OU ISRAEL’S PROGRAM FOR SOLDIERS NAMED FOR HER SONS
Unlike in other countries, Memorial Day (Yom HaZikaron) in Israel is the day before Independence Day (Yom HaAtzmaut). For newcomers and visitors, this transition from mourning to rejoicing may seem strange. The reasoning is that while Independence Day marks the day David Ben-Gurion proclaimed the nascent country’s independence in 1948, Memorial Day is a reminder of how many people have died to establish and maintain the country. This includes victims of terrorist attacks.
There are a number of unique events on Yom HaZikaron, which starts this year at sundown on Sunday May 4 and ends 24 hours later. The day begins with a nationwide siren which is repeated at 11:00 AM the following morning when the entire country comes to a standstill. Tourists may be taken aback as drivers stop their cars on the side of highways and on city streets, get out, and stand at attention outside their cars for two minutes. Everyone in Israel knows someone to be remembered.
During the day, families visit military cemeteries and there are memorial programs all over the country. TV broadcasts are suspended. Instead of Grey’s Anatomy or Game of Thrones, the names of the fallen, including the date they died, are broadcast. This year the total will reach an estimated 24,000 names.
The last event of Yom HaZikaron is the lighting of 12 memorial torches at a public military ceremony on Jerusalem’s Mt. Herzl, which is also the location of one of the country’s main military cemeteries.
This year all of those lighting torches are women. The group, which is quite diverse, includes the first Ethiopian immigrant to be appointed Israel’s ambassador to Addis Ababa, the CEO of Intel Israel, Olympic and Paralympic athletes, a former Knesset member, an IDF major general, an Israel Prize winner who worked to promote an ultra-Orthodox lifestyle based on social openness and higher education, an actress, a computer engineer from The Technion, the founder of a women’s business venture in an Israeli Arab village, the manager of a center to help victims of sexual assault, and the main military reporter for Israel Radio (Kol Yisrael).
The final woman chosen to light a torch this year is Miriam Peretz. An educator and mother of six, she lost her son, Uriel in Lebanon in 1998 and her son Eliraz, in Gaza in 2010. Her husband, Eliezer, died of a heart attack in 2005. Shirat Miriam, her autobiography, was published in Hebrew in 2011.
A deeply religious woman who was born in Morocco in the mid-1950s, she has a special relationship with the Golani Brigade, where both of her sons served, and with OU Israel, which has a program for soldiers called Mashiv HaRuach (Return the Spirit). The program is named for her sons.
“When Eliraz was killed, I said at his funeral that I didn’t want anything built in his memory,” Miriam Peretz says. “I wanted something spiritual. When the OU decided to name the Mashiv HaRuach program in memory of my sons, I knew this was the proper thing to do.”
“OU Israel designed Mashiv HaRuach to help IDF soldiers develop the spirit they need to do their jobs,” says Rabbi Avi Berman, Executive Director of OU Israel. “We also help them learn about the history of Zionism and the IDF. The idea is to stimulate their love for Am Yisrael,” he says.
“I’m incredibly proud that the OU decided to memorialize much more than my sons’ names,” Peretz says. “Mashiv HaRuach memorializes their spirit.”
Several thousand soldiers attend Mashiv HaRuach programs annually. Most of the programs are at the program’s headquarters in Gush Etzion (Etzion Bloc of settlements) south of Jerusalem. “They come for a few days and leave with a better understanding of why they are fighting in Gaza or Jenin,” she continues. “Mashiv HaRuach exposes them to the source of the spirit of Am Yisrael.”
Seeing the Future
What is remarkable about Miriam Peretz is her inner strength. Her stories are often difficult to hear – even for IDF soldiers who routinely carry the most advanced submachine guns and are prepared to use them.
She motivates her audiences through insight based on faith. “I meet with about 2,000 soldiers every week,” she says. Many are in the IDF’s officer’s training course. This means they are the IDF’s future leaders.
She recently visited an IDF base where she got a glimpse of the future. Her escort, a young officer, took her into a room full of television screens showing satellite feeds from Israel and elsewhere. She describes the soldiers who were working there as “children.” They are mostly about 19 years old.
“Despite their youth they help manage the IDF from the air,” Peretz says. “They tell the IDF how, when, and where to deploy.”
