Benjy Hillman, z"tl. Hero of Israel by Judy Lash Balint
July 21, 2006
July 21, 2006---Five Israeli soldiers were buried today. Among them was Benjy Hillman, 27, z"tl, the son of one of my oldest friends. Benjy was a major in the elite Egoz unit of the Golani brigade, who was killed fighting Hezbollah terrorists in southern Lebanon last night.
Just three weeks ago, 600 of us celebrated as Benjy and his long-time girlfriend, Ayala Burger, finally got married after going together for many years. The pure joy of the two families who had become good friends over the long on-off courtship, was palpable. Ayala, accompanied by her happy parents and radiant in her beautiful wedding dress, walked down the path toward Benjy, who waited for her under the chupa with his trademark shy smile.
Today, in the military cemetery of his home town of Raanana, Ayala walked toward Benjy again. This time, however, she was supported by Benjy's younger brother Shimon and her father, her young face contorted in pain and grief. Instead of approaching the chupa, as she did three short weeks ago, she drew close to the simple wooden coffin draped with an Israeli flag that held the remains of her new husband.
Benjy and Ayala's story is a story of the ingathering of the exiles. Ayala's family immigrated from Argentina around the same time as the Hillmans made aliya from England, when Benjy was four years old.
Danny & Judy Hillman and their three small kids made aliya many years before I did. They came so they and their children could lead more fulfilling Jewish lives. Over the years, they grew in their Jewish learning and quietly began helping out whenever and wherever they saw people in need.
Today, all of the Hillman's close relatives on both sides of their family live here in Israel. Benjy left two grandmothers, his parents, a brother and sister, brother-in-law, nieces, and many aunts, uncles and cousins.
Benjy's mother, Judy, and I were best friends from the time we met when we were 11 years old. We were part of a small group of girls who sat in Kingsbury shul together during the late 1960s, giggling over the boys, or complaining about our old-fashioned parents. We went to the same youth movement events and parties, and shared the agonies of teenage dating. We spent countless sleepovers in each other's homes, talking most of the night as we dreamed of our futures.
Even though we belonged to a religious Zionist youth movement, I honestly don't remember if we ever seriously discussed living in Israel. Those decisions came later.
At Benjy's wedding a few weeks ago, we huddled with Michelle, a third member of our Kingsbury group, and marveled at the fact that here we all were, almost 40 years later, with all of our kids (except for one of mine) here in Israel, celebrating each other's simchas. We danced like mad at the joy of our continuing connection and at the launching of yet another beautiful family in Israel from the fruits of our aliya. Today, just before the funeral, we all fell upon each other in grief, as we tried to assimilate the grim reality that it was not to be.
Like parents of all IDF soldiers, Judy and Danny experienced anxiety and worry over their sons. For most parents, it lasts for a few years. But Benjy committed himself to a career serving his country and spent most of the last nine years on Israel's frontline.
Judy began to recite Tehillim (Psalms) as a source of comfort and strength. As the IDF rabbi recited one of them at the beginning of Benjy's funeral, Judy mouthed the words off by heart.
Thousands turned out to escort Benjy on his last journey. His coffin arrived at the cemetery in an olive green army vehicle. An honor guard of soldiers from his beloved Golani brigade led the way to his grave as hundreds of other soldiers and friends hugged each other and wiped their eyes.
The eulogies were exquisitely painful. Each one reflected on Benjy's modest but strong character and his strong Zionist convictions. Judy winced as one of the rabbis read a paragraph of a letter Benjy had written four years ago to the parents of his friend, Ari Weiss, z"tl, who was killed fighting terrorists. Benjy wrote that Ari had died as a hero and would always be remembered that way. Benjy promised that he would carry on the struggle for Israel's safety and security.
Benjy's father, Danny, thanked Benjy for bringing so much honor to the family. Benjy's best friend told Ayala and the Hillmans that he and his friends would make sure they would never be alone, and an Egoz commander told them that they would always be part of the Egoz family.
Shimon, himself a handsome, tall, proud IDF officer, addressed his older brother for the last time. "You fought in so many battles," Shimon said quietly. "But you never told us any of the details." One of the things they did discuss, Shimon said, was what their lives would have been like had their parents not decided to make aliya. "You could have been a carefree student, but you were so grateful to be living in the Jewish homeland, so glad that we had the chance to appreciate the importance of the land, the Torah and defending the people of Israel."
During the hour-long funeral service, the honor guard stood motionless at attention in the mid-day sun. Every ten minutes or so, their commander came up behind each one of them with a squeeze of the shoulder, a whispered word of concern, offering a bottle of water.
It took hours for the huge crowd to pass in front of Benjy's grave and offer their condolences to Benjy's family.
From now on, when you sing the "Bo-ee Kallah" verse of the Lecha Dodi prayer that welcomes the Shabbat bride, think of Benjy and Ayala and the price they and their families have paid for their commitment to the land of Israel.
And keep in mind all our soldiers who are on the front lines of the fight against terror as they defend the people of Israel.