Our Secret Weapon
Zach Herschfus Special to the Jewish News
Unity is the strongest force the Jewish people have.
I drafted as a Lone Soldier to the Paratroopers Unit of the Israel Defense Forces in March 2017. After months of challenging training, I now participate in patrols and missions that help ensure the safety and the continuity of the Jewish homeland. However, on the fourth day of the month of Iyar on the Jewish calendar, I participated in a mission like no other I have experienced before.
The fourth of Iyar is the day on the Hebrew calendar on which we commemorate Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day. On this day, the entire country of Israel mourns the loss of those who have died as soldiers or as victims of terror. Yom Hazikaron starts at sundown when a siren, which is heard across the country, is sounded for one minute. Everyone stops what they are doing and stands for a moment of silence to show respect for those who have fallen.
The following morning, the National Memorial Ceremony for fallen soldiers takes place at Har Herzl, Israel’s military cemetery. Friends and families gather at the gravesides of their loved ones for the ceremony and at 11 a.m. the siren sounds once again, this time for two minutes.
The Israeli army sets out to make sure proper honor is given to all the brave soldiers who have sacrificed for the country and to bring comfort to their families. The army prepares with diligence and seriousness for this ceremony like they prepare for any of its missions. Currently, enlisted soldiers are carefully selected to stand by each of the graves at Har Herzl during the ceremony. When the siren wails, not one of our brave fallen heroes is alone as there is a soldier standing at attention at each graveside.
Each soldier who is assigned to a grave learns about the person whose grave they are assigned to. I was assigned the name Raphael Mordechai. I learned that Raphael Mordechai immigrated with his family to Israel from Baghdad. He lived in the northern part of Israel and, as a teenager, he served as a leader in Bnei Akiva and other youth organizations. He enjoyed playing sports, especially basketball.
Zach Herschfus, 20, is the son of Fern and Brian Herschfus of Southfield. He is currently a Lone Soldier serving in the Paratroopers unit of the Israel Defense Forces. He is a graduate of Yeshivat Akiva in Southfield. He also attended Yeshivat Orayta in Jerusalem and the Bnei David Pre-Military Academy in Eli, Israel.
He was sworn into the Paratroopers unit at the Western Wall last June, 50 years to the day the Wall was liberated by the paratroopers. His mother says he always dreamed of being a soldier in the Israeli army.
Soon after he drafted, Zach met with an older relative visiting Israel who had known Zach’s great-great-grandfather and namesake, Yisroel Dov Waxman (Zach’s Hebrew name is Yisroel Dov). When Waxman was 80, he moved to Israel to spend his final years there.
The relative told Zach this story about Waxman no one in the family had known before: When he arrived in Israel, he went to the IDF recruitment office and said, “I want to join the army; there must be something I can do.” They laughed and told him there was nothing they could offer a man his age. Still wanting to do something, he decided he would find a way to support the soldiers. He ended up spending hours standing at the bus stops where the soldiers would return from base, handing out candy and other treats and giving them blessings. This story continues to empower Zach daily as he feels he is not only living the dream for himself but also for his namesake.
Zach’s great-grandparents Abraham and Sarah Cutter dedicated their lives to Israel and its causes. Abe Cutter was an Israel Bonds volunteer since its inception and sold millions of dollars of bonds in his lifetime. During the Six-Day War in June 1967, Abe secured himself a spot on a cargo plane to Israel and took Sifrei Torah to the soldiers on the front lines. On that trip, he collected bullet shells from the battlefield and turned them into a menorah that Zach lights every year on Chanukah.
Raphael Mordechai served as an officer in the same division of paratroopers as I serve in today. He fought in the War of Attrition against Egypt and was badly injured when he was shot in the stomach. He managed to recover from this injury and returned to fight with his unit. He fell in battle during the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
When I arrived at the cemetery and located Raphael Mordechai’s grave, I found there were about 20 people of various ages standing around the grave, clearly having their family moment with their departed. I was hesitant to approach and introduce myself, as my initial thought was that I didn’t really belong there and that I should be giving the family their privacy to mourn their loss.
My commanding officer encouraged me to go introduce myself. I slowly made my way toward the grave and wiggled my way through the family members to the eldest man at the graveside who I assumed was Raphael Mordechai’s father. I put my hand on his shoulder and when he turned around he looked at me and immediately gave me a hug. I introduced myself as the representative from the Paratroopers Unit, and he began to cry and grabbed me once again and gave me a hug and a kiss.
He proceeded to introduce me to the rest of the family including his grandson, Rafi, who is named in memory of his brave uncle. I talked with the family for the next hour as they warmly welcomed me as part of their group. I listened to their stories about life “back in the day” and the struggles and sacrifices they have endured and what they have given up for Israel to be where it is today.
As the ceremony was getting ready to start, I assumed my stance in amod dom (at attention). At 11 a.m., as the siren started to wail, although there were thousands of people standing crowded together in that cemetery, there was just pure silence. It was deafening! I felt Raphael Mordechai’s father grab my hand and squeeze it and I heard him start to cry again. I realized tears were streaming down my face as well; and in that powerful moment in time I understood the meaning of my mission on that day. This mission was not about guns and grenades; rather it was about our people’s most powerful weapon — unity.
I stood there thinking about how this man, who was a total stranger to me just an hour ago, had chosen to hold my hand at this moment. How together as one we were sharing the pain of loss and at the same time the pride in what Raphael Mordechai had given for the country. Knowing that we have what we have today because of soldiers like him and all the other soldiers who lay in their graves surrounding him.
I realized that I, in fact, did belong there with him because I am able to stand beside him proudly wearing my IDF uniform, donning the red paratroopers’ beret on my head and representing to him that the dream of Israel still lives on and his son did not die in vain.
Later that evening, I sat with some friends on the rooftop of Yeshivat Orayta, where I had studied before I drafted. The yeshivah is located in the Old City of Jerusalem and from the rooftop there is a magnificent view of the Old City and the Western Wall. As the sky grew darker and the country transitioned from Yom Hazikaron to Yom HaAtzmaut (Israel Independence Day), I looked out over the Old City, and the feeling of sadness from what we have lost started to give way into the joy for what we have gained.
As we walked through the streets of the city that night, we danced and sang together with everyone around us, friends and strangers, there were no differences — we were all together as one. As I experienced this transition, I thought about how the succession of these two holidays represents who we are as a people and why I chose to be standing there in uniform.
In the history of the Jewish people, we have suffered many atrocities and defeats, but we have always picked ourselves up and come back stronger. As a people, when we fall down we always get back up again and the way we do that successfully is when we do it together in unity.
Unity is the strongest weapon the Jewish people have; that is our super power. On Yom Hazikaron and Yom HaAtzmaut, I was able to see this super power activated so clearly as everyone across the country set aside their differences and came together in sorrow and transitioned together into pure joy. Although my mission on Har Herzl was not one that involved patrols or checkpoints, it was definitely my most meaningful and important mission yet because I took part in activating the super power of our nation as we stood together in unity.