July 21 – Five Israeli soldiers were buried today. Among them was Benjy Hillman, 27, the son of one of my oldest friends. Benjy, z”l, was a commander in the elite Egoz unit, who was killed fighting Hizbullah terrorists in southern Lebanon last night.
Just three weeks ago, 600 of us celebrated as Benjy and his long-time girlfriend, Ayala Berger, finally got married after going together for many years. The pure joy of the two families, who’d become good friends over the long on-off courtship, was palpable. Ayala, accompanied by her happy parents and radiant in her beautiful wedding dress, walked down the path toward Benjy, who waited for her under the chupa with his trademark shy smile.
Today, in the military cemetery of his hometown of Raanana, Ayala walked toward Benjy again. This time, however, she was supported by Benjy’s younger brother Shimon and her father, her young face contorted in pain and grief. Instead of approaching the chupa as she did three short weeks ago, she drew close to the simple wood coffin draped with an Israeli flag that held the remains of her new husband.
Benjy and Ayala’s story is a story of the ingathering of the exiles. Ayala’s family emigrated from Argentina around the same time as the Hillmans made aliyah from England, when Benjy was four years old.
Benjy’s mother, Judy, and I were best friends from the time we met when we were 11 years old. We were part of a small group of girls who sat in Kingsbury shul together during the late 1960’s, giggling over the boys, or complaining about our old-fashioned parents. We went to the same youth movement events and parties, and shared the agonies of teenage dating. We spent countless sleepovers in each other’s homes, talking most of the night as we dreamed of our futures.
Even though we belonged to a religious Zionist youth movement, I honestly don’t remember if we ever seriously discussed living in Israel. Those decisions came later.
At Benjy’s wedding a few weeks ago, we huddled with Michelle, a third member of our Kingsbury group, and marveled at the fact that here we all were, almost 40 years later, with all of our kids (except for one of mine) in Israel, celebrating each other’s simchas. We danced like mad at the joy of our continuing connection. Today, just before the funeral, we all fell upon each other in grief, as we tried to assimilate the grim reality.
Thousands turned out to escort Benjy on his last journey. His coffin arrived at the cemetery in an olive green army vehicle. An honor guard of soldiers from his beloved Egoz brigade led the way to his grave as hundreds of his friends hugged each other and wiped their eyes.
The eulogies were exquisitely painful. Each one reflected on Benjy’s modest but strong character and his firm Zionist convictions. Judy winced as one of the rabbis read a paragraph of a letter Benjy had written four years ago to the parents of his friend, Ari Weiss, z”l, who was killed fighting terrorists. Benjy wrote that Ari had died as a hero and would always be remembered that way.
Benjy’s father, Danny, thanked Benjy for bringing so much honor to the family. Benjy’s best friend told Ayala and the Hillmans that he and his friends would make sure they would never be alone, and an Egoz commander told them that they would always be part of the Egoz family.
During the hour-long funeral service, the honor guard stood motionless at attention in the midday sun. Every ten minutes or so, their commander came up behind each one of them with a squeeze of the shoulder, a whispered word of concern, offering a bottle of water.
It took hours for the huge crowd to pass in front of Benjy’s grave and offer their condolences to Benjy’s family.
This Friday evening, please think of Benjy and Ayala when you sing the “bo-ee kallah” verse of the Lecha Dodi prayer that welcomes the Shabbat bride.
And keep in mind all our soldiers who are on the front lines of the fight against terror as they defend the people of Israel.