Lieutenant Avner (image obscured for security) speaks at YOSS
Rubin Margules of Brooklyn is a visionary with a great and creative sense of determination. Avner Yamin was an officer in a special-forces unit of the Israel Defense Forces until this past August. Walter Katzoff is the national director of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA). And Dovid is a fifth-grader at Yeshiva of South Shore in the Five Towns.
Rabbi Binyamin Kamenetzky with Lt. Avner
This is about the confluence of their disparate lives—a culmination of actions and emotions, of concern and prayer, of good deeds and the passionate feelings they evoke, and how they all converged one cool and rainy afternoon last week in Hewlett.
For the last 15 years, Mr. Margules has spearheaded through the ZOA a drive that culminates with the distribution of 8,000 mishloachmanos packages to soldiers of the IDF stationed around Israel on Purim. In his memo thanking donors who support the effort, Mr. Margules wrote: “We distributed personallymishloachmanos to IDF members across Israel from Judea and Samaria, Hebron to Jerusalem, the Golan and the peak of Mt. Hermon.”
Mr. Margules adds: “Although we traveled long distances, it was worth every mile, every moment, every smile, to see and observe firsthand the gratitude on the joyful faces of the Israeli soldiers.” Along with Walter Katzoff of the ZOA, they make the annual trek to Israel to bring some added joy to the young soldiers stationed around the country.
Over the years, one of the new ideas introduced was to have students in various yeshivas in New York and other areas write letters to the soldiers. The letters are randomly handed to the men and women of the IDF as an additional dimension to the process of reaching out and demonstrating to them the extent of the support that have from Jewish communities around the world.
One of those thousands of students who wrote letters this year was 10-year-old Dovid. The young man was born with severe vison impairment and has minimal sight ability. Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetzky, the rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva of South Shore related to us that not only was Dovid’s letter to Avner written in braille, but so are all of Dovid’s books in yeshiva in braille. Even his Gemara is a braille edition that allows him to keep up with his studies along with the rest of his classmates.
“The odd thing is,” says Walter Katzoff of the ZOA, “of the thousands of gift baskets and letters that we handed out while meeting Lt. Yamin, for some reason this stood out from the rest.”
This is the letter:
I am assuming you can read English. You have courage. I get scared in bed at night thinking of the horrors of the world. When I think of you, a wave of security washes through me. I daven for you and I am nervous for you. The protection and security you bring is just great. The responsibility and devotion you have warms my heart and brings tears to my eyes. When I lived in Israel, I may have met you and from that you may have seen the awe and gratitude in my eyes. Currently I live in chutz l’aretz (out of Israel, ed.). If you had time to enjoy yourself, what would you like to do? My name is Dovid. I have very different types of problems. That’s another way you help me from across the world. I think about my problems then yours and my life seems easier. What position do you have in the IDF? If I write more I will get choked up.
A few weeks ago, Walter Katzoff received an e-mail from Lt. Yamin saying that he was coming to New York from where he was planning to drive cross-country to California to a friend’s wedding. He said that while he had not kept the Purim package that was handed to him back in March, he held onto the letter that came along with it. He told Walter that he would very much like to correspond with the young man who wrote the letter to him. Walter thought he could do better than that and actually set up a meeting between the two. “Avner said that if he could manage to do that, he would go just about anywhere to meet the young letter-writer,” Katzoff said.
In the meantime, while Dovid’s letter was mixed in with those sent from other schools, the search was on to try to identify him and locate him and then to coordinate a meeting over the few days that Avner planned on being in New York. It turned out to be quite a daunting and challenging task.
Thousands of students had written letters from quite a few different schools. At first the ZOA office in New York believed that Dovid was a student at a yeshiva in Manhattan. Several calls to that school’s principal determined that he was not a student there, but they went on and did find him.
In speaking to Dovid’s parents a few days ago, while they prefer anonymity, they were more than anxious to communicate how touched they and their family were by the experience. The day that all the loose ends came together turned out to be Israel Independence Day, which, according to Dovid’s father, added an extra dose of meaning to the meeting.
I attended the assembly at the yeshiva last Thursday where both Rabbi Kamenetzky and the 25-year-old soldier addressed the students. Part of the magic of the day’s events was the realization that this was a palpable demonstration of the fact that regardless of the politics involved, at the end of the day we support, love, and admire the extraordinary bravery of the young men and women of the IDF and there should not be any dispute or debate about that.
Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetzky and Rubin Margules
At Yeshiva of South Shore that day, it was as if random events brought about the visit of the young soldier who received a letter from a child that communicated profound and rather mature sentiments about the reality of life. After Avner spoke to the students about how good and encouraging it feels for soldiers in the field in Israel to know they enjoy such widespread support from Jews the world over, he articulated that he was particularly touched by the letter from the 10-year-old.
After the formal presentation, I sat behind Avner and Dovid as they chatted for about a half hour. It seemed that they were engrossed in conversation like old friends, discussing their very different lives.
Dovid’s father was unable to attend the assembly, but his mother was there and explained how exhilarated her son was by the meeting and by the fact that the lieutenant was so moved by the letter he had seemed to receive at random. His father explained that with the delay in tracking down which school Dovid attended, the events that transpired last week did not finally come together until the night before the assembly.
Judging by the content of the young man’s letter, he obviously portrays a maturity way beyond his years. His father explained that he was born with vison issues and has limited ability to see out of just one eye. It is a heavy load for a child to carry, and his letter to Lt. Yamin communicates that he is quite conscious of the obstacles he will be encountering as life goes on.
At the same time, he expresses a deep sensitivity to the plight of others, and in particular to the members of the IDF who stand not just on the front lines of the State of Israel but as protectors of Jews and Jewish communities everywhere.
The ZOA mishloach manos campaign is a vast undertaking that touches in a profound fashion many thousands of young soldiers whom we will never know or have a chance to meet. The 8,000 packages put together by Rubin Margules and his ZOA team in Brooklyn reaches into the hearts and emotions of thousands of Avners. And last week on Yom Haatzmaut, the young lieutenant reached back, making it his business to travel to a yeshiva assembly hall in Hewlett to say that our wishes and concern for their safety are not just heard and appreciated but—through the words of a 10-year-old child and many students like him—very meaningful and always cherished.