(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Eli Izhaki, a former Jewish Agency official who played a key role in the aliya of Jews from countries in crisis, died on Saturday at the age of 67. He was laid to rest at the Modi’in-Maccabim-Reut Cemetery on Sunday afternoon.
“Our family, the State of Israel and the entire Jewish nation have lost a great man,” the Izhaki family said in a statement.
Izhaki was born on October 2, 1947, in what was then the Transylvanian village of Seini to Sarah and Yosef Izsak, who returned home after surviving Auschwitz. Most of his family, including two older brothers, four-year-old Moshe Izsak and three-yearold Hershel Izsak, perished during the Holocaust.
He supervised the renovation of the Holocaust Cellar at Elie Wiesel’s childhood home in Sighet, and attended its opening last May. He took a delegation of journalists and Limmud FSU officials on a tour of his home village, where he took out a photograph of his brothers and said Kaddish next to a memorial plaque he had erected at the site. He later spoke at the opening of the education center, saying it served as a perennial reminder to all the residents of Romania, especially Sighet and Seini.
“It took a lot of hard work to dig up this cellar and renovate it,” Izhaki said at the time. “But it was worth it. It means a great deal to me and other survivors.”
His parents, together with Eli and his sister, Judy, made aliya in 1966. Filled with the spirit of Zionism, he immediately joined the IDF and served in the Combat Engineering Corps. He worked his way up in the corps, serving in active combat duty with distinction for 23 years.
He fought in, among others, the Six Day War and the Yom Kippur War, and participated in many military operations.
After reaching the rank of colonel and serving as commander of Battalion 601, he traveled to Singapore and served as an engineering adviser to its army.
“I really appreciated the Singaporeans, and the experience taught me how to work with other cultures and helped me in my later work in bringing Jews to Israel from countries in crisis,” he said.
After retiring from the army, he worked first for the Nativ organization and then the Jewish Agency, for which he helped organize the aliya of hundreds of thousands of Jews from Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, Ethiopia and other countries.
He flew to war-torn regions such as Chechnya to guarantee the safe passage of Jews immigrating to Israel.
Izhaki was then-Aliya Department head Chaim Chesler’s point man for special projects in the FSU, and between 1997 and 2001 headed the Jewish Agency Mission in Ukraine.
Former Jewish Agency chairman Sallai Meridor sent Izhaki to Buenos Aires in 2002 to expedite the aliya of Argentinean Jews.
“Eli Izhaki was the anonymous hero of aliya from countries in distress, including the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and South America,” said Chesler, the founder of Limmud FSU.
“He did everything silently behind the scenes, serving as an exemplary emissary to all the countries to which he was sent, and he loved the Jewish people.”
Izhaki set up the framework for the immigration to Israel of the Bnei Menashe which has since been taken over by Michael Freund’s Shavei Israel.
“He was a legend among those who handled aliya from the FSU, along with his colleague, the late Karol Ungar,” said former Jewish Agency spokesman Michael Jankelowitz.
In his spare time in Israel, Izhaki is also credited with building the Combat Engineers Memorial in Hulda.
“Eli was a man of hard work and dedication,” the family statement said. “He managed to do and build in his life what most people would require many lifetimes to accomplish.”
Izhaki is survived by his wife, two children and five grandchildren.Nathan Roie contributed to this report.