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by Judy Lash Balint
Israel Insider
May 3, 2003

I last wrote about Cheryl Mandel almost exactly two years ago. Cheryl was one of those I interviewed for an article about how women in Gush Etzion were holding up under the constant barrage of violence. She was articulate and open and held little back.

At the time, she told me how she worried about Gabriel, then in 12th grade, who finished basketball practice in Jerusalem too late to catch the bullet-proof bus back to their home in Alon Shvut, one of the larger communities of Gush Etzion. She related how she kept in constant touch with Gabriel by cellphone as he hitched a ride back home.

Cheryl didn't say much about her other four children. Two of her sons, Daniel and Jonah, were already serving in the IDF, a married daughter lived close by.

But thirty six hours before Pesach, Cheryl and her husband David received the devastating news that one of those two sons, Daniel, 24, had been killed while commanding an operation to rout out terrorists in Shechem.

The efforts of Daniel's elite reconnaissance unit were successful--the terrorist responsible for the murder of dozens of innocent people at the bus stop in French Hill and at the old Tel Aviv bus station was killed in the early morning raid.

Later that afternoon, Daniel was laid to rest at the Kfar Etzion cemetery, a few moments drive from his home. Thousands gathered in the central square of Alon Shvut for the eulogies. In the midst of last-minute Pesach preparations, friends and fellow soldiers dropped everything to stand in stunned silence as family members struggled to find words to express their grief over their profound loss .

The normally quiet streets of the predominantly religious community were packed with vehicles as hundreds from Jerusalem and the neighboring villages in the tight-knit Gush Etzion area converged on Alon Shvut. Dozens of military vehicles lined the roads as the square quickly filled with scores of soldiers from Daniel's unit, identifiable by their bright green berets.

It seemed incongruous to be burying a 24 year old on such a beautiful spring day. It was the kind of day where a 24 year old in most other countries would be off jogging or biking after a day at work or graduate school. But the destiny of Daniel and his men, Tzevet Mandel (Mendel's team) as they were known, is quite different. They form the backbone of Israel's defense system.

David and Cheryl were acutely aware of this destiny when they made aliya from Toronto 15 years ago. "We accepted that this is a young country where there were difficulties and we were willing to stand up to the challenges before us. When our eldest son Jonah went into the Army, we felt he was serving his country in the best way he could, and that since his work was dangerous, there might be a price. When our son Daniel went into the Army, we knew and we accepted that there might be a price. Unfortunately, like many other parents of soldiers, we have now paid the price for the security of our nation," Cheryl wrote recently.

At the funeral, Cheryl managed to gather the strength to speak about her son and the responsibilities he had taken on himself. "Daniel fell so we could have a peaceful chag (festival)," she said. It was not difficult for any of us standing there to understand the meaning of her words. The memory of last Pesach and the massacre at the Park Hotel in Netanya was fresh in our minds.

David and Jonah Mandel addressed words to their beloved son and brother lying before them. Friends spoke about Daniel as the focal point of their group. If Daniel didn't show, it meant nothing would happen. They mentioned his musical talents and positive outlook. Most of the soldiers stood off to one side of the square--most with downcast eyes. As more and more young people arrived, they clasped each other in wordless hugs.

After the eulogies, Daniel's body was escorted to neighboring Kfar Etzion. David and Cheryl clasped hands. There was no way for them to see the thousands who stood behind them, filling the main street of their community, as far as the eye could see.

Because of the Pesach holiday the Mandels didn't have the comfort of the formal shiva ritual . But even without the formal ritual period, a constant flow of Daniel's friends and fellow soldiers joined David and Cheryl's many friends at their home all during Pesach.

In a reversal of the natural order of things, Cheryl's mother Gerry Males arrived from Canada to console her daughter and her remaining grandchildren. Gerry doesn't say much as she sits in the Mandel's home during Pesach, but it's clear that she's overwhelmed with emotion. She says just being around Daniel made her feel good.

David and Cheryl are resolute as they receive their visitors. "Why aren't we crying," Cheryl asks Rabbi Avi Weiss who has flown in from New York. "Maybe it's because we realize he died doeing something for all of us," Cheryl answers herself.

