In a school where love of Israel is almost as much a part of the curriculum as math or history, 67 former students have volunteered over the years to serve in the Israel Defense Forces.
To celebrate their service, Rabbi Pesach Raymon Yeshiva in Edison dedicated a “wall of honor” in its sanctuary featuring the names and photos of those soldiers.
“There are 67 names here, and there is room for more — and there are more,” principal Rabbi Shraga Gross told an overflow crowd of 225 on Nov. 15.
He said in recent months several more former students had taken up arms for Israel.
Gross credited the daily prayers and psalms sung in support of the Israeli military, and recalled the students’ reaction in 2011 when Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was released by Hamas in a prisoner exchange.
“As I told them the news broke that morning that Gilad is coming home, my friends, this beit midrash turned into a wall of song,” he said. “My friends, your children and grandchildren sang out, and there were tears of joy.”
That connection was evident on Nov. 11, when 17 former IDF soldiers unexpectedly visited the school. The Israelis were in the community as participants in Peace of Mind, a respite program for traumatized veterans (see related story).
“They lined Harrison Street and cheered and danced in the street with these hayalim,” soldiers, Gross said.
He said he believed the soldiers felt their love.
“We let them know that although they may be many miles away from home, RPRY is their home front,” said Gross. “If you can’t be in Eretz Yisrael, the next best place to be is RPRY.”
School president Leslie Ostrin said she and her husband, Josh, “brimmed with pride” when their 13-year-old told them he couldn’t wait to join the IDF. She credits Gross for instilling that love of Israel.
Four years ago, Gross approached Henry and Sheila Schanzer of Edison about the wall, and they agreed to fund it. The couple’s four children and 13 of their 16 grandchildren graduated or are attending RPRY. The Schanzers beamed as most of those children and grandchildren surprised them by reading an original poem composed for the occasion.
Gross credited the couple with “building beautiful lives from the ashes of the Holocaust,” imbuing their children with a love for the Jewish community and Israel.
“All of us here today are survivors,” said Henry Schanzer, who was a hidden child in France during the Shoa. “We have survived more than 2,000 years of anti-Semitism, including pogroms and most recently the Holocaust.”
He lauded the former students who have made aliya, joined the IDF, or both. Americans may serve in the IDF if they become Israeli citizens or join an army volunteer program for non-citizens like Mahal.
“It is therefore fitting and proper that in their honor we donate this wall,” said Schanzer. “They are the real heroes.”