New York, NY, October 18, 2012–Thousands of students and members of the Yeshiva University community poured into Lamport Auditorium on the school’s Wilf Campus on October 16 to welcome Gilad Shalit and members of his unit who came to share their experiences.
“Tonight we celebrate the fact that these soldiers have come to visit us in the exact place where, three years ago, Noam Shalit stood and prayed with us for the safe return of his son,” said Rabbi Kenneth Brander, the David Mitzner Dean of YU’s Center for the Jewish Future.
On June 25, 2006, Shalit was captured by Hamas in an attack that also killed two soldiers in his unit. Shalit’s captivity lasted five years, during which Jews all over the world campaigned for his release and organized prayer on his behalf. Shalit’s commander, Yoav B., told the crowd, he and his unit, now reservists, hoped to find closure by telling their story. “We have all carried around a heavy weight for the past five years,” said Yoav. “We want to go on with our lives.”
The unit also felt their message was important for the Jewish community to hear. “This last mission my company is taking is not just on behalf of Israeli Jews, but on behalf of international Judaism,” said Yoav.
On Tuesday night, that mission began with the memory of the unit’s fallen comrades: Chanan Barak, a young first lieutenant who loved learning, and Pavel Slutzker, a soldier who had been chosen for special military training and wanted to be a doctor. “Both their dreams were cut short,” said Yoav.
Translated by Daniel Green, a Yeshiva College senior who also served as an officer in the Israeli Defense Forces, the soldiers answered questions about their experiences in the army, their feelings about Shalit’s captivity and recovery, and whether they believed captured soldiers should be recovered at any cost. One soldier, Or G., stressing that what he shared was a personal rather than political view, described a sense of responsibility and obligation between soldiers: “Even if it means going on a large rescue mission, I would go back for any soldier,” he said. “These are the values that are still instilled in the soldiers we train today.”
“In the long run, Gilad’s captivity opened up a hundred wounds in our private lives,” said Yoav. “One thing that helped us heal was that we persuaded the chief of staff of the entire IDF to remain serving as a combat unit on the front and help us search for Gilad. In the end, doing all we could helped us go on and enabled us to continue serving our country.”
“When I heard Gilad was coming home, happiness flooded me,” said Ron D., another soldier. “I was losing my mind the whole time he was captive.”
Sophie Felder, president of the YU Israel Club, spoke to the soldiers on behalf of the student body to convey the importance of their presence at YU. “Words fail when trying to express the enormity of having you here, proving that hope is worth having and reaffirming our connection to the state of Israel and its protectors,” she said, adding that students on campus continued to support the IDF by sending gift baskets to soldiers, recording welcome-back videos on their safe returns, and learning and praying on their behalf. “You and your fellow chayalim [soldiers] are deeply appreciated and respected in the consciousness of YU and I am confident that this occasion will remain in the hearts and minds of YU students for a long time to come.”
Shalit–who did not address the gathering–received a standing ovation along with the rest of the unit from the audience. They were then joined by current YU students who are also IDF veterans.
“It was an honor for us as a Yeshiva and a University to serve as one of the few institutions hosting the group during their short visit to the United States,” said Brander, after the event. “Walking into a room filled with over a thousand people greeting them, gave each member of the unit tremendous chizuk [strength] in his path moving forward. While Gilad was scheduled to address the audience, at the last minute, he felt it would be too emotionally difficult.”
“To see all of you students here, the people we are fighting for and supporting us, is one of the best feelings any Jew could have,” said one soldier.
The Magen David community in Brooklyn, N.Y. hosted Shalit and members of his unit and sponsored their visit to the United States.