RISHON LETZION, Israel — A local program that brings together high school students from New Jersey and Israel was one of the highlights of the short life of IDF soldier Matan Gotlib, 21, who was killed last week in the Gaza Strip, his brother told NJJN on Monday.
In April 2009, Matan participated in the Diller Teen Fellows program, sponsored locally by Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.
He spent 12 days in the GMW area that Passover, before joining teens from New Jersey in running a summer camp for children of Ethiopian immigrants in his hometown of Rishon Letzion, a federation partnership community.
“I remember Matan telling me how emotional the program was for him,” his older brother Nitzan said at the shiva house in Rishon Letzion. “He had a deep connection with his friends from the program in Israel and New Jersey. The program made him so happy. It was one of the best times of his life.”
Matan was killed along with two other IDF soldiers while searching for Hamas tunnels with his Maglan commando unit in the southern Gaza town of Khan Yunis on July 30. They entered a United Nations clinic to seal the entry shaft of a tunnel there and were killed when a fighter inside the tunnel detonated the building with 175 pounds of explosives.
Nitzan said that before entering the IDF three years ago, Matan loved seeing the world, touring, and meeting people. He spent months in Germany on a student exchange program.
“He loved telling people about Israel and being an ambassador,” Nitzan said. “That’s why he jumped on the opportunity.”
When asked for his feelings on losing his brother in the war in Gaza, Nitzan said, “It is important that people in America understand that the situation [prior to the war] was intolerable.”
Ruhama Gotlib, Matan’s and Nitzan’s mother, made waves at the funeral by joining the family in reciting the Kaddish memorial prayer. In Israel, where Orthodox traditions dominate Jewish rituals, it is rare for a woman to say Kaddish.
“We are an open secular family,” Nitzan said. “It’s her son, and no one will tell her what to say or not to say. She wanted us to all do it together.”
The Diller program teaches its Israeli participants about religious pluralism. Twenty Israeli teens are chosen every year using tests and interviews.
“Matan was chosen because of his good qualities, his leadership, English knowledge, and curiosity,” said Merav Kopito, Rishon Letzion’s youth exchange program director. “He stood out in his personality. Whenever he walked in, he impressed with his social skills and good looks. Everyone admired him.”
Diller encourages participants to make contributions to their community and teaches them about their Jewish identity and values. Besides Diller, Matan was active in projects with his school and his Tzofim youth group helping the disadvantaged.
Participants in Matan’s Diller group from both New Jersey and Israel are raising funds to memorialize him at the Jewish community center in Rishon Letzion’s disadvantaged Ramat Eliyahu neighborhood. The Greater MetroWest federation is helping with the effort (go to jfedgmw.org).
Federation officials in Israel gathered participants from the Diller program ahead of the funeral and attended along with the youths.
Matan was buried on July 31 in Rishon Letzion’s military cemetery. A siren warning of an incoming rocket wailed just before the funeral. Popular singer Aviv Gefen, who was Matan’s favorite entertainer, performed at the funeral.
The thousands who attended the funeral included wounded soldiers from Matan’s unit, who came on crutches and stretchers from hospitals. The Maglan commando unit specializes in operating behind enemy lines. At the funeral, Matan’s officer described his constant smile, good looks, and blue eyes.
Matan had only three weeks of service in the IDF left in his three-year term of required duty. He wanted to go to South America after he was done. His parents, Ruhama and Shmuelik, and two older brothers, Nitzan and Omer, revealed a letter he wrote them a few days before his death.
“I just wanted to say that all is fine, and I’m thinking about you,” he wrote. “I miss the scene of the dining room table on Friday. It’s hard for me to write anything deep because I choke with tears when I think about you. I miss you a great deal. Lots of love, Matan.”
Following the funeral, Israel’s Channel 2 broadcast a video showing Matan surfing joyfully on a recent weekend with his girlfriend of the past two years, Lihi Shapira. She told reporters about a conversation she had with him two days before he was killed.
“He told me how much he loves me and that everything would be all right and I believed him,” she said. “He apologized that he was not by my side, as if it was his fault.”
Shapira brought tears to the crowd when she spoke at the funeral.
“From the moment I saw you, I knew you were different and I fell in love with you,” she said. “Thank you for all the moments when you were there for me, and for the love and joy you added to my life. I will love you until the end of the world.”