Benji Hillman fell last summer; now his family, friends and soldiers are building a haven for the lone soldiers for whom he cared so much.
By MARIAN LEBOR
It is 8:15 on the morning of Friday, May 25 in Ra'anana. Some 720 liters of water, 2,000 cups, 50 stewards, two megaphones and 1,200 white T-shirts and caps are in place. The first community sponsored walk in memory of Major Benji Hillman z"l is about to begin.
I am standing at my post with three other stewards at the walkers' first water point, out of sight of the start line. We have no idea how many people will be walking, so we lay out a few hundred cups of water in prettily arranged rows. The lookout steward a few meters down the road tells us the first group of serious power walkers is on its way. "I don't believe it!" he shouts a minute later. "Get hundreds more cups of water ready - quickly!"
We pour non-stop, gazing up only briefly to take in the fantastic sea of white that is about to descend upon us.
In fact, more than 1,500 people participated in the walk, which has so far raised more than NIS 250,000 for Habayit Shel Benji, Benji's Home, a hostel for lone soldiers which will be built in memory of Benji Hillman in his home town of Ra'anana. Several weeks after the walk, donations are still arriving from walkers and people who couldn't participate but want to support the project.
British-born Hillman, a company commander in the elite Egoz unit, was killed just three weeks after his wedding. The shocking juxtaposition of joy and mourning only increased the heartbreak for his young widow, Ayala, and the couple's family and friends. During the shiva mourning period, an endless fund of stories emerged about the unstinting efforts he made on behalf of all his soldiers, particularly "lone soldiers" (hayalim bodedim) who have no direct family in the country.
These soldiers, who are here from abroad or come from disadvantaged backgrounds in Israel, do not have a comfortable home to go to while on leave. Hillman had several such boys under his command, and he was acutely aware of their circumstances and did everything he could to help them.
Although his family and friends were grappling with the overwhelming tragedy of his death, they nonetheless decided almost immediately that they must continue his legacy. The idea of building Benji's Home was formulated and the Benji Hillman Foundation was established in August 2006 to raise at least $2 million. The foundation has already secured almost three-quarters of that amount, as well as land allocation from Ra'anana municipality.
David Rurka, Benji's uncle, had the idea of organizing a community sponsored walk early in 2007. "My whole family was involved with raising funds for Benji's Home, and I wanted to make my own contribution. I'm a keen walker, so this seemed an ideal event," he recalls.
Rurka brought together a small organizing committee to deal with all aspects of the walk, which would take walkers from Ra'anana Park into the paths and tracks of the surrounding fields toward neighboring Rishpon and Bnei Zion. Three alternative routes were prepared: a three-kilometer route for schoolchildren and those who wanted a short walk, and five and 10 kilometer routes for more serious walkers.
The success of the walk surpassed Rurka's expectations. "The walk was designed to raise community awareness of Benji's Home as well as raising funds, and I hoped that there might be about 500 walkers," he says. "I couldn't believe my eyes when wave upon wave of people set off on the walk. It was a fantastic community effort - by the walkers and the large band of volunteers who helped with the organization. There was a palpable feeling that people were there because they wanted to do something tangible to remember Benji, and the walk gave them the opportunity."
Benji's Home will be staffed by a house mother and supported by volunteers. It will literally be a real home for 50 lone soldiers, giving them meals, a laundry service, access to computers for communicating with their families abroad, and help in finding work and continuing their education after their army service. Above all, Benji's Home will provide a warm and supportive environment for the soldiers.
Ron Kramer made aliya from Canada and served in the IDF as a lone soldier 10 years ago. He came with his wife and their two young children from their home in Nahariya specially to participate in the walk. "I wanted to show my support for this project because I know from my own experience how important it is," he explained. "It would have made such a difference to me if there had been a place like Benji's Home when I was on leave from the army."
Fifteen members from four generations of one Ra'anana family walked the three-kilometer route. Shoshana Levy, aged 85, joined her children and grandchildren on the walk. Her 18-month-old great-grandson participated in a baby carrier on his father's back. "We've just had a lovely morning's exercise and raised money for this excellent cause. It's the least we can do," she said. Between them, her family raised NIS 3,500 in sponsorship for Benji's Home.
Various facets of Hillman's life were represented on the walk: pupils from Ariel elementary school in Ra'anana, boys from the midrashia in Pardess Hanna, young men from the Eli pre-army academy, and soldiers from the Egoz unit. At the end of the walk, a close friend of Benji's from Egoz expressed what many people were feeling: "This amazing turnout is a wonderful show of support for the family and for the project, but it's bittersweet. It's still difficult to grasp that we are here 'in memory of' Benji."
While nothing can really ease their pain, Hillman's family is trying to focus on building something positive for the future. "We can't change what has happened, so we are concentrating on making sure that Benji's legacy of caring for all the soldiers in his command is continued," said Danny Hillman, Benji's father. "After this first success, we hope that the community walk in support of Habayit Shel Benji will become an annual event on the Ra'anana calendar."
For further information, visit www.benjihillman.org. or call Saul Rurka 052 662 2851; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Benji's Legacy, a short film about Benji's Home made for Esravision community TV for English speakers in Israel, airs throughout June on Mondays at 10:30 pm and on Tuesdays at 9:30 am on HOT (either 98 or 25) and YES (98).
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