By Carl Zebrowski
The first thing you saw on entering the auditorium at Congregation Keneseth Israel for the Yom Hazikaron ceremony was the exhibit dedicated to fallen Israeli soldiers and victims of terrorist attacks.
It had been set up by the Jewish Federation of the Lehigh Valley during the day in the JCC boardroom and moved here for the evening. Placards on display told the story of each of Israel’s eight wars along with other conflicts, while a slideshow with photos of those who died played on a TV screen.
The Israel Memorial Day ceremony began with the sound of a siren, as is heard all over Israel to mark the start of the day. Hearing it, Israelis stop whatever they’re doing, including driving their cars, and pay their respects to fallen Israelis.
Ariel Solomon of the Jewish Day School set the tone for the rest of the evening with the announcement of the latest running total of Israeli losses under fire: 22,213 casualties of war and 4,255 victims of hostile acts. “May their memory continue to be a blessing to all of us,” he said.
Rabbi Michael Singer of Congregation Brith Sholom and Rabbi Yaakov Halperin of Chabad of the Lehigh Valley led the assembly in prayers. Alexis Gabay-Ratner, a student at the Jewish Day School, sang a powerful song about a medic who stopped to treat a wounded soldier. Both came under enemy fire as they lay there. Only the soldier survived. “I will always remember you,” he told the medic.
Lee Kestecher Solomon, associate director of development for the Jewish Federation of the Lehigh Valley, told the story of her dad serving in the Israel Defense Forces during the Yom Kippur War 50 years ago, a 21-day fight with Egypt and Syria in which more than 2,500 Israeli soldiers were killed and 7,000 wounded.
“He was educated to love Israel and to accept the responsibility of serving the country, and learned the importance of preserving the Jewish people in their own land,” Lee said. At age 18, Micha Kestecher enlisted in the Shaked Patrol that operated near the Gaza Strip.
Four years later, he was suddenly called to duty as a commander at the Suez Canal. The situation there developed into what we know as the Yom Kippur War.
Lee said she didn’t know much about her dad’s experience until not long before he died two years ago. “When it came to his military service,” she said, “he was never able to open up and share his experiences until a few years ago, when I got to hear his story that I share with you today.”
“About half an hour before the war,” Lee said, “my father received a broadcast that war would break out at 6 p.m.” He gathered his troops in their stronghold and reviewed plans. They started to hear explosions.
He sent troops out to their fighting positions. Egyptian forces approached. Kestecher threw grenades at them while his troops fired their guns. They drove off the enemy for the night.
The Egyptians had success elsewhere along the front and Kestecher’s stronghold was one of the few that remained in Israeli hands. Reports came that reinforcements were on the way. Meanwhile, ammunition ran low.
Orders soon came to evacuate and rendezvous with a rescue force. But they marched into an ambush and immediately started digging into the sand for cover.
“Suddenly,” Lee said, “the senior commander yelled to the soldiers, ‘Prepare to charge!’” But a charge would have been suicide. Kestecher shouted, “Retreat backwards!”
A children’s adventure novel series came to mind. “Hasamba” was about a group of boys and girls who formed a secret society to aid the struggle for Israel’s statehood.
Kestecher remembered a trick from one book and decided to try it. In Arabic, he yelled, “You madmen! You bastards! We are from the Arab army. Stop shooting! Stop shooting!”
It worked. The gunfire stopped and the Israelis ran to safety.
The next day, another scenario of mistaken identity played out. Kestecher’s troops saw Israeli tanks and began to wave. But the tank crews thought they were Egyptians and fired.
Fortunately, one of Kestecher’s soldiers was carrying a prayer shawl. The soldier started waving the tallit overhead and the guns went quiet. Before long came a cease-fire.
“Since I was young,” Lee said, “I would accompany him almost every year to Jerusalem to pay our respects to the soldiers from his unit who fought side by side with him in the Yom Kippur War. No matter where they might have been at the time, they always came together for the memorial ceremony on Yom Hazikaron.”
Rabbi Phil Cohen of Keneseth Israel and Rabbi Seth Phillips (retired) followed Lee’s presentation with prayers. Rabbi Moshe Re’em of Temple Beth El sang “Crying for You” and Gabay-Ratner sang “Perach” (“Flower”). The evening ended with a prayer for Israel, one for the United States and the the Israeli national anthem.