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This time last year, Ann and Mordechai Goodman were like most other successfully integrated American immigrants - proud Zionists and parents who respectfully and reverently observed the annual memorial for Israel's fallen heroes by lowering their heads, with the rest of the country, to the sounds of the sirens.
This year, however, the owners of Pizzeria Efrat will not be standing at the ceremony - with their nine children in tow - on the sidelines of the event. This year, they will be among the thousands of other Israelis who will mark their bereavement in the most personal way, due to the death of their 20-year-old son, Yosef, in an IDF training accident on February 2.
The last soldier to be killed since Remembrance Day 2005, Yosef was paid special tribute - in keeping with tradition - by IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz, who laid a flag on the fallen paratrooper's grave at Mt. Herzl Military Cemetery on Sunday.
A member of the Paratroop Brigade's elite Maglan unit, Yosef Goodman was killed during a jump, when his parachute got entangled around the leg of his commander. As both men began to dive, Yosef managed to cut the ropes of the parachute, thus saving the life of his commander. By now too close to the ground for his emergency parachute to open, Yosef plummeted to his death.
"It was his 33rd jump," says Mordechai, who moved his family to Israel from New York when Yosef was nine months old. "He loved the army and the army loved him."
We are sitting together in the Goodman's Efrat home. Every inch of wall and shelf space is covered with photos of the Goodman children, but Mordechai and Ann point out the ones of the handsome, athletic-looking Yosef.
In one picture he is running; in another he is wearing his army uniform and holding a rifle; and in another he is posing with two of his brothers. In all of them, his face is covered with an enchanting, infectious smile.
"Yosef was always a very happy kid with a lot life in him," says Ann, with great emotion. "And he was generous and kind-hearted. He used to collect tzedaka among his fellow soldiers and encouraged everyone to give. He then asked me to give the money he'd collected to the Koby Mandell Foundation to help victims of terror. He was deeply affected by the death of his friend Yonaton Evron, from the same unit, three months before he died. He often went to visit Yonaton's mother and phoned her regularly. He was also a very devoted brother to his siblings, and a caring son and grandson."
"He was a very strong boy in every way, and a great athlete with a passion for all kinds of sports," says Mordechai, producing a copy of a letter written by Yosef's training officer and read aloud at the funeral.
"You were the best fighter of them all; a fighter with a big heart and lots of feeling," reads the short, handwritten note.
As they reminisce about the son they recently buried, the Goodman's can no longer hold back their tears.
"When you have children and they go away to school or are in yeshiva, you don't think about them every moment of every day," explains Mordechai. "But when you lose one of them, you can't stop thinking about him."
"For me Friday nights are the hardest," says Ann, adding,"We don't cry like this all the time."
With so much suffering apparent, the question arises of whether they are angry about what happened.
"I do not blame anybody," Ann says emphatically. "God gave him to me and God took him away from me. I often thought about the dangers of sending kids to the army or of terrorist attacks, but I am not angry with anybody. I am just grateful that I have other children. They are my biggest source of comfort now. I still have a beautiful family and would encourage others to have a big family, too." For Mordechai, there is an additional consolation: "that he died the way he did in the Israeli army versus some other tragedy."
Ann agrees. "If, God forbid, we had to lose a child, at least it happened in the context of serving his country, of doing something important for the people of Israel," she says. "Yosef understood that everyone goes to the army, and he truly believed that he was doing something really important. Our kids were raised knowing that they all would go to the army. We believe in serving and contributing to the defense of the country. While we [as parents] are immigrants and did not really understand what it meant to be in an elite unit, it is something that the kids always talked about as teenagers." Ann and Mordechai say they will not prevent their other six sons from serving in combat units.
"The others can do whatever they want," says Ann. "Yosef really blossomed in the army; he would walk with his head held high. It gave him tremendous self-confidence, lots of self-esteem and it gave him a very good feeling about himself because he was succeeding. We would not want to deny his brothers this experience."
THE GOODMANS moved to Israel in the mid-'80s as part of Rabbi Shlomo Riskin's Lincoln Square Synagogue congregation from New York City. Yosef and his older brother, Shimon, were both born in the US. His seven younger siblings, Yehuda, Naftali, Binyamin, Asher, Miriam, Rachel and Dan were all born in Israel.
Mordechai Goodman became somewhat of a celebrity in the expanding settlement of Efrat as the first entrepreneur to establish an eatery in the community. He also made his mark as a player in the American Football League in Israel (AFI), and encouraged all his sons to participate in it, as well.
Yosef inherited his father's love of sports and in his early teens - backed by the AFI - he succeeded in starting a high school league.
"He had been on the sidelines of the football field since he was five years old," recalls AFI President Steve Leibowitz, the editor of IBA English News on television. "Yosef had a special personality. He was a leader on the field and off. He set an example of real sportsmanship."
Leibowitz says he remembers when Yosef approached him about setting up a high school football league.
"He came to me and said he wanted to play. I told him he was too young to play in the national league, but said, 'Let's see if you can bring the kids and then we can set up a high school league,'" says Leibowitz. "He managed to get four teams together, even bringing out Israeli-born kids who had never seen a football before."
Yosef's death came as a big shock to all the members of the football association, says Leibowitz.
"He was a real centerpiece of the league. His death was a tremendous loss," he says, adding that it was a unanimous decision to rename it "The Yosef Goodman High School Football League."
"At the moment of his funeral, he was meant to have been playing a game," says Leibowitz, who was among those who spoke at Yosef's graveside.
As well as the outpouring of support from the AFI, the community of Efrat and the family's former congregation in New York have shown their love and appreciation for the Goodman family.
In Efrat, the community put on a production of Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (See Page 24) in Yosef's name; and his former school, the Meled (Mercaz Lemida Dati) High School in Jerusalem has created "Keren Yosef," a sports program in his memory.
In New York, the Lincoln Square Synagogue, where the Goodmans held Yosef's brit mila, is planning to hold a Memorial Day ceremony for him.
Of all the support, however, Mordechai says that it is that of the IDF that has been most touching.
"I think a person can die in many ways," he says. "It could be some sort of accident or it could be in the army. Yosef died in the army, and the Israeli army is a whole different world. It is like a family."
He goes on to describe the outpouring of sympathy he and his family received from Chief of Staff Halutz, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and hundreds of other soldiers, some of whom knew his son personally and others who had only heard that he'd been one of the IDF's top soldiers.
"We didn't just get a letter saying, 'Sorry your son died.' The entire Israeli army mourned with us," he says. "Yosef was a fine example to the other soldiers of the strength needed to be in an elite unit."
"All these things are not going to bring our son back, but it gives us a lot of comfort to know that he was recognized and appreciated," says Ann.
"There are two events that every person has to go through in life," Mordechai sums up. "Birth, where there is always a mother and usually a father. And death. The people present at the funeral depend on the impact a person has made on the people around him during his life.
"Thousands of people came to Yosef's funeral - civilians and soldiers came to pay their respects at Mt. Herzl. That he was only 20 years old and was already respected by so many says a lot about him. The army is a small community, and when someone does well and succeeds, the word travels beyond the unit. People came to his funeral and to our home because they had heard about him. That is his legacy."
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