Israel Center

The long sticky days and warm nights of summer seem longer than ever. Dessert winds sweep away wilderness romance, carrying nothing but dust and dry air.

However, a wonderful, blessed breeze now refreshes us, coming unexpectedly, not from the Mediterranean Sea, but rather from thousands of buses, filled with tourists from around the world—each decorated with a colorful banner and smiling faces glued to the windows.

Our harsh winter with its terror waves didn’t keep them away; on the contrary, they are all thrilled to explore a country they call home. They revel in its beauty, while learning about its difficulties and challenges.

But summer is not about vacations and touring alone. The summer heat awakens memories of Israel’s wars. Almost all took place during those still, hot months, when the days were long and no rain or cold could interfere when battle roars.

This summer marks two historic anniversaries; landmarks of our existence.

Today, exactly 10 years ago began the 34-day military conflict in Lebanon, known as the Second Lebanon War, a war when the terrorists of Hezbollah fired 4,000 rockets at Israeli civilians, killing 156 of them and soldiers who defended them.

Among them was Roi Klein.

Roi, born in 1975, was drafted into the IDF at the age of 18—as are most Israelis. He served in an elite counter-terror unit of the Golani Brigade, where he excelled as a soldier and later as an officer.

In the Battle at Bint Jbeil during the war, Klein led his men to rescue a fellow officer’s unit that had been trapped within the city. Whilst in the middle of evacuating the wounded, a grenade landed in the middle of Klein’s unit. Without hesitating, Roi shouted “Klein’s down! Klein’s down!” and threw himself on the grenade, sacrificing his own life for the sake of his fellow soldiers.

In the last moments of his life, Klein laid on the ground over the grenade and yelled out “Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokaynu Hashem Echad!” (Hear O Israel, Hashem is our God, Hashem is One).

Roi left a wife, Sara and two sons. He received the Medal of Courage for his actions and turned into a national symbol of heroism and bravery.

But Roi was a legend during his life as well, preaching tolerance, acceptance and mutual respect. Roi was a true Zionist, leading by example, advocating for basic core Jewish values, always preferring to give, to place the state and the people of Israel before any personal interest.

As an exemplar during his short life and a hero for the sacrifice he made, numerous parks, schools, synagogues, educational institutions and boys born since his death have been named after him.

But his sacrifice is not singular. In the story of our people, there are more braveries to note, icons to cherish, heroes to thank.

Exactly 40 years ago today, on 6 Tammuz, another great man died so that others could live.

Arab and German terrorists hijacked an Air France airliner departing Tel Aviv for Paris. They demanded to free 40 Palestinian and affiliated militants imprisoned in Israel and 13 prisoners in four other countries in exchange for the hostages. They diverted the flight after a stopover in Athens via Benghazi to Entebbe, the main airport of Uganda. The Ugandan government supported the hijackers and its president, the dictator Idi Amin Dada, personally welcomed them. The hijackers sorted all the Israelis and several other Jews, from the other passengers, then forced them into a separate room. Over the following two days, the terrorists released 148 non-Israeli hostages, who headed for Paris. Ninety-four mainly Israeli passengers along with the 12-member Air France crew, remained as hostages facing death if their captors’ demands remained unmet.

The Israeli government approved an operation to rescue all the passengers and the Air France crew. A team of 100 commandos flew more than 2,500 miles to Uganda for the rescue operation. The operation, which took a week of planning, lasted 90 minutes and rescued 102 hostages. Five Israeli commandos were wounded and one, the unit commander, Lt. Col. Yonatan Netanyahu, brother of Israel’s current Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, was killed. All the hijackers, three hostages and 45 Ugandan soldiers were killed.

Yoni Netanyahu led Israel’s most heroic, epic operation, knowing that his life, as well as his soldiers’ lives, were at risk. Yoni didn’t hesitate. He put Israel first, even before his own life.

Yoni was born on March 13, 1946 in New York City. His parents, Benzion and Cela, were working for the creation of a Jewish state on behalf of the New Zionist Organization. In June 1964, following his graduation, Yoni returned to Israel to join the Israel Defense Forces for his obligatory military service. Yoni volunteered for the paratroopers and proved to be a superb soldier, excelling in all the various courses.

Yoni didn’t live to see the outcome of his mission, one that became a pride shared by the entire Jewish world, pride enveloping us, like a holy tallit.

Among the many tourists flooding the country this summer, many come from our JCCs and our own JCC Israel Center is privileged to host hundreds of these JCC members.

Among them was a group of 80 from Palo Alto. Talia, a 12-year-old participant, said that her visit to Yad Vashem: The World Holocaust Remembrance Center was the most meaningful experience she’d had. Taila shared with us that her experience at the Yad Vashem children’s memorial made her feel grateful that we are free.

A free people in our land.

We cannot take anything for granted, especially after learning about the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust. A twelve year old can sum up our entire Jewish story in one sentence!

The JCC Israel Center is located not too far from Jerusalem’s Old City. I inhale Jerusalem’s mountain air each day; and just by taking a walk, I am surrounded by history, ancient sights and voices from the past. It walks hand in hand with our vibrant present; diverse, bold and innovative, reflected in the variety of languages, ages and types of touring groups that gather here from across the Jewish world and beyond.

We can tell them our stories. We hope they come to cherish our heroes like Roi Klein and Yoni Netanyahu and share our memories, our pain and our pride. But most of all we pray that Israeli summers will be just that, long sticky days and warm nights, many visitors and tourists enjoying a wonderful holiday with no more battles added to our books of chronicles.

Leah Garber, Vice President. Director, JCC Israel Center
leah@jcca.org