“I’ve only been here for a short while, but I travel a lot and have seen many Jewish communities. I ask you: ‘where have you guys been hiding?’ I mean, you are truly special. You are great,” complimented veteran IDF soldier Izzy Ezagui at the end of his speech as guest speaker at the Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix Donor Appreciation and Awards Brunch, that took place at the Valley of the Sun Jewish Community Center on Dec. 11.
The annual event is the federation’s way of saying “thank you,” once a year, to local members of the community who contribute. One such contributor is former NBA player Joel Kramer, who received a Medal of Honor for over 30 years of donating both money and time to Phoenix and statewide Jewish communities. The medal was given to Kramer by longtime friend Len Miller who, over 30 years ago, gave him his first job after his official retirement from professional basketball, as an accountant at CBIZ, Inc. CBIZ is one of the biggest companies of its kind in Arizona. “One of the best business decision of my career,” said Miller about hiring the then almost inexperienced Kramer, who became a partner in the company in only six years, and has also been on the board of the local Jewish Federation the past 25 years.
In his speech, Kramer described humorously how he was almost “dragged” at the time, as a young NBA recruit, to donate $1,000 a year to the Jewish Federation, and later to more and more responsibilities. “I was joking, of course,” he said after the ceremony, “sometimes you need mentors to put you on the right path to what it is you already know you are supposed to do. You don’t sit on a board, any board, for 25 years if you’re not convinced this is the place you want to be, and these are the things you want to do. However, maybe by giving me this medal they try to hint that they have had enough of me. I don’t know. I’m not going anywhere, though.”
Other recipients of awards at the ceremony were the women of Congregation Or Tzion, led by Linda Moskowitz, who received the Belle Latchman Community Service Award for “Project Isaiah.” The project collected 2,700 pounds of food, which was distributed through the low-cost food pantry, “Kitchen in the Street,” and to hungry children in schools all over the Valley. The Lee Amada Young Leadership Award was given to Lily Behboodi, who has established herself, for the past five years, as a rising power in the local Jewish community.
But, above all, the ceremony will be remembered due to the appearance of guest speaker Izzy Ezagui. Now 28, and living in New York, this young man of Canadian-Cuban origins, who grew up in Miami, wowed the crowd.
Izzy was on vacation in Israel with his family when he was first exposed to a terror attack, and later during another visit decided to join the IDF. In 2008, during “Operation Cast Lead” in the Gaza Strip, Izzy was hit by shrapnel and lost his dominant arm. That did not change his decision to go back to active combat service, even though all the medical personnel and army officials said it couldn’t be done. In 2011, Izzy, back in an IDF uniform, received the highest honor that an Israeli soldier can receive outside the battlefield from then-Israeli President Shimon Peres. Izzy still serves yearly in his old unit’s reserve force, and often travels through Jewish communities in the U.S. and the world sharing his story and encouraging people to contribute to the state of Israel. “It’s an incredibly strong country,” he says, “but they also need a lot of help.”
“I remember soldiers in my unit thinking I’m a crazy American kid, just because I came to Israel and volunteered,” Izzy said after the ceremony. “When I asked to go back, after I lost the arm, for them it was just another crazy thing. But I just knew I had to finish what I started. Not let anything and anyone decide for me what I can and can’t do. I’ve been through many exams to prove I can hold my own in combat.”
Apparently others feel that he can hold his own as well, as Izzy witnessed by an exchange on social media, “I still see photos of me every once in a while on Facebook, and people comment and say, ‘I’ll never go to war with this guy by my side, he can’t have my back,’ and almost always there is someone who served in my unit responding, ‘You don’t know what you’re saying, I was in the army with him and I will put my life in his hand anytime.’ Some of these people I have not seen in years, but they still feel so strongly about me. In a way, that is why I keep doing what I do.”
When Izzy was told he would be receiving the award from President Peres, he was in the middle of IDF command school and was angry because if he left, he would miss 10 days of training. “My commanding officers had to threaten me with jail time,” he explains. “But on that stage, they had dozens of other soldiers who received awards, but Major General Benny Gantz, who was the IDF chief of staff, chose to mention me. I think that was the first time I realized the great responsibility I now carry. I’m not going to back away from that.”
Tal Peri is a writer and photographer, originally from Israel, who now resides in Phoenix.