She asked if they were aware that because of a single satellite image, they are saving lives. “Do you understand the real meaning of your work,” she asked.
“They do good work,” her escort told her, “but they need a deeper understanding of their connection to Eretz Yisrael and Am Israel.”
This is Miriam Peretz’s forte.
She told them about her visit to the US in 2012 in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, the second costliest hurricane in US history.
“I was on Long Island and I saw huge trees lying on their sides. In the course of the storm, the Hand of Gd touched them and they fell to pieces. How is this possible?”
“When I got closer I saw that these giant trees actually had very shallow roots.” Her message to the soldiers:
“You must always remember that if you don’t have deep roots, any wind that comes along can uproot you. If you aren’t connected to your roots and your history, how can you possibly understand the significance of your job?”
The development of technology means that Jews no longer have to defend themselves with primitive equipment as was the case several millennia ago. “Today we have banks of computers and the most advanced weapons,”she says. Nevertheless, today’s soldiers are fighting the same fight as Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a student of Rabbi Akiva who was the spiritual leader of the Bar Kochba Revolt against Rome in 135 CE. “They are fighting to be able to learn Torah, to be able to live as Jews.”
The point is, as she told a group of soldiers, “Am Yisrael is always fighting for our freedom. As long as this struggle continues, we need soldiers.”
She shows her strength when she speaks personally. Her audiences know that she lost two sons in combat. “My message is that it’s like they’re participating in a relay race when you run and pass the baton to the next runner. We’re a chain of generations. And now it’s their turn.”
“You’re here to make certain that Eliraz’s children and all the other children who lost their fathers and mothers can continue to live here,” she told them. “That’s your job. “
Leadership and Heroism
When talking to IDF officer candidates, she tells stories about her sons that explain the real meaning of leadership.
“Leadership is so much more than just knowing how to fight,” she says. “Good leaders are also part social workers. I tell them they must really know the soldiers under their command.”
Whenever she speaks her messages are crystal clear. It is not unusual for her to speak to a group of several hundred soldiers for more than an hour. They are all riveted to their chairs.
An example: Recently one of Uriel’s former soldiers brought a group of bar mitzvah boys to meet her. They wanted her to talk about heroism. “These boys thought that heroism means dying for our country,” she says.
“But I told them that I learned from my sons that heroism is learning to live for our country.”
“Heroism isn’t just about being willing to die. First you have to be prepared to give of yourself, to live a life based on chesed (kindness) and zedaka (charity). You have to love your brothers. You have to be able to honor one another,” she told them.
This same former soldier was with Uriel in Lebanon. “He told me at the shiva that Uriel knew in his heart of hearts that he was going to be killed.” She discusses this with emotion that is both palpable and controlled.
His friend told her that Uriel was leading a group of 15 combat soldiers that night. Uncharacteristically he kept telling them to keep their distance from him. “He told us ‘If you get too close to me, you’ll die with me tonight,’” his comrade in arms told her.
The soldier kept his distance and stayed alive. Uriel climbed up on a boulder that had six explosive devices on it. “Just before he died,” his mother says, “he was thinking about the safety of his soldiers. ‘I may die, but they won’t.’”
Uriel’s soldiers gave her a piece of that rock which is black from the explosion that killed her son. She keeps it as a reminder of him.
The story continues.
Seven years later Eliraz was also fighting in Lebanon. “He knew he was exactly where Uriel was killed,” Peretz says.
When he came home, he brought his mother part of the same boulder. “But I was confused because it is white,” she said.
“He explained to me that the sun shined on the boulder and then the rain cleaned off the blood. Flowers are growing there. Ima, the world moves on.”
He told her to put the white stone along with the black stone. “But how can I forget the awful fire that took place there?”
“Look closely,” he told me, “and you’ll see a black stripe in the white rock. But most of it is white.”
Today she keeps both stones in a model of the Second Temple in her living room.
“With Gd’s help when the Temple is rebuilt, other people will bring gold and silver to help with this holy task,” she says. “All I have to bring are two stones. One black and one white. I’ll ask that when the Temple is rebuilt, these two stones will be included.”
