After years of praying and hoping, letter writing and vigils, students from DRS, SKA and Rambam Mesivta were able to meet with Gilad Shalit and members of his army unit over the course of a ten-day visit to the United States.
A year after his release from captivity in Gaza in exchange for 1,027 Arab prisoners, Shalit, 13 members of his platoon, his commanding officer, Captain Yoav Belkes, and three psychologists, came to the United States on a therapeutic mission: to heal and find closure for the severe and personal attack on their unit perpetrated on June 25, 2006. Early that morning, Hamas and Popular Resistance Committee terrorists infiltrated into Israel through a tunnel from Rafah and attacked Israeli forces with mortar and anti-tank fire, killing an Israeli officer and a soldier, wounding four others and kidnapping Shalit. Gilad remained captive in Gaza by Hamas for over five years and was freed and returned to Israel on October 18, 2011.
During that time, Dr. Chagit Hadar, chairman of the Hebrew Department at Magen David’s Celia Esses Yeshiva High School in Brooklyn, took a personal interest in Gilad Shalit. “Gilad’s father is from France and my father is from France,” Hadar pointed out. ”We knew each other but not personally.” She contacted the Shalits and offered to help them use the “power and connections” of the Jewish communities in America to raise awareness of Gilad’s plight. Over that time, Gilad’s father Noam came to America through Hadar to work for his son’s release. Hadar has been instrumental in bringing Shalit’s unit as guests of the Syrian Jewish Community in Brooklyn and Magen David Yeshiva.
The goal, she said was to “close the whole circle. Two were killed, one was injured and Gilad was kidnapped. The whole unit was in trauma. They had meetings in Israel and the IDF decided to have treatment, intervention, outside of the country, to disconnect from the country, news, pressure and family and concentrate on closure.” The community here financed the trip; the IDF could not fund a visit for ten days for the group. Hadar said that they had a session every day for four to six hours a day, where they talked about the “captivity, loss of friends, guilt, ‘how come nothing happened to me,’ to deal with the situation as a group and as individuals. They didn’t come for pr for the IDF, just therapy. They also wanted to give back to the community, that’s why they held panels in different communities.”
Shalit and his unit visited a number of schools, including Yeshiva University, Magen David and DRS. “The IDF allowed the unit to do therapy outside of Israel,” said Ms. Elyse Nadjar, director of chesed activities at Magen David. “The focus is on therapy. The IDF can’t pay to go overseas. The community supported it and so they paid to have it here.” Magen David High School invited 15 schools from New York and New Jersey, said Nadjar, each school sending a group of six students and one chaperone to a panel session to meet Gilad and his unit on October 12th. There were also representatives from Brooklyn College, Baruch College and Columbia University. Both Magen David’s elementary and high schools, about 2,000 students, held welcome meetings with the group. “It was a positive, moving, incredible opportunity to recognize the Israeli army, what they do in Israel and the Diaspora and to show the love and support we have for them,” explained Nadjar. In Israel, the soldiers see that the army is “part of everyday life,” she added. “Here they see that it is part of the Jewish world. It strengthens their resolve and commitment to serving.”
At all the schools that the soldiers met with the community, they were praised as soldiers and representatives of Am Yisrael by the rabbis and administrators. At the panel session in Magen David, students in the audience were able to ask the soldiers questions and they responded. One soldier recounted how they withheld fire from a terrorist target to prevent injuring some children who were nearby. Another discussed their motivation for fighting for Israel, some for Zionism, some for their country, some for their friends. They also pointed out that the IDF has taught them not to leave Jews behind, that they would risk their lives to save others and noted that the release of 1000 terrorists for one person shows the world the value of each individual, of each Jew. Students noticed the special bond between the men in this unit.
When Gilad was asked about his captivity, he responded “softly and slowly,” wrote Avi Gross, a student at Rambam Mesivta, in a report of the event. “He described how he had a blindfold on for weeks, not knowing where he was or who was around him. Contact between himself and his captors was limited to a few curses or a jeering remark. After a while, his blindfold was removed, but he then spent months in isolation without any lasting or meaningful human contact. After what seemed like an eternity, his guards felt comfortable enough to talk with him about sports. He was careful never to discuss politics. His news of the outside world was restricted to teams and games. Months later, he earned enough trust to receive a radio. At this, he stopped… and slumped back down in his chair….”
Rabbi Elly Storch, Assistant Principal of Judaic Studies at DRS, noted that Gilad made three three-point shots in the gym before the program. “They have been through a lot,” said Storch of the soldiers, “and to give them chizuk, strength, was special. The boys really appreciated it and learned of the self sacrifice that they do on behalf of Israel.” He pointed out that Miriam Peretz the mother of two soldiers who were killed in separate battles, and the mother of a currently serving soldier, came to give chizuk, strength to Gilad as well.
Storch also said that he received a message from Shalit after the program: “I so appreciate the warmth you and Jews all over have shown me. I don’t take it for granted.”