Our group is on the mend, and this morning we visited Har Herzl, the site of Israel’s national cemetery named after Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern political Zionism. We talked briefly about Herzl’s life, vision, and impact before placing stones on his tomb at the top of the hill.
Mt. Herzl is also the burial place of five of Israel’s prime ministers, as well as other prominent Jewish and Zionist leaders, including Nechama Rivlin (z”l), the wife of Israeli president Reuven Rivlin, who was laid to rest this week. We learned about Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin. Israel’s reality suddenly became very palpable here in this place of remembrance filled with the graves of those lost too young fighting for the Jewish state.
We visited the grave of Michael Levin, a Philadelphia-born “lone soldier” killed in the Second Lebanon War. Mrs. Pasternak then shared her personal story of loss, as did Eitan, in a reminder not to take anything for granted.
He talked about his late friend and fellow soldier Staff Sgt. Liel Gidoni z”l, who was 20 years old when he was killed in a terrorist firefight on August 1, 2014. Eitan recounted his friend’s infectious smile, even in the most difficult moments, that gave everyone who had the privilege to know him the strength and optimism to continue. He inflated a purple balloon at Liel Gidoni’s grave printed with a message about the power of a smile. “In death, they commanded us to live,” as the poet Bialik wrote. “So with the help of God may we will be able to fulfill this will of Liel and that we will be privileged to smile and rejoice because in his death he commanded us to continue to smile,” Eitan said.
Imagine all that separates your own family from mortal danger and perhaps your entire people from their holiest site are enemy forces just yards away, firing at you from a position of strategic advantage in fortified trenches at the top of a hillside. Would you find the courage and strength to fight, even if the odds were stacked against you?
This scenario is what the Israeli soldiers faced at Ammunition Hill, the site of one of the fiercest battles of the Six-Day War. On June 6, 1967, Israeli Paratroopers infiltrated this fortified Jordanian military post, and after four hours of intense battle, their intrepid brigade conquered Ammunition Hill, helping to secure the route to the Kotel in the fight for Jerusalem.
Today, we learned about the battle that took place at Ammunition Hill, where 36 Israeli soldiers and 71 Jordanians lost their lives. We paid tribute at this national memorial to those who died and heard stories of personal bravery and loss in a documentary brought to life through an illuminated topographical map.
It was then on to Ben Yehuda Street for lunch and to brave the Friday afternoon crowds at Mahane Yehuda to stock up on freshly baked rugelach, fruit, and other goodies for Shabbat and Shavuot. We will have Kabbalat Shabbat tonight at the Kotel, and then wake up before dawn on Shavuot to join the thousands of people there for sunrise prayer to celebrate the giving of the Torah. No cameras allowed over the next two days, but we’ll share the experience in words and impressions after the holiday.