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3 Unforgettable Stories About Israel's Fallen Soldiers and Citizens
In honor of Israel's Memorial Day.
Israel actually has two official memorial days: Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Day), which is observed on the 27th of the Hebrew month Nisan (in April or May). Not to be confused with the separate International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which is observed in January across the world.
The second memorial day in Israel is Yom HaZikaron, or in full: Yom HaZikaron LeHalalei Ma’arakhot Yisrael ul’Nifge’ei Pe’ulot HaEivah. In English, this translates to:
Memorial Day for the Fallen Soldiers of the Wars of Israel and Victims of Actions of Terrorism
What’s interesting about Yom HaZikaron is that it literally precedes Israel’s Independence Day — Yom Ha’atzmaut — a sort of passing of the baton from a somber day to a celebratory one. Israelis spend one day grieving the country’s losses, and then the next day basking in the glory of a thriving Jewish state. It’s riveting to watch the shifting dynamic from one day to the next here in Israel. I’m not sure if something like it exists elsewhere around the world.
Additionally, I am unsure how many other countries have two formal memorial days. I recently saw something on Facebook which describes the painful purpose of this duo:
Jews have two memorial days: Yom HaZikaron to remind us about the cost of having a state, and Yom HaShoah to remind us about the cost of not.
When I walked into my office at WeWork in the south of Tel Aviv on this year’s Yom HaZikaron, there was a table in the lobby with printed recipes (in Hebrew) and pictures of what I quickly realized were fallen Israeli soldiers and victims of terror. The sign on the table read (in Hebrew), matkon eem zikaron —Recipe With Memory. Turns out, each recipe was of the fallen individual’s favorite food, and the recipes were printed and placed on this table for people to take one and cook it in blessed memory of them.
The Israeli organization behind this incredible initiative is Taste of Memories, which works to commemorate fallen Israel Defense Forces soldiers and Israeli victims of terror, through cooking their favorite recipes and telling the stories of their lives. Beautiful, to say the least.
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Since moving to Israel in 2013, I have encountered a variety of stories about fallen Israeli soldiers and victims of terror.
I’d like to share three of them with you today, on Yom HaZikaron here in Israel:
1. Mordechai Yosepov and Afik Zahavi
Mordechai Yosepov immigrated to Israel from Uzbekistan in the early 1990s. He was a cobbler by trade, who settled first in south Tel Aviv. Among other jobs, Yosepov worked in construction, helping to build the city’s current central bus station. He and his family moved to Sderot several years later, near the Gaza border.
On a summer morning in 2004, Yosepov waited for a cousin who was dropping off his grandson at kindergarten. “I remember seeing him that morning on my way to kindergarten,” recalled one of his grandchildren, Ilanit Yosepov, who was 5 at the time, “and soon afterwards, we heard an explosion that frightened all of the children.”1
Ilanit’s 49-year-old grandfather and a 4-year-old boy, Afik Zahavi, were the first victims of Qassam rockets fired at Israel by Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip. Zahavi’s story, told by his mother, is featured in the award-winning documentary series Under the Iron Dome, which you can watch on IZZY.
2. Naftali Lanzkrom
In pursuit of his childhood dream to become a doctor, American-born Yehoshua Fass studied biology and education at Yeshiva University in Jerusalem. Then, with a year off before enrolling in medical school, he returned to the U.S. to teach Hebrew in New York and New Jersey.
“I decided that teaching Torah was my true love,” Fass said, “and all those years at college gearing for medical school went out of the window.”2
During his unintended gap year, the 20-year-old also managed to earn a Master’s degree in education and marry his young wife, Batsheva. The couple shared a dream of making aliyah — immigrating to Israel — but a budding rabbinic career put it on the back burner.
After his rabbinic ordination, Fass was appointed a Judaic Fellow of the Judaic Fellowship Programme in the rapidly-growing Florida Jewish community of Boca Raton. Eighteen months later, he became Associate Rabbi of the United States’ fastest-growing Orthodox congregation, Boca Raton Synagogue.
