By Jacob Kamaras/JNS.org
In the lobby of Houston’s Westin Galleria hotel before a speaking engagement, Gal Carmeli struggles to respond to questions that this reporter admits are probably impossible to answer. Nine months earlier, her brother, 21-year-old Nissim Sean Carmeli, was killed in Gaza during the Israel-Hamas war.
“It’s a little bit blank, and it’s hard for me to talk about that, actually,” Gal tells JNS.org when asked to recall how she received the news of Sean’s death. “It was confusing, and I understood, but I didn’t. It was a really, really hard day because we couldn’t contact my brother… it’s like a big balagan (mess) in my head, that day.”
Sean, who grew up in South Padre Island, Texas, was one of 13 Israeli soldiers from the Golani Brigade killed around the Shujaiyeh neighborhood in eastern Gaza on July 20, 2014. The war would last until late August, and the personal tragedy didn’t stop Gal from closely following current events.
“People told us, ‘Maybe you should turn off the TV.’ But it was important to us [to follow the war],” she says. “We wanted to know what was going on. Also, in a really weird way, it was scary to go back to normal life. We were like in a huge bubble, so the fact that the war continued, we didn’t feel like we were alone. There was something going on, and I think the day the war ended, and the day everybody returned to their normal life, that was the scariest day of all, because we understood that okay, our life changed, but the world is the same.”
Gal, a 29-year-old mother of two living in Caesarea, spoke at the April 27 gala of the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF) Texas Chapter. FIDF is a not-for-profit organization that raises funds to support programming that enhances IDF soldiers’ wellbeing. Such programs include the Spirit R&R Program, providing rest and recreation to combat-weary units; the Wounded Soldiers Program, giving comprehensive medical care such as prosthetic limbs; the LEGACY Program for families of fallen soldiers, offering financial and social support to widows and orphans; and the IMPACT! Scholarship Program, providing academic scholarships to combat soldiers who have completed their mandatory military service but cannot afford the cost of higher education.
But of particular resonance at the Houston gala was FIDF’s Lone Soldiers program, which provides financial, social, and emotional support to foreign-born soldiers whose parents do not live in Israel and whose military service—unlike their Israeli-born peers—is voluntary. Sean Carmeli was such a soldier. His sister describes addressing the gala as a therapeutic exercise.
“It’s a good feeling to talk about Sean,” Gal Carmeli says. “It’s very rewarding to see how he has affected people’s lives. It makes me feel really good that people know who he is, appreciate him, call him a hero. I think Sean would be really proud of himself if he heard this. It’s just a really welcome feeling [we get] from the FIDF.”
Scott Kammerman, the executive director of FIDF’s Texas Chapter, recalls finding out about Sean Carmeli’s death in a way that befitted his home state. The tragedy seemingly struck one enormous, Texas-sized family. Kammerman explains that Texans typically self-identify as coming from the state of Texas rather than from their home city, as opposed to New Yorkers, Chicagoans, or Los Angelenos who may invoke their cities instead.
“It’s hard to explain, but for Texans, there’s a lot of pride here, and it feels like one big gigantic family,” Kammerman tells JNS.org. “And the Jewish community in Texas… is just very warm and caring. And the fact of the matter is, out of the thousands of [IDF] lone soldiers, we have maybe 17 to 20 from Texas that are currently serving. So when I received the news on July 20, I was speaking at a church… and I was told that a lone soldier from Texas from Sayeret Golani (the Golani Brigade) had been killed. I knew two people [from Texas serving in that brigade] off the top of my head, and when I was doing the statistics right there, I was thinking, ‘Oh my gosh.’ It turned out to be Sean, not [fellow Texan lone soldier] Ze’ev Bar-Yadin.”
Scott Plantowsky, co-chair of the Texas Chapter gala, expresses a similar sentiment about how Carmeli’s death hit home more than the 66 other IDF casualties of last summer’s war.
“Whenever you hear about the loss of any military soldier, whether it’s a U.S. soldier or an Israeli soldier, it hurts,” Plantowsky says. “But in some ways, you’re disconnected from it, because you don’t know the family in Israel that lost their family member. … But this happened to a young man that grew up in Texas, and he’s just down the road from us, and it could’ve been my son’s best friend. When it happens to a young man that grew up in your backyard, it’s just a little bit closer and strikes a little bit harder. We could feel their pain just a little bit more. It’s a tough one. I don’t like thinking about it.”
Kammerman, 39, says he launched the FIDF Texas Chapter “from scratch” in April 2012. It has since remained the youngest regional chapter within the FIDF organization. The chapter raised $600,000 for soldiers’ wellbeing in 2012, $950,000 in 2013, $1.4 million in 2014, and more than $600,000 at the April 2015 gala. The factor that has made FIDF stand out in Texas and elsewhere, according to Kammerman, is the presence of actual soldiers at events.
“When a soldier is standing there in uniform, and telling their story, a lot of people see their own children and their faces,” Kammerman says. “It’s very personal. We take a microscope to the foundation of the state of Israel, which is the IDF. There are so many great organizations, and they talk about Israel from a macro perspective: Israel in the media, the U.S.-Israel relationship, Israel on the world stage. But we take it down to the fiber of the country, the IDF.”
During last summer’s war, when more people than usual were searching for ways to support Israel, Kammerman says FIDF was able to assert to potential donors, “‘Look, we are responding to the direct needs of the IDF. It’s not what we think would be nice for them. The IDF is telling us specifically what they need for their welfare and wellbeing needs.’” He says that soldiers’ needs were sometimes as basic as undergarments, deodorant, cell phone chargers, and electric razors, and at other times as substantial as a flight home to see their families abroad after the war.
“They’re our family… and we’re here doing what we do because they’re taking care of all of us and protecting all of us,” Kammerman says of IDF soldiers. “This is the least we can end up doing.”
FIDF’s Texas gala took place days after Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s annual day of remembrance for fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism. Gal Carmeli says that because of the loss of her brother, Yom Hazikaron was actually an ordinary day for her.
“I’ve felt it most days for the past nine months, the really bad feeling, the really scary feeling… It wasn’t that much harder than a regular day,” she tells JNS.org.
Towards the end of the interview, Carmeli answers yet another one of this reporter’s impossible questions: How does she feel about sending her own children to serve in the IDF one day, given her brother’s death in combat?
“If my children need to go to the army, they’re going to go the army, as hard as that is to say,” she says. “Because somebody has to do the work for the Jewish nation, for Israel. I’m not giving up. If we got this far, and we had to give up Sean, then I’m going to go all the way.”
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