Students learn about Israel’s fallen soldiers

MONTREAL — The Israeli consulate is encouraging Montreal Jewish high school students to get to know Israeli soldiers killed on duty, as well as civilian victims of terrorism. The goal is also to help the kids understand the impact these deaths had on the families.

Judith Epstein, left, whose brother Daniel Bitton was killed while serving in the Israel Defence Forces, shared his story with École Maïmonide St. Laurent students Jonathan Amar, Ortal Cohen, Gisele Weizman and Vanessa Ifrah. Teacher Elliott Newman is at right.

The students are matched with Montreal-based relatives of the deceased to take their testimony.

The Yom Hazikaron (Israeli memorial day) educational project, organized with the Bronfman Jewish Education Centre (JEC), is in its third year, and all the mainstream Jewish high schools now take part.

The consulate’s public affairs officer Hector Dana said the objective is to make the students feel closer to the State of Israel and the experience of its people in defending the country.

This spring, four Grade 10 students at each of the six schools volunteered for the project. They first met with a “mentor” from the Israeli consulate to be introduced to their subject. Their task was not only to learn how he or she died, but what they were like personally and how the surviving loved ones have coped with their loss. They met with the relatives at their home and gradually pieced together the story.

The students then prepared a short tribute to the fallen soldier or civilian on DVD. These were presented at a public event held recently at the Gelber Conference Centre.

The students at Maïmonide’s St. Laurent campus were matched with Judith Epstein, whose brother, Daniel Bitton, was killed on May 15, 1978, in a head-on collision with a truck driven by an Arab, an incident which was found to be deliberate.

Bitton, a career soldier who first entered the army in 1967 and fought in the Six Day War, was driving home from his base in the Gaza Strip. He was 29 and the father of four children under the age of five.

The students learned that “Dani” was born in Morocco and arrived with his family in Israel in 1952. He was one of nine siblings raised on a moshav near Be’er Sheva, in the Negev, among pioneering Jewish settlers. He loved soccer.

The students asked Epstein about his personality, beliefs, and even the clothes he liked. Above all, she told them, he was close to his family.

The students tried to grasp the family’s extreme grief and the consequences of his death. Bitton’s parents left the moshav for Be’er Sheva to help his widow raise the children, and every week visited Bitton’s grave. His wife still lives in the same house.

Although 32 years have passed and she has lived in Montreal for 19 years, Epstein still mourns her brother. She usually travels to Israel on Yom Hazikaron.

Epstein said that, although it brought back painful memories, she was pleased to speak to the teens, show them photos and share her feelings. She was impressed by their interest and maturity. To her, the project is a way of ensuring her brother’s sacrifice is not forgotten.

The students, guided by English teacher Elliott Newman, produced a seven-minute video to complete their project

“Being with Mrs. Epstein, going to her house and hearing about the stories, I really feel as if I lived it with her,” said student Gisele Weizman. “When I hear that someone died in Israel, I feel the pain, like it was one of our brothers.”

“At first we didn’t know what we were getting into,” admitted Ortal Cohen, who now thinks “ it will influence the way we see a lot of things… It’s sad. What a waste! It should never have happened.”

“This was a good experience, something we have never done before,” said Vanessa Ifrah. “It was interesting to learn about a person’s life. We really felt the emotion.”

Jonathan Amar was impressed with Bitton’s devotion to the country, expressed through his decision to return to the army after his compulsory service, despite the danger.

Newman noted that Maïmonide students already have a strong connection to Israel, but this project has strengthened their identification with the state because it deals with the difficult subject of death and bereavement in a very personal way.

Hebrew Academy’s project was on Moshe Finkel, who died in the 1956 Sinai campaign, and they worked with his brother Abraham Finkel. Herzliah Snowdon learned about Alexander Shnayderman, who was killed while on reserve duty in the war in Lebanon in 1985, from his son, Safir Shnayderman. Herzliah St. Laurent paid tribute to civilian Gabriel Dahan, who was killed in a 1956 terrorist ambush. They met with his brother, Yitzhak Dahan. Maïmonide Côte St. Luc met with Rachel Dahan and Maurice Shoshan, whose sister, Monique Soussan, died in a road accident while in service in 1977.

The Bialik students’ project was particularly real for them. They honoured Montreal native Yehoshua (Jason) Friedberg who was murdered in 1993 at age 25. His brother, David Friedberg, told them how the Concordia University graduate went to Israel in 1991 during the first Gulf War and volunteered for army service. In March 1993, he was captured and killed by Hamas.

All of the participating students were presented with certificates by Israeli Consul General Yoram Elron and BJEC director Karen Gazith.