Cheryl tells us that Daniel had once told a friend at the funeral of another soldier: "If this is the price we have to pay, then I'm willling to pay it."

The stories about Daniel are only beginning to trickle out to his parents from the dozens of friends who have come to share their mourning. "He influenced so many people,it was almost as if he knew that his time was to be short," Cheryl muses.

Daniel spent 18 months studying at the yeshiva in Atzmona, scene of a deadly terror attack six months ago. After the incident, Daniel went back to spend time with the students and teachers.

His actions were typical of the young man whom his mother described as "having a fire inside him," because of some of his more "energetic" activities. An accomplished musician, Daniel would often send his soldiers out on an exercise and park himself in a jeep with music playing. His men would always find their way back to him through the music.

Just a few weeks before his death, the Mandels had attended the ceremony marking the completion of his soldiers' training. His soldiers and their parents praised Daniel as a wonderful role model. "They appreciated his caring and strong leadership, his commitment to his country. At the time I thought it sounded like a eulogy...." recalls Cheryl.

David Mandel, a respected psychiatrist, tries to make sense of the tragedy through his professional training. He is fully aware that the full force of the loss has not yet hit the family.

There's a slight smile on his face as he retells stories about his fallen son in a soft voice. He relates how a man in shorts who had met Daniel just once, came to pay his respects. David speaks about his pride that Daniel's soldiers carried the Mendel Team name. "So many Mendels were lost in the Shoah," he explains.

Cheryl is already thinking about what the family will do to commemorate Daniel's life. "He was a clear kid with strong passions," she says. "Torah, the army and music were what motivated him." The memorial project will incorporate those three loves.

The phone rings--it's a soldier who trained with Daniel. News of Daniel's death had just reached him in Mongolia and he called to share his feelings with the Mandels.

A few days later, on the one week anniversary of his death, the ceremony of the first visit to the grave takes place. Daniel lies near the top of the small hilltop cemetery of Kibbutz Kfar Etzion, "the most beautiful cemetery in the world, " Cheryl calls it. The family and dozens of soldiers and friends surround the freshly dug grave, where two bullets lie atop the mound.

One of the eulogies is delivered by a member of Tzevet Mendel. The young soldier addresses his fallen commander: "We were honored to be your soldiers. We learned so much from you...You loved this land so much, and we did too. We know how much you cared about us. How you always wanted to hear what was going on with us. You loved the rain--even when it fell into our food. You played the piano for us..."

Another of Daniel's friends in uniform told Daniel how the men were "keeping our heads up and trying to make you proud. You were like a parent, a brother and a teacher to us. You had and will continue to have an influence on our lives."

David Mandel's words were filled with the agony of loss. "You gave us everything. You were a son, a fighter, a brother...In the end, you will be forever..

After the Keyl Mole Rachamim prayer, we file past the grave to clasp Cheryl or David. Many of the soldiers drop to their knees to place a stone on Daniel's grave and whisper some final words. The Mandels are surrounded by a sea of green berets--Daniel's comrades who all want to share a word.

Daniel Goldfus was Daniel Mandel's commander for more than a year. In the past three months he's lost two soldiers in battle. Goldfus calls Daniel Mandel "a very special team leader."

"He was a very quiet soul. Nothing would get him off balance," Goldfus explains. "He believed so much in what he was doing and he was able to convey that to his guys. He was always direct with his men and gave them a lot of respect. In turn, they became self reliant and proved themselves during battle under Daniel's command."

Goldfus says the men are dealing with their loss by talking amongst themselves, and by continuing to carry out their difficult tasks successfully to honor their fallen officer.

Two other soldiers were injured in the incident that took the life of Daniel Mandel. One remains hospitalized in serious condition.

After the graveside service, a busload of soldiers comes back to the Mandel home. The young men and women in uniform, guns slung casually over their shoulders, crowd into the living room to watch videos of the last army tiyul with Daniel. Laughter fills the room-- balm for the Mandels.

On the stairs, unused gas masks are waiting to be stored away. Next to them lays a pile of books--the top one is entitled "Helping Your Child Sleep Through The Night." If only it were just the night.....