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Those Magnificent Young Men
Dani and one of his former teachers at Beit Elazraki
by Judy Lash Balint
November 20, 2006

Dani Aharanov graduated at the top of his class and excelled in his high school matriculation exams. He was accepted at two top universities without having to take the psychometric exam (the Israeli SAT). Before taking up his studies, Dani put in two years of army service in a crack combat unit and serves to help protect the country in the recent Hezbollah war.

None of this is so unusual in Israel today, except that Dani, a short, bespectacled 20-year old with a shy smile was raised from the age of 5 in an Emunah Children's Home. Beit Elazraki, a spotless collection of 1970s vintage concrete buildings located on a quiet residential street in northern Netanya, is the only home Dani has known. It's a place where almost two hundred kids from dysfunctional and disadvantaged families are cared for and educated in a warm, Torah observant environment.

When the time came for the ceremony and party marking the end of his platoon's training and the commander was searching for a place that could accommodate around seventy people, Dani invited the guys back to his home to celebrate. The party had been postponed from July 12, the day the war broke out. Instead of a celebration that day, Dani and his buddies were quickly sent north where they served until a month after the war ended.

Last week, the young men in uniform gathered in the courtyard of Beit Elazraki, not knowing quite what to expect. As they file into the main hall decorated in their company colors and adorned with professional banners congratulating them on completing their training, they clap Dani on the back and compliment their commander on his choice of venue.

When Beit Elazraki director, Yehuda Kohn invites them all in to dinner in a dining hall decked out in the purple and white company colors with tables set with all manner of delicacies there are more murmurs of appreciation. The Beit Elazraki kids who serve them are more than a little in awe of the handsome, fit soldiers who casually lay down their weapons in a pile just outside the door and assign one private to watch over them. The food and drink and casual conversation heavily sprinkled with army slang flow as the soldiers relax in the friendly environment.

After the meal, Dani helps direct the squadron to the seats arranged in the hall, as dozens of his Beit Elazraki brothers and sisters gather on the balcony and the stairs to take in a little of the army atmosphere.

It's clear that these particular soldiers are members of an elite brigade (the IDF won't let me identify the unit by name). Their bearing and their behavior towards one another and the Beit Elazraki kids give it away. Amongst the chevra are a number wearing knitted kipot; a few Ethiopians; several with Russian accented Hebrew and a majority who are just plain native born Israelis´┐Żbut none are prouder than Dani who gets a front row seat for the video presentation and award ceremony that follows.

The creative video filmed by a few of the guys in the unit includes a few hilarious clips of them making fun of their commanders and the endemic lack of sleep along with some more serious footage of some of their battle maneuvers and even some news clips of their latest exploits.

After those designated as "outstanding soldiers" receive small trophies and framed certificates, several members of the squad get up to speak. Most are amateur stand-up comics who poke fun at various aspects of their two years as a unit. Finally, one of their former commanders takes the podium and the atmosphere changes as the 26 year-old who now works in high tech tells them how proud he is of their valor. "Every time I see what you're doing reported on the news, I take pride in you all over again," he exclaims.

Their current commander is the final speaker of the evening. "It's not so easy these days to sign up for a combat unit," he says quietly. "But you did, and you've excelled. Kol Hakavod!"

"You never know what will change the life of a child´┐Ż" Yehuda Kohn says as he gives Dani a fatherly hug goodbye.

Just outside the door, the bus is waiting to take Dani and his friends back to the new front, where they're fighting in Beit Hanoun to stop the Kassam rockets that are terrorizing Sderot, Ashkelon and the western Negev.