Yom HaZikaron speech by Joseph Gitler, founder of Leket Israel

May 13, 2024

Speech given by Joseph Gitler, founder of Leket Israel, father-in-law of David Schwartz zt”l,  and supporter of YCT, at AACI’s annual memorial ceremony for fallen soldiers, of May 9.

Honored US Ambassador to Israel Jack Lew, Canadian Ambassador to Israel ,Lisa Stadelbauer, , Maj. General (Res.) Doron Almog, Chair of the Executive of The Jewish Agency for Israel, Officers and Board of the AACI, esteemed guests and the families and friends of the fallen.

When I received the email from my friend and long-time travel agent Mark Feldman asking me to be the keynote speaker at the AACI memorial event, my first reaction was how am I going to get out of this one. My first (and only feeble attempt) was to say that I was of course honored by the opportunity, but to also point out that our beloved son in law David Schwartz was neither American nor Canadian so perhaps my speaking didn’t fit into the AACI mandate.

As my travel agent, Mark knows well the nationalities of our family and I quote him “We sadly know all about David’s nationality but we also know his wife Meital’s and she is both Canadian and American. Check mate. So here we are. But truth be told I wasn’t really trying to get out of this appearance. For the rest of my days I will of course accept any opportunity to talk about David, to let people know who he was and what we are all missing with him gone. This, however, was the first forum which was different since his death 4 months ago. This is a public memorial event, not part of the normal mourning rituals of a funeral, shiva, shloshim, etc. and that was jarring. Official. Speaking to folks who didn’t know him or are not part of his or our circle.

So why are we all here? Why do we specially commemorate the sacrifice of North Americans who have given their lives in Israel’s military operations or in acts of terror. From the Battle of Tel Hai in 1920 until October 6, 2023, this memorial wall commemorated the names of 360 individuals. Sadly, since October 7, we have added another 77 names to the memorial wall. These are massive numbers and shows the commitment of the community we come from. We are also here because of the unique position of North American Olim. A community not running away from persecution. Every one of us here today could have stayed put and lived an easier life without the stresses of language, culture, no Sundays and of course unremitting terror and long military service and yet there has been a steady flow of immigration from North America since Israel’s inception in 1948 with estimates that more than 200,000 North American immigrants currently live in Israel. We have all sacrificed by coming to Israel. All in in different ways, but at the very least leaving our friends, family and comfort zone. But of course, no one has sacrificed like those whose names are etched on this monument and that needs to be commemorated.

I am actually reminded of something our beloved David wrote in his sefer “Le’David Barchi Nafshi” which is a compilation of essays written on the weekly Torah reading and which was first published on the occasion of David’s marriage to my daughter, Meital.

In this weeks parsha, Kedoshim it states “You shall be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy” (19:2). At the time of leaving Egypt, God said to Moshe, “Why do you cry to Me? Tell the children of Israel to travel forward.” The holy sage Chaim ibn Attar (the Or Hachaim,) explains that God advises Moshe to tell Israel that they must perform an act of faith with all their hearts, such as by entering the Sea of Reeds before it was split. This act of faith would strengthen the attributes of mercy and love within God. They could create a positive outcome. God asked Moses: “Why do you cry out to Me?” With this question, God was saying, “The matter is not entirely in My hands.” It depends on you. Every oleh to Israel makes this leap of faith- leaving family, friends and community in order to build this land and create a positive outcome and that should be recognized, especially when it entails the ultimate sacrifice.

Let me share with you how we North Americans play a vital role in the State of Israel in just one sector, the one I am most familiar with-Israeli charity-and I don’t mean financial contributions where we certainly play an outsize role. Here is a very short and incomplete list of leading Israeli charities founded by North Americans in almost every field imaginable and no doubt if I polled the crowd we could come up with dozens more.

Ogen, Shalva, Nefesh Bnefesh, Melabev, Save a Childs Heart, Ten Gav, Dualis, The Koby Mandell Foundation, Israel Tennis Centers, ALYN Hospital, Gesher, The Israel Guide Center for the Blind and I could go on and on. Our community has changed the face of the state of Israel, tackling time and again its most difficult societal problems.

Now let me tell you a little bit more about my family. If there could be a poster family for the AACI it would be us. Father American, Mother Canadian, children both nationalities. Living in Raanana since 2000, pray at Ohel Ari where it feels like a foreign passport is needed for membership. Summers back in North America, friends all anglos-both parents and kids-a perfect storm of non-israeliness. Not an ideal way to integrate with Israeli society or learn Hebrew. To the point that we once boarded an el al flight with our 5 kids and as we boarded, speaking English of course, the flight attendant said “ Let me guess, you are from Raanana.”

And then reality hits and it’s called the army and that reality is that no matter what Anglo rock you have hidden your kids under they are going to integrate, make sabra friends and finally learn Hebrew. And that is the story already of two of my daughters and one of my sons and for us, who you might say our true aliya date was not September 2000 but rather August 2017 when Meital, our oldest daughter, joined the army and we really joined Israeli society.

And then comes integration number 2 because even if you are the poster family for Anglos in Israel your kid may still be set up with, fall in love with and marry a real Israeli. Something you never really imagined as a possibility. And David turns out to be from Elazar in the Gush (heavily Anglo) who looks like an Anglo, sometimes dresses like an Anglo (kaki pants and the occasional suit on shabbat) but he is definitely not an Anglo. And that was our David and he was a perfect addition to our family. Thankfully his English was better than is typical here and he made great efforts to improve it so as to better fit in with the grandparents and wider family overseas. And he was so beloved by all. The perfect catch, gentle, humble and so in love with our daughter, that our worries as parents, at least for Meital, seemed over. And then in an instant our 3d and most difficult integration into Israeli society. David killed in battle in Khan Younis on January 8, 2024 fighting for his beloved homeland. Now we are one of those families.

Like all mishpachot shekulot our family will have two days of mourning going forward. One national– yom hazikaron and one personal, the 27th of tevet when David and his best friend Yakir Hexter were killed. Like everyone here we have many questions since October 7 and few answers but mostly we have pain and longing. We will of course carry on, as the Jewish people have done for millenniu, תto continue building our homeland as a light unto the nations, even if most of the nations seem blind. I hope and pray that our hostages and our soldiers will come home quickly and safely and that all this pain and suffering that has befallen our nation will lead to positive change. I am normally a very optimistic person and to know that David and all our other soldiers and civilians didn’t die in vain this positive change must happen. For their sake and for the sake of those left behind I hope and pray as it says in the in avinu shebashamayim prayer:

“Send Your light and Your truth to its leaders, officers, and counselors, and direct them with Your good counsel. Strengthen the defenders of our Holy Land; grant them, our God, salvation and crown them with victory. Establish peace in the land, and everlasting joy for its inhabitants.”

This dream may seem far away but we will not give up till it is a reality.

Thank you.

Rabbi Jacob SiegelAdvised by Rabbi Jacob Siegel ('16), Two Jewish Federations Divest from Fossil Fuels
Rabbi Dani Passow ('12) of Harvard Hillel reflects on Israel at 76 with Daniel Gordis