Yom Kippur: Remember the debt Israel owes to its soldiers - opinion

How much we owe to the valor of the Moshe Levys of our country! They’re still holding the ground, not shirking their duty and devotion.

 RAISING A toast (from R): Moshe Levy, chairman, Hadassah International Israel; Dalia Itzik, chairwoman, board of directors, Hadassah Medical Organization; and Yoram Weiss, director-general, Hadassah Medical Organization.  (photo credit: AVI HAYUN)
RAISING A toast (from R): Moshe Levy, chairman, Hadassah International Israel; Dalia Itzik, chairwoman, board of directors, Hadassah Medical Organization; and Yoram Weiss, director-general, Hadassah Medical Organization.
(photo credit: AVI HAYUN)

Moshe Levy. The name is so common, you might think it’s John Doe or Everyman Israeli. Even a pseudonym.

The man on stage is indeed Moshe Levy. I’m in the trendy Tel Aviv nightclub and music venue Zappa. Across the highway, the Azrieli Towers and the cluster of other skyscrapers are lighting up the sky – always a thrilling reminder to me of how a glorious city can rise from sand dunes to become one of the world’s most important business and hi-tech centers. When I travel abroad, I find to my surprise that not everyone understands me when I tell them that I live in Jerusalem. I have started saying “Tel Aviv,” and they immediately know I’m from Israel.

Tonight, I’m at a pre-Rosh Hashanah gathering, which is also a fundraiser for Hadassah’s newly rising Gandel Rehabilitation Center on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem. Moshe Levy, a 76-year-old prominent businessperson, has taken on the chairpersonship of this effort and of tonight’s event. He knows about rehabilitation firsthand and has a personal debt to pay Hadassah, he says, for saving his life.

Levy was born in Tunisia, where the Nazi bombing in the Battle of Tunisia took the lives of his two siblings. His parents moved the family to Israel in 1948. He was eight when his father died of the wounds from World War II. In young Israel’s no-frills school system, Levy didn’t finish high school before serving in the IDF. In 1973, he was married and a father. He had broken his patella in a car accident and was still recovering when Israel was taken by surprise with the attack on Yom Kippur. Because of his injury, he didn’t have to serve. He went anyway. Sgt. Levy, Special Forces, was assigned to be a half-track commander in Sinai.

One hundred and twenty tanks were poised to annihilate Levy’s 98 soldiers. The most religiously observant soldier in Levy’s company started reading psalms for strength in what looked like a hopeless battle. It galvanized the soldiers, including Levy. 

 IDF medical crew evacuating an injured soldier from the battle field during Yom Kippur War (credit: IDF FLICKR) IDF medical crew evacuating an injured soldier from the battle field during Yom Kippur War (credit: IDF FLICKR)

Said Levy, “I felt close to God and pledged that if I survived, I would put on tefillin every day. I told the soldiers that we weren’t here to protect Tel Aviv. We were here to protect the history of thousands of years. We were here to protect the past, the existence and the future of our people.”

“I felt close to God and pledged that if I survived, I would put on tefillin every day. I told the soldiers that we weren’t here to protect Tel Aviv. We were here to protect the history of thousands of years. We were here to protect the past, the existence and the future of our people.”

Moshe Levy

Have I mentioned that Moshe Levy has only one arm?

On October 15, he took part in an attempt to rescue soldiers trapped by an Egyptian ambush in what was called the Budapest Outpost, the only Israeli bunker on the Suez Canal to withstand the Egyptians’ devastating offensive on Yom Kippur. The Egyptians were waiting for Levy’s men with Sagger missiles. Levy’s half-track was hit in its caterpillar tracks and made immobile.

He raised his right arm to give a signal, and a Sagger missile cut it off at the elbow. His troops were stunned to see their commander lose his forearm. Levy ordered the men out of the half-track, which then suffered a direct hit. Certain that he was bleeding to death, Levy – still limping from the car accident – walked toward the Egyptians. Some say the Egyptians were stunned to see a limping, one-armed man confronting their fearsome tanks. They didn’t shoot.

Whatever the reason, Levy came within 10 meters of their outpost. He couldn’t fire his Uzi, but he could carry a grenade in his left hand. Feeling himself weakening, afraid he would lose consciousness before carrying out his plan of exploding together with his grenade near the Egyptians, he rolled the grenade forward. It blew up the outpost. He was so close to the Egyptians that he was wounded by shrapnel and knocked down. When he got up, he was shot in the back.

The Egyptians retreated.

Levy was airlifted to Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem. He was, of course, in critical condition.

The hospital halls were lined with patients as the daily toll of wounded rose.

That I remember. 

I was a new immigrant. My friend Mona was a nurse. My upstairs neighbor, Prof. Hillel Blondheim, was a doctor there and brought back daily reports. The Blondheims’ cousin was a surgeon. She flew in from abroad to help.

My friends and I, mostly teachers whose schools were closed because of the war, volunteered to distract the soldiers with stories and English lessons between surgeries at kibbutzim Kiryat Anavim and Ma’aleh Hahamisha, outside of Jerusalem. Men badly wounded but resolute to get back to life.

Levy was too badly wounded to leave the hospital between his many surgeries. He must have improved his English on his own because eventually the high school dropout earned a degree from Harvard. Even with a single arm, he learned to fly a plane.

In those days, I was moonlighting – teaching and holding down a second job selling appliances to new immigrants at the sales offices of Murray Greenfield (today 96, may he be well!). Through my job I bought a TV, a washer and a dryer. Jerusalem was blacked out, and friends came with flashlights at night to my rented ground-floor apartment to watch the single-channel black-and-white TV and wash their clothes. There was no fuel delivery, and the British-made dryer we sold had a feature that enabled it to serve as a room heater as well. We huddled close and watched the censored news, not realizing how close we were to losing our country. We wrote daily postcards to everyone we knew at the front and hoped we’d hear back.

No one who has experienced the surprise and shock of the attack on Judaism’s most sacred day, Yom Kippur, will ever forget it. Who would have guessed that today, in 2022, every Jewish festival in Israel and around the world is a potential flashpoint for continued violence requiring extra security and closures?

Moshe Levy can’t keep his pledge to put on tefillin with one hand. Instead, he has spent most of his life working for Israel’s security and diplomacy and contributing to the good of Israeli society. He has earned Israel’s rarely bestowed Medal of Honor, Gibor Yisrael.

At the Tel Aviv celebration, he lifts his left arm high, holding a glass of ruby red Cabernet to wish us all a good and sweet New Year.

How much we owe to the valor of the Moshe Levys of our country! They’re still holding the ground, not shirking their duty and devotion. I now have a grandson among them – already a third-generation soldier from our immigrant side. Other grandchildren are undergoing the challenging qualifying tests to give their best to the country.

When the celebratory evening ends, the Tel Aviv air is balmy, and the sky clear. I tilt my head back to admire the sparkling skyscrapers. As Moshe Levy says, the brave men and women are not just protecting Tel Aviv but thousands of years of history, our existence and our future. We owe them a debt. May God keep them safe. 

The writer is the Israel director of public relations at Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. Her latest book is A Daughter of Many Mothers.