“And then I’ll say to the Kadosh Baruch Hu (the Almighty):
‘These stones represent Am Yisrael. Our history is one of Shoah (Holocaust) and Tekumah (Rebirth). Black and white. I’m bringing You these stones that represent my two sons. As a credit to them, I pray that You will build a Temple of peace and tranquility so that other parents won’t have to bring any more stones to the Temple.”
Test of Faith
Peretz says that anyone who has experienced a personal tragedy naturally has serious questions of faith.
“When Uriel was killed in Lebanon, I said to the Almighty, ‘What did you do?’ But then my husband died. And then Eliraz was killed in Gaza. That’s when I asked ‘What do you want from me?’ I felt like Job,” she says.
“I talk with Gd a lot. Sometimes I actually scream to the heavens. I have learned that there is no answer to the questions I always come back to: ‘Why me?’ ‘Why my children?’”
But instead of obsessing on the question, “Why me,” Peretz has decided to ask what she can do about this situation.
“My relationship with Gd is like a couple that is dancing. Sometimes He pulls me toward Him and sometimes I lean on Him. Other times I feel that He pushes me away a bit. But no matter what, I always love to dance with Him. And I always find a shoulder to lean on and I find consolation,” she says. “I don’t have a husband to share this with. And I lost two of my sons. But despite these personal tragedies I feel that I love the Almighty more and I’m closer to Him even though he didn’t perform any miracles for me.”
Peretz often tells groups that the test of one’s faith is not that you love Hashem when things are going great. She explains: “When a woman who hasn’t been able to get pregnant finally gives birth, of course she loves Hashem.”
“But what happens when our dreams don’t come true? When the Almighty hurts me, does that mean I don’t love Him? No, that’s when you face the true test of faith.”
“You may not believe this,” she often tells groups, “but I love Him even more now than I did before. Why? Because I feel Him in everything I do. I meet Gd all the time.”
Crossing the Red Sea
“When Israel left Egypt, of course we sang as we crossed Yam Suf (the Red Sea). After all, we experienced a miracle,” she says. Her story takes a personal twist: “I also have a Red Sea to cross,” she continues. “Mine is two meters wide. My sons are buried two meters from each other in the same section of the Mt. Herzl cemetery in Jerusalem.”
“When I am on Mt. Herzl I walk between their graves and I feel as if I’m drowning in sorrow. I go to their graves. That’s the stark reality. There are no miracles for me at the cemetery.”
The Hebrew word for miracle is nes. But she explains that nes is also a banner. “I took my personal tragedy and turned it into a banner of faith. When I leave the cemetery, I wash my hands and go on with my life. I gather strength from Mt. Herzl and from my sons. And I go to spend time with my grandchildren.”
“The Almighty decided to let me live,” she says. “I don’t know why. But that’s the reality. This is my test of faith. The real test of belief comes when life is hard. And that’s when I meet Him.”
Eliraz was killed just before Pesach 1998. Six months later for Yom Kippur, his widow and their children came to Peretz’s house. “I took the children to beit knesset. I was in the women’s section and was holding the hand of his daughter who was then three years old.”
The scene is familiar to Jews everywhere. It was almost the end of the fast and they opened the Ark for Neilah, the final prayers of the day. As in synagogues everywhere, you could hear a pin drop. Everyone was light-headed from fasting and deep in thought. All of a sudden this three-year old shouts: “Savta, where is my Abba?”
“What could I possibly tell this small child who was looking for her father? I said to the Almighty, ‘Please give this baby an answer.’”
“On our way home, we didn’t pay attention to her for a split second, and she fell down several flights of stone stairs. Then she got up and walked away without a scratch.”
“That was my answer,” Peretz says. “The Almighty showed me that He is the father of the orphans and widows.”
Give Strength to the Weary
Having lost her husband and two of her sons, Peretz finds all holidays difficult. In particular, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. “It’s as if every word of the prayers were written for me,” she says.
As an example, she finds the Torah reading on the second day of Rosh Hashana to be especially meaningful.
The narrative tells of the binding of Yitzhak on Mount Moriah in Yerushalayim.
“This was obviously written for me,” she says, “even though in the end, Avraham didn’t actually sacrifice Yitzhak. But I sacrificed two sons. I had this experience because there was no ram to take the place of my sons,” she says. “All of the tefillot on Rosh Hashana are connected to me personally. They are part of my overwhelming sadness.”
