This story has all the makings of a riveting work of fiction. After discovering the Creator of the world, a family of geirim from Mexico came to Eretz Yisroel and settled in a religious community near Yerushalayim. Their son, Yishai, attended yeshiva before enlisting in the army. Two weeks ago, Yishai was killed in a training accident in Tze’elim. Nothing about the story makes sense, the bereaved father says. Yishai was stationed in Beit El, but then he was suddenly moved to Tze’elim. It is clear that this was a gezeirah from Shomayim.
The Yated visited the grieving family in Moshav Beit Meir, where Yishai’s father, brother and uncle asserted that this is a sign of Moshiach’s imminent arrival.
It was a Tuesday evening when I paid a visit to Yeshivas Ohr Elchonon in Yerushalayim. The yeshiva is located in the neighborhood of Givat Shaul, near my home. My youngest son is a talmid in the yeshiva, and I have a good relationship with the entire faculty. When I saw the mashgiach, Rav Mordechai Fish, I hurried to ask him, as usual, to share a vort. Rav Fish does not need to expend any particular effort for that purpose; he is always prepared to share a delightful devar Torah.
This time, though, I could see that there was something wrong. His usual radiant smile was replaced by an expression of sorrow. “What happened?” I asked in trepidation.
His response only confirmed my fears: “We have had a tragedy.”
Rav Fish always chooses his words with the greatest care. If he could make such a statement, then it meant that a genuine tragedy had occurred. I tried to conjecture if the tragedy had taken place in his own family or in the family of one of his talmidim. One year ago, a student in the yeshiva passed away and was mourned by the entire yeshiva. The bochurim spent an entire year learning in his memory. The levayah even began at the yeshiva, rather than at the bochur’s home in Neve Yaakov. Ohr Elchonon is more than merely a yeshiva. It is a family. Even the alumni of the yeshiva remain connected to it for many years after their time there, which speaks volumes about the yeshiva itself.
I did not have to speculate for long, though, for Rav Fish quickly explained himself. “Aharon’s son was killed!”
Aharon is an employee of the yeshiva. He is a somewhat older man, born in Mexico, who lives in the community of Moshav Beit Meir, near Yerushalayim. The turnoff for Moshav Beit Meir is located on the highway approaching Yerushalayim, just before Telz-Stone. All of the students of the yeshiva feel a close connection to Aharon.
Aharon was brought to the yeshiva by his brother, Yosef, who has been working there for a long time, approximately twenty years. The two brothers are extraordinary men, blessed with unique temperaments and known for their great dedication to the yeshiva and its students. If a bochur feels unwell or hungry, he turns to Aharon or Yosef Russels for help.
The two brothers are geirim; they were born in Mexico as non-Jews. The story of their journey to Judaism and Israel is an incredible one. As non-Jews, they discovered Hashem and decided to join His people. Giving up their status and their jobs in Mexico, they came to Eretz Yisroel with barely a penny to their names. Although they had no resources, it was important to them to come to Eretz Yisroel, the land of the King of kings. Yosef lives in Tel Tzion, which is a chareidi settlement of sorts. His brother, Aharon lived in the neighboring community of Kochav Yaakov until two years ago, when he resettled in Beit Meir, which is closer to Yerushalayim.
The mashgiach’s words echoed in my ears. “Aharon’s son was killed!”
“When? How? What happened?” I stammered.
“Didn’t you hear the news?” Rav Fish asked me. “A soldier named Yishai Russels was killed in an army training exercise. He was Aharon’s son. It is a terrible tragedy.” He added that the levayah had been postponed; the family was waiting for Aharon’s daughter to return from abroad.
The levayah was held two weeks ago, at 1:00 on Wednesday morning. The turnout was sparse. The family is not particularly well-known and naturally has few relatives. Nevertheless, many soldiers came, as did people who did not know Yishai or his father but had heard about the tragedy. And, of course, the entire Ohr Elchonon family was in attendance.