Fass’ extremely satisfying synagogal role combined educational, pastoral, and counseling duties with membership of Boca Raton’s Beth Din (a rabbinical court that legislates Jewish religious life) which he headed for a year. He also opened the Helen Julius Reiter Institute of Judaic Studies.
And as the grandchild of Holocaust survivors, Fass served as an educator and religious leader of the Southern Region of North America participants in March of the Living, an annual educational program that brings individuals from around the world to Poland and Israel to study and experience the history of the Holocaust.
A few days before Passover in 2001, his rabbinic career took a sudden change of direction. It was the morning of March 28, 2001, during the Second Intifada, and newly Bar Mitzvah’ed Naftali Lanzkrom — one of Fass’ Israeli relatives — was waiting at a gas station near the entrance to Qalqilya (about an hour-drive east from Tel Aviv) for an armored bus to take him and his fellow classmates to their high school.
A Hamas suicide bomber positioned himself among the students and blew himself up, killing Naftali and another boy, and injuring four other students.
“After the initially overwhelming emotion of rage,” Fass said, “the tragedy shook up both me and Batsheva and made us calibrate our compasses and assess what we were doing with our lives.”
So the young couple and their three children moved to Israel shortly after, and Fass co-founded Nefesh B’Nefesh, an organization that provides comprehensive, direct guidance and facilitation of the aliyah process for North American and British Jews — everything from planning your move and finding the right community in Israel, to conducting a job search and helping you ease into post-aliyah life. More than 65,000 people have made aliyah with Nefesh B’Nefesh to date.
In 2004, a group of 74 families — who were victims of Palestinian terrorism during the Second Intifada — sued the Arab Bank for providing financial support to Hamas, a designated Foreign Terrorist Organization. Ten years later, a federal jury found the Arab Bank liable for knowingly supporting terrorism efforts connected to two dozen attacks in the Middle East, among them the aforementioned bombing.
The court decision was the first time a bank was held liable in a civil suit under a broad anti-terrorism statute. In 2017, these families — including the Herskovitzs, whose son Netanel was one of the four students injured in the suicide bombing — received financial compensation from Arab Bank. In the blast, Netanel’s sunglasses imploded, blinding him in one eye.
“We didn’t expect the money,” Netanel’s father, Marty Herskovitz, said. “I’m a middle-class person and I don’t really need this money. God sent this money for a reason.”3
With the compensation they received, Marty and his wife Pearl created the Steinmetz Herskovitz Family Fund, which has provided funding for numerous charitable causes, including the Initiative for Zionist Innovation, a Nefesh B’Nefesh program that offers financial assistance to individuals and organizations who strive to improve and enhance their communities and neighborhoods.
In 2020, Nefesh B’Nefesh contacted Marty Herskovitz, requesting assistance in helping them obtain funding to secure a building that would serve as the organization’s Aliyah Center in Kiryat Haleom, Jerusalem’s National District, opposite Israel’s Supreme Court. During a subsequent meeting, Fass started to tell Herskovitz about the origin of Nefesh B’Nefesh, recounting that he co-founded the organization in 2002 as a consequence of his cousin’s terroristic murder.
“I asked him when the attack occurred,” Herskovitz recounted, “and he said that it was in March 2001. I then asked him if his cousin was Naftali Lanzkron, and he responded that he, in fact, was his cousin.”
Herskovitz looked at Fass and said, “Our son was injured in the same terror bombing, and the money that we are now providing comes from the same thing that made you realize that you wanted to set up Nefesh B’Nefesh, as a result of Naftali’s death … It just seems so right that we got the money from Hamas and our enemies and are using it for good.”
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3. Emmanuel Moreno
Born in Paris, Emmanuel one of five sons born to Ilan and Sylvia Moreno. His parents were Maghrebi Jewish immigrants to France from North Africa, and Emmanuel’s grandmother, Ninette Moreno, was one of the passengers on Air France Flight 139, which was hijacked by Palestinian terrorists in 1976 and taken to Entebbe, where the passengers were rescued in Operation Entebbe.
