freehold residents Yana and Harvey Karpinos recalled how proud they had felt when news of the rescue was released. “The rescue mission let us know that Israeli soldiers would protect Jews all over the world,” said Harvey.
Also addressing the crowd was Nechama Tarlow, who with her husband, Reuven, funded the speaker’s trip to honor the memory of their son Yossi, who died four years ago on Tisha B’Av at the age of 28.
Tarlow told the Chabad audience of her son’s work with at-risk teens at Minyan Shelanu in Lakewood. She praised his “amazing capacity” to accept others without judging them, and closed her remarks with this: “For anyone who believes the world is so messed up that you can’t make a difference, know that you can. Everyone can. All lives matter.”