Saturday, January 28, 2023

Seventeen-year-old Erez Schreiber spent many hours over the past few years hiking around Israel’s North in between classes at his Golan Heights high school. While his friends’ minds were focused on the trail markers, Schreiber was preoccupied by something else—the unkept monuments in memory of fallen Israel Defense Forces soldiers that he stumbled upon during these excursions. After completing his high school studies earlier this year, with a backpack and tent in hand, he took his car and spent two months camping out in the Golan, with the aim of rehabilitating these neglected memorials.

Schreiber, whose parents made aliyah from Florida before he was born and whose uncle, Chaim Poupko, serves as the rabbi at Ahavath Torah in Englewood, was disturbed that these soldiers who gave so much for the country were not memorialized properly. “They deserve more respect,” Schreiber said. And so he took it upon himself to visit these sites and refurbish them, one by one. This involved placing new, untorn Israeli flags at the site, cleaning brush and pulling out weeds, repainting the dedication and cleaning the stone. He set up a crowdfunding page and succeeded to raise $2,000 in little time for these efforts.

The most challenging aspect of this project for Schreiber was dealing with the outdoor conditions. He relied heavily on his winter clothing for warmth and the food he stocked up on from local grocery stores.

Schreiber was inspired to action by the stories of heroism that he heard during high school lectures. He was particularly moved by the stories told by former IDF officer Avigdor Kahalani, known for his heroic actions on the battlefield during the Yom Kippur War in 1973, and Yaakov Seh Lavan, a social entrepreneur who manages the Tel-Saki memorial site in the Golan Heights. These stories of fallen soldiers “who were just willing to risk their lives to not be taken and to keep Israel safe,” were firmly planted in Schreiber’s mind.

According to the Golan Regional Council, there are 165 memorials for fallen soldiers in the Golan Heights. The larger memorials that are more frequently visited, such as the Tel-Saki memorial where 32 soldiers fell during the Yom Kippur War, are cared for on a more regular basis, while the smaller memorials are not. Schreiber says that he has tended to about one-quarter of the total memorials in this region of Israel—the ones that were in most need of repair.

He is especially touched when parents of fallen soldiers visit a memorial that has been refurbished. He recalled an encounter with the parents of Raziel Nagar, z”l, who was killed in 2005 while hiking in a military zone in the Golan when a shell exploded. “They were happy to see somebody who cares, who is willing to drive to the middle of nowhere and put up a flag for their son,” Schreiber said.

Schreiber has strong ties to the Jewish community in the United States and keeps in touch regularly with his family in New Jersey. “Naturally, having sisters raising their families in Israel is an enormous source of pride for our family,” said his uncle Rabbi Poupko. “But to see my nephew, Erez, absorb the values of his parents and exceed expectations is a unique source of nachat. Erez is, quite literally, going beyond the call of duty by devoting his time prior to conscription to honoring fallen IDF soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice. We are truly inspired by his efforts.”

In just one week, Schreiber will be enlisting in the IDF. But he plans to continue the work that he started and is hoping to raise awareness about the needs of neglected memorials in other parts of Israel. “Without these fallen soldiers we would not be here today,” he said.

For more information on this project or to connect with Erez Schreiber visit https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100085258011330

Alisa Bodner is a Fair Lawn native who immigrated to Israel a decade ago. She is a nonprofit management professional who enjoys writing in her free time.

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