When he was one year old, the family immigrated to Israel. Emmanuel and his four brothers grew up in Jerusalem, and he was conscripted into the Israel Defense Forces in 1990, accepted into the elite Sayeret Matkal (commandos) unit. He ultimately became a career soldier, serving in Sayeret Matkal for 16 years. At one time, current Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett was a fellow comrade.
“At every important junction in my life, I think about my friend and brother Emmanuel,” Bennett said. “Emmanuel’s sense of dedication, of mission and of giving for the people and the land accompany me always.”
Moreno participated in numerous operations in Lebanon during the South Lebanon conflict and in the Palestinian territories, most of which remain classified. One of his comrades said that “during his service, Emmanuel became the fighter who took part in the greatest number of operations in the unit’s history. On more than one occasion, his level-headedness and courage made the difference between failure and yet another success story that shall remain classified.”
The only two operations that Moreno is publicly acknowledged to have participated in are the abduction of Amal commander Mustafa Dirani in 1994, and the 2003 rescue of taxi driver Eliyahu Gorel, after he was kidnapped by Palestinians and held in a cellar in Beitunia.
On top of his exceptional courage, Moreno was extremely creative in his field of expertise, according to his comrades. “He changed the reality at the unit and introduced a new, revolutionary way,” one of them said. “He had no fear and never feared entanglements in the field. He knew that even in such cases he will find a solution. We don’t remember ever having a person like that in the unit, with such devotion, who was willing to go all the way like that.”4
“I can count the number of people who knew his exact role in the unit on one hand,” the comrade continued. “We’ll never be able to talk about his activity in the unit, but there is no doubt he was not just another regular fighter.”
The Gaza disengagement was particularly rough on Moreno. During the evacuation, in the summer of 2005, he and a friend got up on the roof of a house in Gaza and refused to leave. During the disengagement, he took a vacation to help the evacuees pack their bags and relocate them to their new homes. However, his comrades say he never considered the option of quitting the army to protest the pullout. “The IDF is ours and only ours,” Moreno said.
In the following months, Moreno prepared for a new role the military offered to him, but then came the Second Lebanon War, in July 2006. As always, he was eager to head out to the field.
“A week before he died, we met at the unit,” a former commander say. “We spoke about the war and about how frustrated he was over the indecision and failure to utilize Israel’s potential. He believed this war would lead the people of Israel to salvation.”
Another comrade, who took part in the operation Moreno was killed in, recounts their last conversation: “We sat down and spoke about all sorts of things that may happen…suddenly Emmanuel asked me: ‘What would you do if a missile hits us and we have five seconds left to live?’ I told him I would close my eyes and wait for it to be over as quickly and painlessly as possible. He said that what we need to do in these five second is recite Shema Yisrael. He said that if a person has five seconds left to live, these are the most significant seconds of his life … if a person doesn’t understand the significance of these final five seconds it means there is no meaning to his whole life. He believed that we should not be preoccupied with satisfying our desires and material needs, but rather, that life is one phase en route to the next stage.”
Moreno’s death happened during Shabbat, his wife Maya recounted, saying: “It was supposed to be the last operation he heads to in that war. He shared the details with me. I knew what he was supposed to do and what his role was. I had a heavy feeling the entire Shabbat. I read psalms and kept on looking at the watch until I fell asleep. Emmanuel was killed just as I fell asleep.”
“I woke up in the middle of the night because my son, Neria, was crying. He was just screaming, because he couldn’t find me. I jumped out of bed and he kept on screaming, as if he was saying something, some kind of message. I told myself: ‘Maya, listen to what the kid is saying.’ I woke up again at 7:30 in the morning and thought that Emmanuel was already back in Israel and that everything was fine. In fact, he was already sleeping an eternal sleep.”
