Rabbi Mordechai Rindenow blessed his son, Shlomo, with the words “May God watch over you,” just two days before the 20-year-old combat sergeant was killed in a military accident on the Golan.
“Now we have come here to bury him,” a tearful Rindenow said on Monday afternoon, as he stood by his son’s grave in a small cemetery just off Route 3, in southern Israel.
“You gave your life for the people of Israel and the Land of Israel,” he said.
The rabbi and his wife, Mindy, had landed at Ben-Gurion Airport earlier in the morning from their home in Passaic, New Jersey.
“It is so hard to think,” said Rindenow in a tear-choked voice as he looked out at the thousands of mourners crowded together under the hot sun, just outside of the communities of Yesodot and Netzer Hazani.
It is the second time in a year he has suffered a death in the family, Rindenow explained in Hebrew, as he recalled cutting short his Hanukka trip in Israel to return to the US upon learning of his mother’s death.
On Sunday, he received a call informing him that his son, Shlomo Zalman, the youngest of his nine children, had been killed.
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“Now the opposite has occurred,” he said. “We had to come to Israel to bury him. But that isn’t natural. It’s not supposed to be this way.”
A number of people have told him that they, too, have buried a son, he said.
“One of them told me, maybe you don’t think this way, but he finished his mission. I do not know what that means, because that would make it a very short mission, one without a marriage and children,” Rindenow said.
During Shlomo’s time in the army, as a lone soldier, his son called him every Friday, no matter where he was, to wish him a peaceful Shabbat.
At the end of their conversations, including the one last Friday, he would ask for a blessing, Rindenow recalled. Now, he said, he does not know how to stop talking to his son or how to bid him farewell.
“I know where I am standing and what is happening, but it is still hard to believe it.”
What he does believe, he said, is that it important to continue to live with full faith in God.
“God is good. But today it is impossible to see it. A day will come when we will understand more, why we and the rest of Israel have to live with such sorrow.”
Shlomo’s brother, Gami, 22, who is also a soldier in the IDF, told the mourners that his brother was his best friend.
“We grew up together, we did everything together, he was like my twin,” Gami said. “Shlomo, you were my rock, my soul, my heart, my pillar, you were always there for me. Even when we use to get into fights, you always forgave me right after. You were so gentle. I learned so much from you, even though you were my younger brother, I looked up to you. So mature and so strong at a young age. You were always there for me.”
In the aftermath of his brother’s death, Gami said he felt “like a part of my heart was ripped out. I am not whole any more. I love you so much,” he said as he broke down sobbing.
“I know you are at peace now. I miss you. You will always be with me, wherever I go.”
Before soldiers marched Shlomo’s flag-draped coffin into the cemetery, mourners gathered outside the Netzer Hazani synagogue, in the community where his older brother, Akiva, lives and where he first stayed when he made aliya.
His oldest brother, Jeff Tower, explained that Shlomo’s four other brothers had all volunteered to serve in the IDF. Two older sisters had also done national service.
Shlomo followed in their footsteps, Tower said. He could have volunteered for 14 months, but instead he signed up for three years. He was the kind of person who said, “I want more and I can do more.”
Shlomo’s brother, Baruch, said although Shlomo had been born in Israel, he did not really know Hebrew, because he had grown up in the US.
But that didn’t stop him from believing he could join the IDF, Baruch said, noting that his younger brother was multi-talented and a quick learner – if a pipe was broken, he became a plumber, if the lock didn’t work, he became a locksmith. He built gadgets out of nothing, and taught himself how to throw knives, recalled Baruch.
Shlomo’s sister, Baila, recalled how as the baby of the family, he had worked hard to prove that he was just as good as his older siblings. He was caring, she said, always calling to see how they were. Among his favorite phrases, said Baila, was “everything is OK,” and “you have to chill out.”
She recalled that he had purchased an art kit and upon giving it to her told her, “Art makes you happy, and you have to do more art.”
Nahal Sorek Regional Council head Eli Eskozido said of Shlomo at the end of the funeral, “You could have remained in the US, but you chose to come here and to serve in the army and to be in a combat unit, and to safeguard the land of Israel that you so loved.”
In the Galilee Druse village of Beit Jann on Monday, mourners bid farewell to St.-Sgt. Husam Tafash, 24, who was killed in the same accident as Shlomo.
“I knew the soldier well, he was smiling all the time – very optimistic – and he loved what he was doing,” former deputy foreign minister Majallie Whbee, a senior figure in the Israeli Druse community, told The Jerusalem Post.
“Everyone that knew him is sad. It is a very tragic accident.
“I am sorry that some in the media published stories before they checked what was going on, and didn’t get the facts right. I spoke to the commander of the area, who also spoke with the family and community in Beit Jann, and he dismissed these reports – we only know there was an explosion,” said Whbee, adding, “They are doing an investigation.”
At the funeral, Husam’s father, Abdullah, said, “This is the hardest moment in our lives. We didn’t expect to lose our wonderful son. Despite all of the difficulties and our emotional situation, we’ll do everything to deal with this disaster,” Ynet reported.Ariel Ben Solomon contributed to this report.
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