Israel’s Dr. Hug returns – with Montrealer’s help

By Gil Troy, Canadian Jews News, January 28  2009

In October 2000, Hezbollah terrorists using United Nations vehicles kidnapped Benny Avraham and two fellow soldiers.

For more than three years, Benny’s parents, Haim and Edna Avraham, along with the parents of Adi Avitan and Omar Sawaid, led a worldwide

campaign to free their sons, unaware that Hezbollah had already murdered them. In Israel, Haim Avraham became a national icon representing all fathers who have been forced to send their sons to war, never to see them return.

When Israel finally confronted Benny’s killers in 2006, Haim, Edna, and their two daughters, Efrat and Dafna, spent the war visiting soldiers. While distributing goodies to thousands, they spread the message that the war was just and necessary. Haim insisted on embracing every soldier, lechazek eem chebuuk, to strengthen with a hug.

This January, Haim and his family took to the road again, this time with assists from Montrealers, particularly congregants of Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz of Congregation Tifereth Beth David Jerusalem and Rabbi Adam Scheier of the Shaar Hashomayim Congregation. As soon as they heard that soldiers needed warm socks, long johns and fleecies, they joined others in Israel and the Diaspora and sprang into action. Thanks to their generosity, Haim, his daughter, Dafna, Haim’s colleague, Yoram, and I visited the Gaza front to spread his message with love, idealism and treats.

In one gruelling, inspiring day, we visited an air force base, a tent city of reserve paratroopers, a tank squadron, the engineering corps, crack Givati troops, and a naval base. Particularly moving were the visits with the engineers – it was Benny’s battalion – and the reserves – Haim’s son-in-law served there. One officer who bristled when he first spied interlopers melted when he recognized Haim, hugging him and saying, “I teach reserve soldiers about that incident all the time, to foster awareness.”

Haim told the soldiers that his family had sacrificed repeatedly to build Israel. One relative died in Acre Prison in the 1940s. One sank in the Dakar submarine in the 1960s. Haim’s brother, Benny, died during the Yom Kippur War, before his brother’s namesake, Benny, fell in 2000. Still, Haim remains patriotic, understanding that such anguished heroism protected millions. Haim honoured me with the opportunity to speak. I told the troops they were the modern Maccabees.  I said the Jewish people – and good people worldwide – understand that they represented the forces of freedom in a larger struggle against terror.

The soldiers’ calm, mature, professional and high-spirited demeanours impressed us. This was not a war of anger and chaos, but of necessity and discipline. No one rejoiced in the civilian casualties –  and many spoke of trying hard to minimize civilians’ suffering. The soldiers noticed, of course, that Israel always targeted terrorists, and occasionally missed. Hamas always targeted civilians. All wars are ugly, but if there is such a thing as a healing war, a war of correcting past mistakes, this was such a war. All wars are brutal, but if there is such a thing as a moral war, Israel tried to fight within ethical limits.

Soldiers joked about the new phenomenon of a “misgrad” – a misgad, a mosque, harbouring Grad missiles, but they detested this kind of blurry urban combat. Still, the soldiers understood that “ein breira,” we have no choice. They all hoped that this time, they could finish the job. And they desperately wanted to free Gilad Schalit, the kidnapped soldier whose family has endured the kind of hellish purgatory the Avrahams know all too well, for nearly three years.

At the naval base, a young officer thanked Haim for coming. She said her brother’s death in combat when he was 18 broke her parents. She admired Haim’s ability to function, let alone to move forward, remain positive and retain his idealism. Every time her mother hears of another casualty, she bleakly welcomes the grieving parents into her enveloping black hole.

The Avrahams – like the whole family of Israel – have experienced that black hole’s horrors. But the Avrahams show us that life continues – and we should appreciate the heroism and devastating sacrifices of the few that keep so many of us safe and free.

One soldier, absorbing all the love, support and generosity that was raining down on him and his comrades, from the homefront and from abroad, exclaimed: “Tiroo ezeh am yesh lanu” – look at how special the Jewish people are.

How very true.

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