Reporter’s notebook: Kaddish for a Texan who gave his life in Gaza

Israelis attend the funeral of Israeli soldier and Texas native Sean Carmeli, who was killed in Gaza, at a military cemetery in Haifa, July 21, 2014. (Flash 90)
Israelis attend the funeral of Israeli soldier and Texas native Sean Carmeli, who was killed in Gaza, at a military cemetery in Haifa, July 21, 2014. (Flash 90)

TEL AVIV (JTA) — The soldiers walk past us, two single-file lines between the gravestones, their blank, sunken faces barely visible in the darkness. The coffin appears, hoisted on their arms and wrapped in an Israeli flag. We follow in its wake.

Within minutes, some 20,000 people have massed around the final resting place of Sean Carmeli, Texas native, IDF soldier, soon to be declared a Hero of Israel.

We stand silent as the rabbi chants verses of psalms begging for mercy. We shrug off official instructions on protocol should a siren sound.

Then a broken, crying, panting voice comes over the loudspeaker. Word by impossible word, Sean’s father is saying Kaddish. We say amen, and it hits home: a 21-year-old boy is dead.

“We all lost a brother today,” Carmeli’s friend, Elior Mizrachi, says in his eulogy. “He was my role model, my best friend.”

Mizrachi exhales. Across the crowd, people begin to sob.

Thirteen soldiers died Sunday in a fierce battle in Gaza, but for Americans living in Israel, Carmeli and Los Angeles native Max Steinberg stood out. They were like us, kids who grew up in the U.S. but moved here for a feeling, an ethereal connection. Both were far from their families but, as Raanana Mayor Ze’ev Bielski said in his eulogy of Carmeli, they felt they had “got to the right place.”

Many of the tens of thousands who came to Haifa’s Sde Yehoshua military cemetery on Monday night were spurred on by social media, Israelis calling on each other to attend the funeral of a lone soldier who had little family here. Maccabi Haifa, Carmeli’s favorite soccer team, asked its fans on Facebook to “accompany him on his final road and represent us as one family.”

The eulogies they heard told a story many American Israelis could recognize: Carmeli‘s high school principal recounting how he worked especially hard to catch up to his Israeli classmates. Mizrachi recalling howCarmeli would describe his parents in America to his friends in Israel, and his friends in Israel to his parents in America. Carmeli’s brother-in-law telling the crowd about how his house had become Carmeli’s second home, so far from the first.

And then there was the story’s sad ending.

“We miss you so much,” said Carmeli’s brother-in-law. “It will take awhile not to imagine you coming through the door, throwing your bags on the ground.”

So much of Israeli life is about remembering the fallen — the sirens on Yom Hazikaron, the monuments across Israeli cities, the shells of tanks on the road to Jerusalem. But we constantly push it out of our minds, focus on day-to-day life, return to our routines minutes after bomb sirens ring out.

“I always thought we’d grow up parallel to each other forever,” Mizrachi said. “I didn’t know forever would be cut so short.”

By time the honor guard fired the final salute, the crowd was already filing out of the cemetery, back to life in Israel.