In the midst of her heartbreak, Peretz looks for consolation in the davening. “I focus on the fact that the Almighty promises us better days,” she says. “My faith becomes stronger because I know He ultimately decides who will live and who will die.”
“I ask the Almighty to comfort me and to give me energy to continue. I also ask Him to look after Eliraz’s children.”
“Whenever life is hard for them I tell my children and grandchildren to cry out to Gd because He hears them. This is a mother’s greatest nightmare,” she says. “Both my children and my grandchildren are orphans.”
“On Rosh Hashana I ask the Almighty to give us only good news. Please inscribe us in the Book of Life,” she says. “I tremble as I ask this because I know what death is all about. I know what it means for a mother to bury her children.”
“I also know the meaning of both good news and bad news. Bad news is the three soldiers who knocked on our door. Twice. They were not the three angels who came to Avraham to tell him Sara was going to give birth to a son. These were three soldiers who came to tell me I lost my sons.”
On Rosh Hashana, with the sounds of the shofar, “I know what it means to cancel bad decrees. I feel this to the depth of my being. I’m not just saying words. I go through this every day of my life.”
“That’s the reason I feel my prayers are not just prayers for my children and grandchildren. My prayers are for all of Am Yisrael. My prayers are so that no other family will ever have to experience what I have.”
“When I speak to other bereaved parents I tell them it’s a miracle that my heart continues to beat. I was sure that when Uriel was killed, I lost half of my heart. And when Eliezer died, I lost the other half. What was left when Eliraz was killed?”
“Despite everything I’ve gone through I still have the potential for compassion, for love, and for life. Gd gives me strength for this.”
‘When I Meet Gd’
People occasionally ask Peretz what she will say if she ever meets Gd.
“Instead of speaking to Him, I’ll give him two gifts. The first is thorns,” she says.
“When Uriel would come home from training exercises, he would fall asleep and I would pull the thorns out of his body. They were all over him – from head to toe. I saved them,” she says.
When she meets Gd she will give him one thorn. “Uriel used to tell me that I could make a small garden with the thorns I removed from his body. ‘But these aren’t ordinary thorns,’ he would say, ‘they’re the thorns of Eretz Yisrael.’”
When speaking to groups of soldiers Peretz often tells them that they should expect a lot of thorns. “They should expect hard times.”
The other thing she plans to give Gd is two little boxes. One with earth from Eliraz’s grave and one from Uriel’s grave. “I’ll tell Gd that I understand He has to make difficult decisions every day. Who will live and who will die. Where there will be beautiful weather and where there will be storms. . .”
“I also have a difficult decision to make,” she says.
“Every time I go to Mt. Herzl I have to decide which of my sons I’ll hug first. Uriel or Eliraz. It’s very unusual for a mother to have to make this kind of decision. If I go to Uriel first, I hear Eliraz calling out to me. And if I go to Eliraz I hear Uriel calling me. I’m torn between the two of them. Whatever decision I make is painful. I’ll give Gd this little bit of earth to remind Him that mothers shouldn’t have to make decisions like this. I’ll tell him: ‘Please, don’t make other mothers go through this.’”
Despite everything she has been through, Peretz is amazingly positive. “I really don’t have anything to ask Gd. I just want is to hear my sons call me Ima one more time. This is all I want from the Almighty.”
“My prayers are based on the need to visit my sons and my husband. I want to earn the right to go to them through my actions, my kindness, and my love. Please Gd, give me the strength to be Your messenger.”
In a country that does not lack bereaved mothers, Miriam Peretz stands out because even though her story is overwhelmingly sad, she has turned it into a chronicle based on faith and optimism. Her willingness and ability to speak frankly about what she has experienced and what she believes, provide inspiration and motivation for other bereaved parents and for all of Am Yisrael.
On Yom HaZikaron this year she will light a memorial torch at the main public ceremony on Mt. Herzl, very near the graves of her sons Uriel and Eliraz. At this moment she will no doubt be trembling with emotion.
“I hope at the moment when I light the torch, the sparks from the flame will cause the heavens to open so that I can see a smile from my husband and my sons,” she says.