The Hillman family of Ra'anana decided a home for lone soldiers would be a fitting memorial for their fallen son.
By MEREDITH PRICE
'Not a day goes by without something setting off an attack of crying," says Danny Hillman quietly, his elbows resting on a pair of black pants as he leans forward and clasps his hands together. "But we have to carry on. The alternative would be to fall into a deep depression, and Benji would not have wanted that."
Hillman's eldest son, Maj. Benjamin "Benji" Hillman was one of the first soldiers to be killed in the war in Lebanon. On July 20, along with three other soldiers who served in the elite Egoz unit, Hillman, 27, lost his life in what was described as a heavy, cross-border battle with Hizbullah in Northern Galilee.
The response to his untimely death, just three weeks after his marriage to long-time girlfriend Ayala Borger, was overwhelming. Hundreds of mourners visited the family home in Ra'anana during the shiva to pay their respects and share their memories of Benji.
The stories told introduced the family to a Benji they knew little about. Tales of his bravery, his leadership capability, his treatment of his soldiers were largely unknown to his parents. "Benji didn't like to talk about himself," says Danny Hillman. "He wasn't purposely evasive; he just kept some parts of his life separate from his time with family and friends."
Partially inspired by the picture his fellow soldiers painted, Hillman's family decided to honor his memory with a project that would reflect the values Benji upheld during his lifetime.
"Benji wanted to serve his country, and he did it so well and from such a place of giving that everyone around him felt it," says Shimon Hillman, 24, Benji's younger brother, who serves in the Golani Brigade and was also supposed to fight in the war. Instead, he sat shiva.
"Every time someone found out I was Benji's younger brother, he always told me how amazing he was. One of them said that Benji kept him from going AWOL. He was always trying to help his soldiers. They were one of the things he cared about most in this world."
In memory of Benji, the family decided to start the Benjamin Hillman Foundation. Its central project, Habayit shel Benji, involves the building of a 1,400-square-meter, 18-room house in Ra'anana that will provide 40 lone soldiers (both those without family in Israel and those from underprivileged homes) with a home away from home, 365 days a year. The project is headed by one of Benji's cousins, Saul Rurka, but many other family members are involved. The Hillman family has raised nearly $400,000 for the project, but Rurka estimates that another $1,100,000 is needed.
Click here to visit the Benji Hillman memorial site
"We kicked around a few different ideas at the beginning," says Rurka, whose third-floor apartment in Tel Aviv is currently doubling as a workspace for the fund-raising efforts. "We decided on this because we knew that Benji was the type of officer who stayed on base with his soldiers, even for holidays and vacations, if they had nowhere else to go. Our project is just an extension of what he did in his life."
After contacting the army, sending out a questionnaire to lone soldiers in Golani units and meeting with groups of lone soldiers, Rurka concluded that three elements were necessary for the project.
"Based on the research we did and the coordination efforts with the army, we came up with a three-part plan," he says. The first part of the project involves the house itself, for which land in Ra'anana has been pledged by Mayor Nahum Hofri.
"The house will provide a place for the lone soldiers to go during vacations and holidays. It will have a large garden, a communal hang-out area and a gym. We will also have a housemother, who will wash the soldiers' clothes and cook for them."
As the second part of the project, a number of volunteer families will "adopt" the soldiers, giving them emotional support and making sure they are taken care of, especially after army ceremonies and during religious holidays.
The last element is one that Rurka sees as extremely important because it provides a way to help lone soldiers stay in the country after completing their obligatory service instead of returning to their native lands.
"Many soldiers who don't live in Israel told us that they left after the army because they couldn't find themselves here," he says. "We want to provide an educational and practical tool to help them find the right school, rent an apartment, open a bank account or pretty much anything else they want to do or need to do but don't know how to go about."
"For Israel to lose these combat soldiers who are willing to leave their home countries and fight for the land is a shame, and the least we can do is help them stay if they want to."
This objective also corresponds to what the Hillman family imagines Benji would have wanted. According to his father, despite having English roots and speaking both Hebrew and English as native languages, Benji strove to be completely Israeli.
THE HILLMAN family made aliya to Ra'anana in 1983, when Benji was four, his brother Shimon two and his sister Abigail six. Today, Danny Hillman owns a stationery shop in Ramat Aviv, and his wife Judy works as an editor for Eric Cohen Books. "We wanted our children to have a better environment, more freedom and a safer place to live than England," says Danny Hillman.
At 14, Benji decided to attend a boarding school in Pardess Hanna. "It was the thing to do. It was what the hevre were doing," says Hillman, a smile crossing his face at the memory of Benji's fierce independence.
After taking his matriculation exams, Benji attended Eli, a pre-army religious training academy. Most graduates go on to serve as officers in elite units, and Benji was no exception. "By the time Benji reached the age to serve in the army, we had been here for almost 15 years," says Hillman. "It was the natural thing to do. We would have been upset if he hadn't."
It also seemed natural for Benji to become an officer. "Benji wanted to be a soldier in Egoz because he wanted to be near the action," says Ariel Levanon, one of his dearest childhood friends. "He didn't know he would be an officer, but everyone else did."
Levanon says that Benji had a great sense of humor and was known for his practical jokes. "His wedding was one of the happiest events in our social group, and he and Ayala were the couple everyone loves. Unfortunately, they didn't have time to go on a honeymoon."
For the Hillman family, knowing that something is being done in Benji's name offers some comfort. "It's a small continuation, but we think this legacy is what he would have devoted himself to if he could," says Danny Hillman.
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