• • • • •
Reports of the accident shook the country. The Tze’elim base, a large army training base in southern Israel, has become synonymous with disasters and oversights. In June 1990, a tragedy at the base took the lives of five soldiers and wounded ten more. In November 1992, another disaster in Tze’elim resulted in the deaths of five soldiers from Sayeret Matkal. The incident was seared into the public consciousness as a result of a journalist’s report that established that the Chief of Staff of the IDF, who was present during the training exercise, left the scene during the course of the disaster. This accusation haunted that Chief of Staff, Ehud Barak, for years after. Ever since that time, anyone who wanted to insult him would mockingly call him “Ehud Barach” (“Ehud ran away”).
And now another tragedy has hit the Tze’elim base, one that may yet again be the result of negligence. The media has already designated the incident “Tze’elim 3.” The day after the accident, I saw the following report: “A tragic incident has occurred at the Tze’elim base in the south. Lieutenant Yishai Russels of the Netzach Yehuda battalion was killed yesterday afternoon in an explosion of a mortar shell during a training exercise at the base. Another soldier was lightly wounded. Lieutenant Russels’ funeral will take place tomorrow night at 1:00, at the military cemetery on Har Herzl.”
The report went on, “The accident took place after the mortar shell landed unintentionally, for reasons that are unclear, near a group of soldiers who were training in the area. Initial details from the investigation indicate that during a commanders’ course, there was an exercise at the base with the collaboration of Battalion 75 of Division 7 of the Sharon brigade. During the exercise, a soldier from Battalion 75 fired a mortar shell, presumed to be 81 millimeters in diameter, which accidentally struck Lieutenant Russels, who was standing not far from the spot and participating in a different exercise. Russels was struck by shrapnel from the shell and was critically wounded. His death was pronounced shortly thereafter. After his death, Lieutenant Russels was posthumously promoted to the rank of captain. Another soldier, who was lightly injured, was evacuated by helicopter to Soroka Hospital in Be’er Sheva and was treated in the emergency room.
“Major General Guy Tzur, the commander of the Ground Forces, announced that training exercises at the base would be suspended until the end of the initial investigation. In addition, Tzur appointed a team of experts under the command of Colonel Ophir Levi, the commander of the Armored Corps, to investigate the incident. The IDF’s initial assessment is that it was a case of human error that led to the officer’s death. Among other issues, the army is investigating whether the error was that of the soldier who fired the shell or the individual who gave the order for the shell to be fired. The experts’ investigation will also examine the possibility that it was a technical failure.”
By the day after the incident, some had already concluded that it was the result of a grave oversight and that the army would have to learn a lesson from its failure. One week later, it turned out that the army itself had reached the same conclusion. To date, several serious defects have been exposed in the army’s handling of the exercise. First, there was no security official present during the training session. Second, the mortar shells were fired by soldiers who were not trained in handling them. High-ranking officers were standing 300 meters away from the mortar fire, exposing them to the same danger. The soldier who fired the mortar was a member of the Armored Corps, which meant that he was accustomed to firing from the turret of a tank, rather than from the ground. And the commanding officers who are supposed to issue orders and supervise the shooting were not even present.
Regardless of the negligence involved, there was no question that the accident was Divinely orchestrated. Aharon Russels, the father of the soldier who was killed, told me that his son’s unit wasn’t even supposed to be present. They were originally in Beit El, and they were ordered, for reasons that are unclear, to attend the training session in Tze’elim. Originally, they were never supposed to be part of the training. Furthermore, they weren’t even particularly involved in the exercise; they were merely sitting on the side. Yishai, a commander in the religious Netzach Yehuda battalion, was sitting calmly off to the side with his soldiers when the mortar hit him. It was all min haShomayim.
• • • • •
Yishai’s friends in Beit Meir, his fellow soldiers in the army, his rabbonim in Netzach Yehuda, and his family members all describe him as a special young man. They all emphasize three aspects of his personality: his yiras Shomayim, his perennial smile, and his determined avoidance of lashon hara.
