Transitions: from remembering Israeli soldiers and terror victims to the joy of Israeli Independence Day; from a familiar American Modern Orthodox upbringing to being a Golani soldier on the Gaza border; from staleness to appreciation of Israel. Those were the themes of the Israeli Day Celebration held at the Queens Jewish Center on Wednesday, May 8.

The same sound of the siren, where everyone in Israel stops what they are doing and stands in respect, played at the Queens Jewish Center for one minute to remember the 23,741 soldiers killed and the 3,150 terror victims in Israel.

Keynote speaker Jeremy Kugelman grew up in Woodmere, going to Jewish elementary and high schools. He learned for two years at Yeshivat HaKotel in Jerusalem before joining the Israel Defense Forces and the elite Golani unit.

Some of his grandparents fled Germany and some lived through the Holocaust. “They were at the whims of others and without the ability to stand up for themselves.” Israel and the IDF is “where we have the ability to both say and ensure the phrase, ‘Never Again.’” Kugelman also knew he wanted to make aliyah one day, so he knows how the Army is a part of Israeli life.

Students from Yeshivat Hesder of Sderot and seven from Yeshivat HaKotel made up his 30-man Golani platoon. Four months of basic training were followed by three months of advanced training.

Carrying 90 pounds on 24-hour hikes, “Training was tough, really tough,” he said to the more than 100 people gathered, “but it was also some of the best times I ever had. I was with 30 amazing soldiers, many of whom became closer than many of my childhood friends.”

Each Golani platoon has specialists: a radio man, a machine gunner, an assistant gunner, a sharpshooter, a rocket launcher, and a grenade launcher. When Kugelman didn’t get the coveted grenade launcher spot he wanted, instead becoming a stretcher bearer, he contemplated quitting.

The day before telling his commander this, Kugelman bumped into a fellow soldier who told him. “Did you come to the Army to take or did you come to the Army to give?” That changed Kugelman’s mind. “Someone needs to carry the stretcher into battle. Am I only worried about my own prestige?”

“I changed my attitude and embraced the job.” One month later, Kugelman was promoted to radio operator, which is second only to the Lieutenant. Kugelman later became licensed to drive an Armored Personnel Carrier.

After a vacation visiting his family in America, Kugelman went straight to his unit at the Gaza border. He did not have his gun and was still carrying his suitcase. Soon, everyone hunkered down for more than 30 minutes as Hamas launched rockets. “Kugelman, Kugelman – report to the commander’s office,” came over the loudspeaker. Kugelman reported to the commander, who said they needed someone to drive a different unit close to the Gaza border. The commander took the gun from a man standing next to Kugelman and gave it to him. For one week, Kugelman was on the border with a different unit and with someone else’s weapon. He finally unpacked his suitcase a week later at the base.

Later, his unit was ordered to go 200 yards from the Gaza border. His unit was seeing increased rockets, shooting, and Palestinians crossing the border. Israeli intelligence was warning that Hamas wanted to kidnap an Israeli soldier and may be firing Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPGs). This was the only time Kugelman was scared during his IDF service from 2011-2012, “because he had no idea what would happen.”

Two Golani soldiers whom Kugelman knew died. One was a medic shot by a Hamas terrorist on the Gaza border shortly after Kugelman left the service and was back in the United States. “He was a great guy who always made people laugh. He had great character and a lot of energy.”

“During our training, we were taking a break during a long trek. Shimon left the group and took his own life.” “He was a friendly guy, someone who always had a smile.” Shimon was an Ethiopian Jew who loved practicing his English with Kugelman.

“Sometimes, we think how difficult it is for us (lone soldiers)” but “sometimes, it’s more difficult for other soldiers, without us even realizing.” “He (Shimon) was an integral part of our unit, and we all felt a great loss when he was no longer with us.”

Kugelman quoted a Hebrew poem, “The Silver Platter,” by Nathan Alterman, often said on Israel’s Memorial Day:

Full of endless fatigue and unrested,

yet the dew of their youth is still seen on their head.

Thus they stand at attention, giving no sign of life or death.

Then a nation in tears and amazement will ask: “Who are you?”

And they will answer quietly, “We are the silver platter on which the Jewish state was given.”

“The Army was something I felt I need to do for the Jewish people. It doesn’t mean my sacrifice, time, and sweat is not as important as someone else’s sacrifice,” said Kugelman. There are countless ways to help, including volunteering, donating money, helping their community, etc., he said.

Rabbi Ashie Schreier of the Young Israel of Forest Hills chanted the Keil Malei Rachamim. Rabbi Yossi Mendelson of Congregation Machane Chodosh recited the Prayer for the Soldiers of the IDF.

The MC and an organizer for the evening, Ben Kohane, read letters showing Yoni Netanyahu’s love for Israel. Yoni Netanyahu was a Lieutenant Colonel who died at age 30, rescuing the hostages at Entebbe, Uganda, in 1976.

Rabbi Avi Hirt of the Queens Jewish Center cited Chazal and the Sages instituting the blessing for the Land of Israel whenever a Jew eats bread or grain to keep up our appreciation.

Rabbi Hirt cited a source in the Talmud calling Israel the “Land of the Deer.” “Just as a deer expands as it grows, our land always expands our consciousness.”

Hatikvah was sung by the attendees. Jacob Herenstein led the singing Maariv with Israeli melodies. Free Israeli food was served. The NYPD provided the security for the evening.

By David Schneier