Life is basically a bunch of experiences, strung together over time. Most of these experiences are mundane- going to school, the bank, lunch with friends. But some change who you are and how you see the world. Last night, I had one of those experiences.
Israel experienced the tragic reality of a ground war yet again, when 13 brave soldiers from the Golani brigade faced a tank explosion in Gaza. Two of these soldiers were chayalim bodedim, or lone soldiers. This means that their families live outside the country, and they are here in the IDF in Israel essentially on their own. One of the soldiers was a young man from Texas named Sean Carmeli. His parents were Israeli and moved to Texas to raise a family. When he was in high school, Sean moved back to Israel without his parents, to finish school and then join the IDF. He was a sergeant in the Golani brigade infantry, and he was just 21 years old.
Whenever there is a chayal boded, there is a fear that his or her funeral will be forgotten, or poorly attended. After all, they are not from here, they grew up in another country and their family and friends generally live abroad. Therefore, social media took over, publicizing Sean's funeral details for anyone who wanted to attend. The Haifa soccer team (Sean was a huge fan) put the details on their Facebook page, the Michael Levin Lone Soldier Center publicized the details. I heard about the funeral at 7 PM and made an impulsive decision to take the next bus to Haifa (about 2 hours away) to attend Sean's funeral.
There were a few reasons I made this decision. Most obvious is that I wanted to pay final respect to a soldier that had given his life for his country and his people. But more than that, I felt a pull, a need to represent American olim, those of us who had grown up as American Jews like Sean, spoke English like Sean, loved America like Sean, but decided to move to our Homeland. His story was similar to that of Michael Levin, another lone soldier, killed in the second Lebanon War. An American kid, filled with a tremendous Zionism, I always wished I could have met Michael, or attended his funeral. It was important for me to do whatever I could to represent American olim for Sean Carmeli.
The experience of getting there is a story unto itself. After arriving in Haifa, a city with which I am extremely unfamiliar, I asked everyone on every platform if they were going to the funeral, or if they knew where it was. No one was, and I started to worry. I finally got vague directions and boarded a bus to the cemetery area. As the bus made its stops, it began to fill. And fill. Until at the cemetery stop, the bus was standing room only. Once off the bus, all you could see was people. People on foot, in cars and on buses. People in uniforms and plainclothes. Men and women (and a few children), religious and secular, Hebrew and English-speaking. It was an absolute mass of humanity, all at a cemetery at 11 PM in Haifa to pay their last respects to a soldier they never even met.
People (myself included) hopped over fences and ringed the graves, jostling for a spot to see something, to hear something, to be a part of the community. Haifa weather is most unlike Jerusalem. In the summer, the air is as stifling at night as it is during the day, still and humid. It was not a comfortable feeling, but it felt appropriate for the time- it was not a comfortable situation. Bodies parted as his coffin, draped in the Israeli flag, was carried through the crowd by Sean's comrades, followed by his grieving family. Instructions were given to the crowd in case a siren should sound- get to the ground quickly, cover your head. It was our new grim reality here in the midst of our communal grief.
Prayers for the IDF and the people of Israel were recited. Sean's father recited the most heartbreaking kaddish for the crowd- the cries of "Amen" filled the air. The mayors of Ra'anana and Haifa spoke, as did his high school principal. They talked about how he loved sports and his girlfriend, how he was a good student, and how his family were pillars of the Texas Jewish community where they live. His family recently became more religious, and Sean spent some time before the army learning in yeshiva. How Sean would talk about his family when he was with his unit, and his unit when he was with his family. How Sean was told he didn't have to serve right now, due to a wound on his foot but chose to stay with his unit in their time of need. They mentioned his ever-present smile, and always positive attitude. There was even a speech in English, enabling me to soak up every word I could about this impressive young man, taken way too soon. I was able to get to know this beautiful boy who I would never actually know. The service ended with a gun salute, and the crowd dispersed.
Estimates of attendance were between 12-40,000 people. We did not know Sean. But we all loved him, and wanted to thank him for his sacrifice. It is because of people like Sean that we are able to live in our Homeland. What struck all of us in attendance most was the absolute sense of unity we felt as a Jewish nation. When you are in grief for a fallen soldier, religious differences and cultural differences and political ideologies are forgotten. We all, every one of us, lost our brother Sean Carmeli, and we all came to mourn our fallen hero. May his memory be a blessing to his family and the whole nation of Israel, and may we all know no further sorrow.