On Motzoei Shabbos, I visited Moshav Beit Meir to pay my respects to the grieving family. I was accompanied by two of my sons: the one who is currently a student in Ohr Elchonon and his brother, who studied there in the past. They are both friends of the family. We turned off Highway 1, the main thoroughfare connecting Yerushalayim and Tel Aviv, and drove for a distance of about four kilometers on an extremely narrow, winding road. It was a bit of a frightening drive. At the entrance to the community, a note on the bus stop bore the name of the Russels family and an arrow pointing to the right. We made a right turn and immediately found ourselves at a large mourners’ tent.
The tent was overflowing with visitors. A bus was parked outside, and I saw that it had brought about 30 soldiers, presumably members of Yishai’s battalion. As I entered, one of the soldiers was telling the family about Yishai. “I am short,” he said, “and my height has had a negative effect on my self-image, but even more than that, it has made it difficult for me to carry out tasks in the army. I am especially ill-equipped to carry heavy things. I am unable to carry equipment or a stretcher. Yishai always encouraged me. He would say, ‘Look, I’m also short, but with a little effort we can succeed.’ He was my commander and he was supposed to be tough with me, but instead he was gentler than anyone else. I feel that I owe him a tremendous debt. There was a time when he literally gave me his hand and helped me walk.”
Yishai’s father listened silently as the soldier spoke. “I am constantly hearing stories about Yishai,” he remarked to me.
“Does that surprise you?” I asked.
“To be honest, no,” Aharon Russels replied. “They are telling me exactly what I know about him. They talk about his good heart, his responsibility, and his smile. I am discovering that in the outside world, he acted in exactly the same way as he did at home. Sometimes,” Aharon added, “a father finds that the well-behaved child he knows from home isn’t the same way outside. After all, a father can’t know for certain what his son is doing in the outside world. He might be an angel at home, while he behaves completely differently everywhere else. But Yishai wasn’t that way: He was the same at home and anywhere else he went. He was a good person, who always wanted to help and who was always smiling.”
“You made a kiddush Hashem,” I commented, referring to Aharon’s reaction when he learned about the tragedy. At that time, he was interviewed by a number of media outlets, and he responded to all of them with the same message: “I have no complaints against Hashem or against the army. Hashem decides what happens and He knows what He is doing.” Aharon’s words stunned everyone who heard them, certainly the chiloni audiences who are used to hearing bereaved fathers expressing their grievances and pointing accusing fingers, demanding that anyone responsible for an accident be punished. Yet this father, with his astounding refinement and nobility, simply accepted Hashem’s judgment.
Aharon did not respond to my question. “You know what a kiddush Hashem is, don’t you?” I asked. “You are going through a difficult nisayon. Avrohom Avinu endured ten nisyonos, and the most difficult of all was being prepared to sacrifice his son, Yitzchok.”
Aharon nodded, tears filling his eyes.
“It is important that this sacrifice not be in vain,” I added. “All of us must take on kabbalos in his memory.” The other visitors agreed with me. Even the soldiers asked what commitments they should take on.
I told Aharon that the bochurim of the yeshiva shared his grief, that they did not even know what to say. He listened in silence. “I love them as well,” he finally said. “I know how to appreciate a yeshiva bochur who sits and learns. Yishai was also in yeshiva,” he added, “until he decided to join the army.”
Everyone was silent. The atmosphere was charged. The tent was packed with visitors. In the middle of the tent stood an electric heater. A table off to the side was laden with nuts and beverages, in keeping with the minhag of Sefardic communities. I found myself choked with emotion and fell silent, as did everyone around me.
Finally, I said to Aharon, “Tell us something about Yishai. After all, you knew him better than anyone else.”
Another son, Michoel, was seated next to Aharon. Michoel and Yishai were more than brothers. He had already told the media, and he told us again, that he and Yishai were inseparable. They were like twins. They loved each other deeply. His pain now was unfathomable. Suddenly, a gaping void had opened in his life. Instead of two sons, Aharon is now left with one, along with his three daughters.
