With one heart, Jews remember Israel’s fallen

Yom Hazikaron speaker personalizes challenges of a nation

CAPTION: Speaking at the Yom Hazikaron service at the Valley of the Sun JCC, Chen Ben-Lulu shares his story of being injured during Operation Protective Edge. Photo by Tal Peri

“Grief cuts through all society – all levels of race, gender and income” Those sobering words were delivered by Israeli reserve soldier and guest speaker Chen Ben-Lulu at the Valley of the Sun JCC’s Yom Hazikaron memorial service April 21.

Chen received a “Tzav 8,” an order to serve, during Operation Protective Edge last summer, in which 66 Israeli soldiers and six civilians were killed. Promptly giving his employer notice, kissing his family goodbye and deploying to the war zone, he entered the unknown, bolstered, he says, by a commitment to serve his country with a full heart and soul. After preliminary training he was sent to Gush Etzion, south of Jerusalem, to replace troops dealing with a tense situation – Palestinians throwing rocks and rioting. In an instant, tragedy struck.

“I was hit by a pipe bomb while exiting an armored car with my regional patrol” explains Chen. “I was treated on the spot and sent to a hospital where I had considerable physical therapy, but I don’t consider what I did heroism, it is just part of being an Israeli fighter. During rehab, one of the things that kept me going was my baby who was 8 months old. My purpose was going home and playing with my son no matter what.”

According to Israel Center Director Shahar Edry, 23,000 soldiers have died since the country’s founding. “Everyone in Israel knows someone who has been killed or injured either through war or terrorist attacks,” he says. “In America, the only war fought on American soil was the Civil War. For Israel, every war is fought on our soil. For Americans, fighting is a job, but for Israelis, it’s a duty.”

As the director of the center, Shahar is a tireless promoter for Israel, and has coordinated a colorful variety of speakers and events for the JCC such as theater groups, movies, bands, comedians, singers, speakers and dancers. His talent for creating a synergy of education and entrainment led to last year’s Yom Ha’atzmaut event recognizing Israel’s 66th birthday. Desiring to re-create another powerhouse presentation, Shahar had a bold idea. He invited his friend Chen to speak. Both natives of Israel, they served in the same battalion during their time in the Israeli Defense Forces. The two bonded while backpacking through India after their military service and have kept in touch for the past 10 years.

With a job, wife and baby, Chen was adamant he did not want to travel to the United States. He was no match however, for Shahar’s fierce persistence, and eventually he succumbed to his persuasive friend. “He wanted me to talk about not only my experiences but the magnitude of this sacred day for Israel,” says Chen. “He was a real pest,” he says with a smile. “Thursday night I said I’d come, Friday he got my ticket, and Sunday I was here.”

More than 700 people packed the Ina Levine campus to hear Chen’s compelling story and show solidarity with Israel on the holiday commemorating the fallen solders of Israel and the victims of terrorist attacks. The evening of awe and inspiration combined lively music performed by teens from Pardes Jewish Day School, photos and movies of fallen soldiers, candlelightings, songs of remembrance and the sound of the memorial siren. In addition there were presentations by Rabbi Pinchas Allouche of Congregation Beth Tefillah, Rabbi Robert Kravitz of Ramat Gan Sister Cities and Rabbi Micah Caplan of Congregation Or Tzion.

Rabbi Allouche shared a particularly poignant story to highlight the deep inter-connectedness all Jews feel when confronted by grief. After the tragic deaths of the three abducted teens in Israel last summer, Allouche had the privilege of hosting Rachelle Fraenkel, the mother of teen Naftali Fraenkel. He asked her what words most comforted her during the ordeal. “Jewish people usually tell the joke that there are two Jews and three opinions,” she began. “What they don’t say, is that there is one heart.”

The “one heart” symbolism was echoed by Chen throughout his talk. He highlighted the deep reverence Israelis have for Memorial Day by describing the haunting one-minute sirens that go off at 8 pm, signifying the beginning of the holiday. They go on again at 11 am the following morning for two minutes while the whole country comes to a halt.

“In Israel, this is a sacred day,” explained Chen. “It is not a day of leave although few go to work. This is a whole day where you remember the fallen; you go from ceremonies to cemeteries throughout the day. Most shops are closed, and it is an entire day of mourning and remembering. As soon as Memorial Day ends, our Independence Day begins. The feeling is that we are not worthy of celebrating Independence Day without understanding why the state was established.”

In Arizona too, Yom Ha’atzmaut followed Yom Hazikaron. For Israel’s 67th birthday, Shahar created a four-hour extravaganza at the JCC featuring an Israeli breakfast followed by an afternoon of music and celebration with free activities for all ages.

In addition to elaborating on the significance of Memorial Day, Chen also spoke of the importance of the Israel Center, which is part of the Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix, housed at the JCC campus. “In these few days I’ve been here, I realize more and more, the importance of the work of the Israel Center. I believe if not for the work of this center, Jews and Israeli-Americans would not know how to connect to Israel. We want to bridge the gap between the communities, and at the same time we want to share the story of Israel and advocate for Israeli events. It doesn’t matter if people are Christian, Buddhists or even Muslim. People have misconceptions about Israel, and part of our goal is to demonstrate how modern Israel is and to highlight our music, culture, art and innovations.”

When asked what’s next for him, Chen replies: “I already got a call asking me to re-enlist next June. This is the reality of life in Israel.”

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

For advertising information, please contact advertise@azjewishlife.com.