Lieutenant Colonel Emmanuel Moreno was killed on August 18, 2006, at the end of the Second Lebanon War, following the ceasefire announcement. His squad operated in Lebanon’s Baalbek region, the operation went awry, and the fighters were exposed. They came under heavy fire; the man who has known countless dangerous and operations sustained grave wounds. Moreno was 35 at the time of his death, and it seems that his heroic stories only intensified thereafter.
“Emmanuel was the best soldier in the world,” his squad commander said. “Why? The IDF is the world’s best army, Sayeret Matkal is the top unit in the IDF, our squad is the best one in the unit, and he was the best soldier in the squad. He never lost and never gave up. In the last years I would follow him, metaphorically and physically. I knew that going with him meant playing it safe. He turned from a friend to something that safeguards you.”
The publication of Moreno’s photograph is banned by the Israeli Military Censor, one of only two Israeli soldiers whose photographs have been forbidden for publication after their deaths. However, his name is whispered with great reverence within Sayeret Matkal and among his commanders. “The IDF’s number-one fighter,” senior officers referred to him. “The soul of Sayeret Matkal,” his comrades said. Meanwhile, religious soldiers consider him to be “the man who followed in the footstep of legendary Jewish hero Bar Kochba.”
Another one of Emmanuel’s comrades said, at his funeral in Jerusalem, “You are no longer Emmanuel of the family, nor Emmanuel of Maya and the children, not even Emmanuel of the Unit. From now on, as we already see from this funeral, you are Emmanuel of Clal Yisrael (all of Israel); and as such, despite your protests, you have lost the right to remain modest and humble, and as for us your friends the obligation has fallen upon us to ensure the people of Israel, indeed know who you are and how great a loss your death was for the people.”
Some years later, Emmanuel’s brother Rabbi Shmuel Moreno said he assumed that, over the years, Emmanuel’s memory will dim, or that Israel’s national heroes would change, “but it seems that as time goes by, Emmanuel’s discreet and introverted labor still leaves its mark...”5
“There are three ways of responding to a crisis,” Shmuel continued. “The first, to sink into the depths of despair and gloom, this is not our way at all, and we will not dwell on it. The other methods express optimism, but one is superior to the other. The first looks to the future, beyond the darkness, the good beyond the bad, and ignores the existence of evil — this is what people mean when they say the glass is half full.”
“But there is a better way than that, and this is the way of Rabbi Akiva (a second-century Jewish scholar and leader) of using evil as a lever for strengthening. As it is known, when one finds themselves in a crisis he discovers powers that would have otherwise never been expressed, similar to a soldier undergoing a difficult training. We can say that despite these difficulties, he becomes a better soldier. He called on the crowd to adopt this approach in our day to day personal lives, as well as on the national level, a perspective that turns crisis into hope and strength in the face of the challenges we face.”
Future of Jewish is a reader-supported publication that ponders Judaism. To receive new content and support our work, consider becoming a free or premium subscriber.
Ben Zikri, Almog. “Rockets Began Falling in This Israeli City 20 Years Ago. This Is the Story of the First Fatality.” Haaretz. April 14, 2014, https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-rockets-began-falling-in-sderot-20-years-a”
“Aliya ‘king’ Fass has helped 23000 to Israel.” Jewish Telegraph. https://www.jewishtelegraph.com/prof_38.html.
Rosenbaum, Alan. “How Nefesh B’Nefesh's new headquarters returns to its roots.” The Jerusalem Post. August 20, 2020, https://www.jpost.com/israel-news/how-nefesh-bnefeshs-new-headquarters-have-roots-in-a-terror-attack-639209.
Zuri, Matan. “‘The world’s best soldier’.” Ynet. December 12, 2010, https://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3952800,00.html.
Tvizer, Inbar. “Recording of Lt. Col. Emanuel Moreno released.” Ynet. June 8, 2018, https://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-5323862,00.html.