As we observe Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day, our hearts are with the victims and the families of the victims of yesterday’s car-ramming attack in Jerusalem.
I had just finished extensive training in the Israeli navy and I felt invincible. Alongside the other members of my unit, I felt like we could achieve any mission set for us and could accomplish any task. Growing up in Israel, I always knew that military service was part of life, and key to keeping our Jewish state strong and safe. I also knew that it came with a very real and heavy toll.
After a gap year dedicated to community service, I joined Unit 13, the Israeli Navy’s equivalent to the U.S. Navy Seals, and began the 18 month training course for that unit. The friends and teammates who I trained with became my brothers and we forged deep connections. We knew each other better than anyone else. This is why I can tell you, with complete confidence, that Gal Azulay, my brother, was the messiest person I have ever met.
Gal spent every dime he had hitchhiking and traveling the width and breadth of Israel. He always needed a haircut and he always knew where to get a beer. But with all of that, Gal was a fiercely loyal friend who stood by his teammates no matter the consequence. Once, I was assigned to swim a very long distance in very cold water in a very short amount of time. Instead of going inside to take a hot shower, Gal defied our commander to swim the sprint with me. I failed and had to swim the length over and over. Gal stayed up the whole night with me, swimming with me, and encouraging me until I was able to swim fast enough to complete the task.
Shortly after we completed our training, our friend and comrade, Gal, was killed in an operational accident. Every year on Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day, I think about Gal, and what his life meant to me and to the country we both love.
My deep love for my country is rooted in my experience growing up on Kibbutz Degania, the first kibbutz founded in Israel. Outside the gates of Degania are the remnants of a Syrian tank that was overpowered by Israeli forces in the 1948 War for Independence before it could enter and destroy the kibbutz. Walking past this tank every day reminded me of the sacrifice of Israel’s establishment and its continued existence.
Living on a kibbutz taught me the ethos of serving a community. Each person on the kibbutz works towards goals that are bigger than themselves. Even within my own family, the values of service and sacrifice were deeply ingrained in me from a young age. Both my father and grandfather served in the military; my grandfather served as a paratrooper and my father was wounded in the Yom Kippur War. I always knew that military service for our country came with a price, but it was a critical part of preserving a Jewish state.
Losing Gal changed who I am as a person and as a leader. From Gal’s dedication to his teammates, I learned to value open and honest communication. I learned that I was not invincible and that caring for my own physical and mental health, as well as the health of the people I love, was my true top priority. It was this lesson that carried me through my service and my career beyond the Navy.
Gal’s sacrifice for the State of Israel is one of too many made over the years. Today, on Yom HaZikaron, we remember Gal Azulay, and each person who has lost their lives so that our beloved country and people may continue to grow and thrive.
Omri is the East Coast Coordinator for the Jewish Agency Israel Fellows at Hillel International. After leaving the Navy, Omri focused on his passion for social impact and community service in the public sector. Omri believes in connecting Jewish communities outside of Israel with Israeli culture, language, and people and is excited to be working with the Jewish Agency Israel Fellows in his new role.