Grief and pride mix at ceremony commemorating 77 North Americans killed in Israel over past year (2024)

Over the course of 103 years, from 1920 to last spring, 360 North Americans fell in battle or were killed in terror attacks in what is now the State of Israel. Their names were inscribed on a memorial wall in a pine forest just off the Route 1 highway leading into Jerusalem, beginning with Jacob Tucker and William Scharf who were killed in thefamedBattle of Tel Hai in 1920.

The names of 77 more North Americans were added to the wall this year, 75 of them killed following the Oct. 7 terror attacks. More names are expected to be added from Oct. 7 as the fates of those still deemed hostages in Gaza become known. It is, by a wide margin, the largest number added to the wall in a single year in that now 104-year history. They represent nearly 5% of the 1,594 soldiers and civilianskilledin combat or terror attacks since Israel’s last Yom HaZikaron, or Memorial Day.

The 77 names were unveiled ahead of the commemoration of Yom HaZikaron, at a ceremony organized by the Associations Americans and Canadians in Israel (AACI), which was attended by U.S. Ambassador to Israel Jack Lew, Jewish Agency Chair Doron Almog and Canadian and Israeli diplomats, as well as the families of fallen soldiers and victims of terror.

In addition to unveiling the past year’s additions to the memorial wall, which is overseen by both AACI and Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael – Jewish National Fund, AACI also formally launched a new website with Israel’s National Insurance Institute — https://aaciremembers.org/ — dedicated to the memories of North Americans killed in Israel.

The common theme in the evening’s speeches and remarks was the powerful combination of grief and pride: pain at the loss of loved ones alongside firm belief in the justness of the cause — Zionism — for which they died.

“In my short time as ambassador, I’ve had many very hard conversations with families of fallen soldiers, kidnapped hostages and innocent people murdered on Oct. 7,” said Lew, who entered his role some six months ago.

“Many mixed pride with grief as they shared stories of loved ones who lost their lives for a cause they believed in,” Lew said. “And amid the pain, I’ve also seen unbounded resilience and endless resolve. I’ve met with first responders who risked their lives to save others, and fellow citizens who came together to meet the needs of their neighbors.”

In his speech, Almog highlighted two of the American IDF soldiers who were killed in the past year: Rose Lubin, an Atlanta-born Border Police officer who helped defend Kibbutz Sa’ad on Oct. 7 and was killed in a stabbing attack in Jerusalem in November; and Binyamin Airley, a New York-born paratrooper who was killed while fighting Hamas terrorists in the northern Gaza Strip on Nov. 18.

“The stories of Binyamin and Rose, of blessed memory, and the many stories of new [immigrants] who came to Israel to fight, vividly and painfully reflect the magnitude of the bond, the depths of the connection between world Jewry and their brothers and sisters living here in Israel,” Almog said.

“This is an occasion of pain and longing, dedicated to the remembrance of the fallen, those who sacrificed their lives in service of the State of Israel,” he added. “However, alongside the great sorrow, it is also an occasion of great pride. Great pride that these are our sons and daughters, that these are the values that were raised upon… that this is the legacy they left behind.”

At the event, Lubin’s mother, Robin, read the “Prayer for the State of Israel,” and Airley’s father, Robert, spoke onstage about his son, describing him as “so brave” and willing to sacrifice himself for the Jewish people. “He’d [sacrifice himself] 100 times over, and even if he did it 100 times over, he’d do it all over again,” he said.

Joseph Gitler, the American founder and chair of the Israeli food security nonprofit Leket, delivered the evening’s keynote address, speaking about the loss of his son-in-law, David Schwartz, an IDF reservist who was killed in January while fighting in the Gaza Strip.

In his speech, Gitler, who madealiyahin 2000, noted the “unique position of North Americanolim[Jewish immigrants to Israel],” coming from countries that are — by and large — comfortable for their Jewish communities.

“Every one of us here today could have stayed put and lived an easier life, without the stresses of language and culture, no Sundays off, and of course unremitting terror and long military service,” Gitler said.

“We have all sacrificed by coming here, in different ways, but at the very least leaving our friends, family and comfort zone. But of course, no one has sacrificed like those whose names are etched on this monument, and that needs to be commemorated,” he said.

He also highlighted the “vital role” that North Americanolimhave played in Israel, particularly in the field of charity, adding, “and I don’t mean financial contributions, where we certainly play an outsized role.” Gitler then rattled off a list of more than a dozen prominent Israeli nonprofits started by North American immigrants.

“Our community has changed the face of the State of Israel, tackling time and again its most difficult societal problems,” he said.

Self-effacingly, Gitler joked that his family worked hard to not integrate into Israeli society, living in a city — Raanana — with a large English-speaking population, sending their children to summer camps in the United States, making friends with other English-speaking immigrants.

“And then reality hits, and it’s called the army. And that reality is that no matter what Anglo rock you have hidden your kids under, they are going to integrate, makesabra[Israeli-born] friends, and finally learn Hebrew,” he said.

Gitler said the next stage in his family’s integration was when his eldest daughter, Meital, married “a real Israeli.”

“And that was our David. He was, for many reasons that we don’t have time for today, a perfect addition to our family,” Gitler said, tearing up. “And he was so beloved by all. The perfect catch: gentle, humble and so in love with our daughter that our worries as parents almost disappeared.”

The Gitler family’s “third and most difficult integration into Israeli society” came on Jan. 8, when Schwartz was killed in battle, “fighting for his beloved homeland,” he said.

“And now we are one of ‘those’ families,” he said. “Like allmishpachot shekulot, bereaved families, our family will have two days of mourning going forward: One national, Yom HaZikaron, and one personal, the 27th of Tevet, when David and his best friend, U.S. citizen, Yakir Hexter, were killed.”

Gitler, who described himself as a “very optimistic person,” said he hoped and prayed that “all this pain and suffering that has befallen our nation will lead to positive change,” adding that only if that occurs will he “know that David and all our other soldiers and civilians didn’t die in vain.”

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Grief and pride mix at ceremony commemorating 77 North Americans killed in Israel over past year (2024)
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