A Tale of Two Heroes
Personal glimpses of young men who gave their all for Israel.
Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day for its fallen soldiers (to be observed this Wednesday, April 22), is an immensely personal day of loss for all Israelis. We mourn our sons, brothers, husbands, fathers, and neighbors. A tiny country, the 6,000 soldiers Israel lost in 1948’s War of Independence was 1% of the total population, equivalent to the United States losing 1.4 million soldiers that year.
In Israel’s short and embattled history, 23,169 soldiers have been killed in active military duty. Sixty-six of them fell last summer in Operation Protective Edge, Israel’s effort to stop the rockets fired by Hamas from Gaza. Here are glimpses into the lives of just two of them.
The grandson of a Holocaust survivor, 26-year-old Benaya Sarel was engaged to marry Gali Nir on August 20, 2014, at Naot Kedumim, a nature reserve in central Israel. The invitations had already gone out when wedding preparations were interrupted by Operation Protective Edge. Benaya, who was a major in an elite infantry unit, was called up to fight the Hamas terrorists inside Gaza.
Benaya had been in Gaza before as a commander, during Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012. In an interview afterwards, he declared, “I always made sure to be in the front and to be the first to enter a building, so that if anyone would die, it would be me.”
During that campaign, in the thick of battle, Benaya called out, “Whoever is willing to give up his life, come with me now.” All his soldiers followed him.
During Operation Protective Edge last summer, Benaya was wounded by shrapnel. He tried removing the shrapnel himself. He even sent his family a Whatsapp photo of himself trying to take out the shrapnel. He called it, “selfie surgery.”
Benaya ended up being taken to Soroka Hospital in Beer Sheva. There he was told that he had to undergo surgery. He refused, and demanded that they postpone the surgery until the war was over so he could return to his troops.
When his parents heard that he was in the hospital, they wanted to come visit. Benaya refused to let them, because he didn’t let the soldiers under his command have visitors. His mother protested, “But no one will know.” Benaya replied, “But I’ll know.”
The doctors sewed up his wounds with the shrapnel still inside, and Benaya returned to Gaza to be with his soldiers.
Benaya was close to his family. Every day he and his mother would enjoy a “virtual cup of coffee” together. His mother in Kiryat Arba would turn on her coffee machine and Benaya, wherever he was stationed, would pour himself a cup of coffee, and they would talk on their cellphones as they sipped. One Friday last August, he called his mother at 8:38 AM. He spoke quietly, and said that there was going to be a ceasefire.
His mother asked, “Then why are you inside [Gaza]?”
He replied, “I have something to finish up. Turn on the machine; we’ll be drinking coffee soon.” He added: “Mom, you’re a 10.”
That was his final statement. At 9:10, he was killed in action. It was August 1, twenty days before the wedding that never took place.
Shai Kushner spent his last year of high school trying to convince his father to permit him to join a combat unit. As his father’s only child (his parents were divorced and his mother also had a daughter), the law in Israel required that an only child could not serve in a combat unit without the written permission of his parent.
Shai’s father Michael resisted. He himself had served in the same elite combat unit his son wanted to join. He knew the danger. But after a year of his beloved son’s pleading, Michael relented and signed.
Shai’s friend Yavgeny would later write:
Shai lived his life at a very fast pace, and therefore he didn’t get involved with the petty problems and worries of the average teenager. He always galloped forward, and impressed everyone who knew him. Even though Shai was involved in many projects, he knew how to allocate his time to each person – his parents, his half-sister, and his close friends. What I learned from him is what I call the “Shai way” – to gallop forward and to pass every test and challenge. [translated from the website Walla!, Mishpachot Hallelei Tzuk Eitan Kotvot, Oct. 3, 2014]
Shai’s great love was music. He picked up a guitar for the first time at the age of twelve. It became his greatest source of joy.
He was twenty years old and had served in the IDF for two years when Operation Protective Edge broke out. Shai’s unit was sent into Gaza.
On July 30, Michael Kushner wrote this letter to his son:
I miss you very much. I live with the feeling that I haven’t seen you for years. Not a moment goes by that I’m not thinking of you – day and night.
I’m trying to imagine how you and your friends are dealing with this not simple situation, how you’re reacting to this situation that you were cast into, you and all the rest of the young people who have been given this hard task.
With every day that passes Protective Edge is turning from a “campaign” to a war, with all the horrible meaning of that word. But I know and believe that you and your friends are strong and determined, and full of motivation to complete the difficult task that has been assigned to you.
You are in our hearts and in our souls. Protect yourselves.
Your loving father who misses you,
Michael Kushner sent the letter to his son’s cellphone, but Shai was fighting deep inside Gaza, where soldiers (except officers) were not permitted to take their cellphones. The following day Shai was killed. Most likely, he never received his father’s letter.
Yom HaZikaron, this Wednesday, is the day to remember Shai and Benaya, and the thousands like them who gave their lives for Jews to live in their ancestral homeland.