“What can I tell you?” Aharon said. “I listen to what everyone else is saying and I am astounded by what I am hearing.”
One of the soldiers spoke up. “Yishai was always happy.”
A man from Kochav Yaakov added, “He always followed through on anything he said. Whenever he made a decision, he carried it out.”
Someone else added, “Whatever he did, he always did it in the best possible way.”
“And in the quietest way,” said another soldier.
“His friends are all correct,” Aharon said. “He always followed through on every decision he made, and he was always happy. That was one of his most prominent traits. He was never sad. He was that way since he was a child.
“I remember taking him to yeshiva when he was a young man. It was his idea, not mine. ‘Abba,’ he said, ‘take me to a yeshiva.’ He learned in Yeshivas Be’er Yehuda in Neve Yaakov, and then in Yeshivas Be’er Aharon in Yerushalayim.
“He used to come to Ohr Elchonon to take me home. He would wait outside until I was ready to leave. I would bring him a sandwich so that he would have something to eat, and he would blush. ‘Abba,’ he would say, ‘why do you trouble yourself for me?’”
Aharon embraced his other son and said, “Yishai and Michoel used to come to shul with me. They would sit next to me every Shabbos, Michoel on one side and Yishai on the other. They never talked or wandered around during davening. They just sat and davened, like big boys. Even when they got older, even when they joined the army, they would come and sit on either side of me.”
One of the leaders of the Kochav Yaakov community remarked, “The Russels family was a pillar of the shul.”
Stories about Yishai continued to flow. Michoel, his older brother, related that Yishai set an example for him – with his middos, his relationship with his parents, and his seriousness in life. “It was impossible to see him getting angry,” Michoel said, “because he was never angry.”
Aharon added that he once saw his daughters wearing new shoes and asked where they had gotten them. “Yishai bought them for us,” they replied.
“Yishai was always the one to offer help,” someone from Kochav Yaakov added. “Whenever he passed a car that had broken down, he would stop and remain at the scene until the problem had been resolved.”
“What can I say about him?” Aharon said. “He was simply the embodiment of goodness.”
“Was the army in touch with you?” I asked. My intent was to find out if the army had offered to assist the family in the aftermath of the tragedy, but they understood that I was referring to the investigation into the accident. Aharon replied, “I wasn’t really interested. There is an investigation. They are managing it fine.”
After my visit, a family member approached me to ask for my help. “Before the levayah, some men from the army came and had Aharon sign a document. He was very emotional and he doesn’t understand Hebrew very well, so he doesn’t know what he signed. We are a little bit concerned,” the relative said. “They are very innocent.” I promised to look into the matter.
This entire episode is truly heartrending. The family has undergone enormous upheavals. There were 13 children. Two passed away, three remained in Mexico, and eight converted. Yosef is the dominant brother. He is a true ben Torah, and his sons learn in yeshivos. There is unmistakable Hashgachah Protis in the story of the Russels family as a whole and Yishai in particular in their journey from Mexico to Kochav Yaakov, and from there to a yeshiva in Yerushalayim and the army base in Tze’elim, where Yishai’s life came to an end. Their story has all the ingredients for a fascinating novel, but it ends with the tragic loss of Aharon’s son.
“The entire story is incredible,” Aharon declared. “It is completely unnatural. We can see that it was a gezeirah from Shomayim.”
As I left, I was accompanied by Yosef, Yishai’s uncle, who wore an expression of profound sadness over the loss of his beloved nephew.
“Yishai was a wonderful child,” Yosef told me. “He showed his parents incredible respect. If they made only the slightest hint that they wanted something, he would do it right away. He was an incredible young man. He never argued with anyone or complained about anything. He never uttered a bad word about any person.
“Once, Yishai came home and we saw that he was limping a bit, but he didn’t tell us why. After we pressured him, he revealed that an Arab had thrown a rock at him. It had missed his head by a centimeter, and it hit his leg instead. He didn’t want his parents to know; he didn’t want them to suffer because of him.
“These are all signs,” the bereaved uncle concluded. “Moshiach is on his way.”