The camaraderie in Israeli army units is legendary and the intense experiences of the army bond army buddies, often for life. But in Plugat Alon, these friendships have transcended life.
I have written before on these pages about Alon, a company of 45 in the armored corps of which 33 were Hesder students, led by Captain Effi (Efraim) Margi. The year was 1982, the war was Peace for Galilee – The First Lebanon War – and the battle was on the outskirts of Beirut in Kfar Sil. Seven young men – six soldiers and another commander – fell in battle, all aged 20-22; forever heroes, forever young, forever gone.
The seven were Eli Ben-Ami, z”l, from Ashdod, Avishai Gazi, z”l, from Rechovot, Yanir Gendelsman, z”l, from Ramat HaSharon, Yossi Levi, z”l, from Tel Aviv, David Malick, z”l, from Bat Yam, Shai Tzur, z”l, from Kfar Hess, and Uriel Sharabi, z”l, from Rechovot. They were students of three yeshivas from the north of Israel, representing a cross-section of Israeli society united in a mission to protect their beloved country.
Whether it is the mutual loss that unites them, or a stronger than usual army bond, Plugat Alon have remained close. Every year, the company members gather on 19 Sivan, the anniversary of that tragic battle, to visit the homes of the families of the fallen and, on Memorial Day, they go, like so many other Israelis, to the five cemeteries where their comrades in arms are buried. They also have their own WhatsApp group which is active every single day.
Separately and together, they have commemorated the memory of their fellow soldiers in many ways (Itzik Popper, named his daughter Batsheva in memory of the seven fallen soldiers and Effi Margi began learning Torah with a rabbi from Ayelet HaShachar, a few years ago, having been inspired by watching Yossi Levi learn when they served together). But this year, they have launched an initiative that not only transcends time and place, but will forge an eternal link to their friends, who died al kiddush Hashem. They and the families of the fallen, have pooled their resources to have a sefer Torah written in memory of the seven soldiers. As it will be a Sephardic sefer Torah, their names will be engraved on the casing. 40 is a significant number – Moshe Rabbeinu spent 40 days receiving the Torah. This army unit will commemorate 40 years together for some in body, for some, in spirit, by donating a Torah scroll to the synagogue in Effi Margi’s yishuv, Moshav Ramat Tzvi. The scroll is being written on the highest standards of hiddur.
To make sure that everyone was equally involved in the writing of the sefer Torah, the writing of the first few verses took place at four separate venues, the homes of relatives of the fallen, where the sofer wrote the words of different parashot. The last one was held in the home of Shai Tzur’s mother, a widow of 82, who made aliyah from Egypt. They were also written in honor of Yair Gendelsman, the other commanding officer, members of whose family were also present. Tzur was a ba’al teshuvah and his family was not religious, neither was Gendelsman, but the words written that evening were the opening words of Vayikra – a book about korbanot – sacrifices, which both during the Temple, and today have been made by all Jews.
Rav Michael Choded said that “even though 40 years have passed, these people are still living in our midst.” The word he used was “b’kirbeinu” the root of the word is also the root for the Hebrew words for closeness, battle and sacrifice. Only the holy language can so eloquently express so many linked concepts.
In a historic moment, when the nine tanks in Har Sil were ambushed, and the Syrians started shooting, before going into battle, one of the soldiers, Moshe Zelikovitch, said that he wanted to say the prayer before going into battle. As soldiers of Hashem, first and foremost, even under fire, they hooked up communication to the other tanks and after Zelikovitch recited the prayer, all of them, in succession, answered, “Amen.”
We can’t know why the prayers of seven of those soldiers were not answered. But watching all the people, 40 years later, connected together in love, in memory and in honor, united in writing a sefer Torah as they had been defending their homeland – the two things that connect the Jewish people – Torat Yisrael and Eretz Yisrael – I could not help but feel, with near certainty, amid the praying, the singing and dancing, and the blowing of the shofar, that Mashiach himself might be there for the dedication of this sefer Torah, bezrat Hashem, on Rosh Chodesh Elul.