Remembering Omer Hai: A D'var Israel from Gal Goren
Beth Tzedec
May 7th 2020

"It is hard to find a bad word to say about Omer, or a good word that you can’t say about him. He was such a good person, one of those rare good people which is hard to find, full of good intentions, who would not harm a fly. Omer was very shy, and you could even have seen it in his loving brown eyes. You couldn’t ever ignore his charming smile. He was so ambitious and intelligent and his competitiveness made him always dream big and without limits. The combination between his talent and his determination led Omer to succeed in everything, while also always being humble.’’

It has been about a week since Yom Hazikaron and my thoughts are still wandering to the same place. Over the years, I have become more connected to Yom Hazikaron.

As a kid, the thought of being a soldier felt very far from me because the soldiers seemed so much older than I was. As you probably remember, I grew up with my father’s military pilot life and his base was like my second home. He was the closest relation that I had to the IDF and trying to process the pain of Yom Hazikaron (thankfully, without a family story) started by connecting it to my father. Thinking about him as one of our fallens was unacceptable in my eyes.

It was easier for me to connect more to the stories of Yom Hashoah from the perspective of a small child, compared to Yom Hazikaron’s stories of soldiers. I assume that you become more connected to something as it gets closer to you, or if you have a personal story that is related. That is why, I suppose, that the younger you are, the less connected to Yom Hashoah you will feel. On the other hand, as you get closer to be 18 years old (the recruitment age for the IDF in Israel), the more you feel connected to this day, due to experiencing the IDF on your own ‘’skin’’.

Every year in the Israeli scouts, I earned the opportunity to get closer to this day. In Savyon- Ganei Yehuda, where I come from, Yom Hazikaron is a very significant day and it is the most community-focused day of the year.

Everything happens through the scouts. There are ceremonies, memorial rooms, lighting torches for each fallen soldier of Savyon, by a Savyon soldier and a kid from the scouts for each, hearing a fascinating story about the army from a parent and a memorial sing along which all the past scout members attend. There is a special tradition of "keeping the torch’s fire’’ which is a tradition in which all the tribe members stand still and silent, with white shirts, and in watches, during the whole 24 hours of Yom Hazikaron as a symbol for respecting the fallen, and conversation meetings with all of the tribe and the families of the fallen. In Savyon, you grow up learning about our fallen ones and I am very grateful for that.

Last year, I was a counsellor of the Guiding course for Grade 9 students. Each year, Grade 9 students are supposed to create the town's memorial ceremony for Yom Hazikaron. As part of writing the script for the ceremony, we organized special meetings for our fellows with the families of the fallen soldiers of Savyon, in order to get them deeply connected to the pain of this day.

Last year was the first time that the Hai family agreed to meet with the for a discussion before the ceremony. Their son Omer served in the Maglan unit and died in 2014, during the Tzuk Eitan Operation, while searching for terror tunnels in Gaza. He is the latest fallen soldier in our town and his family's pain is the freshest. 

I will never forget our meeting with his family for the rest of my life. 

Thank God I have never experienced that grief, and I hope that I never will. I thought that I understood the pain of loss, that I felt connected, that I understood enough, but it wasn't until this meeting that I truly understood how painful it is. Seeing Omer's closest family members choking with tears speaking about him makes me feel so emotional. Looking at the albums, pictures, listening to the stories about him, looking at his enchanting smile. All of that taught me that Omer was such a rare, amazing, unique and modest person. I felt he was an ideal role model for me. 

You can get a sense of his personality from the description at the beginning of this article, written by his sister, Maya. Determination, love, kindness, courage, optimism, self-sacrifice, modesty. 

After that day, I felt so emotionally connected to Omer without ever having met him.

Seeing Omer’s 15-year-old brother struggling to stop the tears while talking about him made me feel the pain that I was fortunate to miss in the last 17 years.

That day changed my whole perspective on Yom Hazikaron. 

I finished this meeting so emotional, while feeling so thankful for everything that I have in my life. Questioning the significance of things in my life and appreciating the most important things. I took from this meeting a way of appreciating the spirit and the values that Omer lived by. 

About two months ago, when we started thinking about our role as shinshinim on Yom Hazikaron in Toronto, I immediately thought about Omer, the soldier I never met, but knew very well. I knew straight away that in order to bring you the most Israeli Yom Hazikaron, I had to bring Omer to you.

Every year there is a big community running race in Savyon.

Since Omer died, the race has been a commemoration of his memory.

His family took all their grief and pain and turned it into optimism and love, just like Omer’s way of life. I am proud to participate every year in this race and it felt strange to miss it this year. I find Omer and his family so inspiring.

Yom Hazikaron is our pain. For me, it is about the life that each one of our lost soldiers had and the hole they left behind as individuals. It's about appreciating my country and remembering that in their death they order us to live. It’s about Omer and 23,815 stories like his.

May his memory be a blessing.

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Gal Goren, the shinshin