By remembering “what the life of a soldier is like and remembering their values, we can honor. . . the lives of fallen soldiers,” said Matthew Schwartz, 22, a Brooklyn-born former commander in the Givati Brigade, an infantry unit of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF).

Schwartz shared his remarks at the April 28th Yom HaZikaron program at UJA-Federation of New York. Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day, is observed the day before Yom HaAtzma’ut, Israel’s Independence Day, and pays tribute to the soldiers who gave their lives for the state. In Israel, the holiday includes the sounding of sirens throughout the country, designed to stop all activity for a moment of silence.

Schwartz, who grew up in Brooklyn and attended Yeshiva University High School in Manhattan, chose to live in Israel following high school. From 2004 to 2006, he attended Gush Yeshivat Har Etzion, which combines Torah study and army service. In 2006, he entered a nine-month volunteer program for the army for those who are not Israeli citizens, and then extended his service for another year. He was asked to attend a commander’s school for a four-month training course and was then stationed at the Gaza border.

“It’s humbling to stand here today,” Schwartz said. “I’m no hero,” he said, but noted that the experience of being a soldier in Israel gave him insight into what thousands of IDF soldiers undergo, noting the intense training in the desert including carrying wounded soldiers, and years of missing family celebrations, weddings, and birthdays.

He recalled an incident at the Gaza border where 50 tourists had gathered. Machine gunfire sounded, and the tourists dropped to the ground. Soldiers ran to a truck and drove toward the sound to track down the terrorist. That’s when Schwartz fully understood the difference between a civilian and a soldier. “Civilians took cover, we ran toward the line of fire,” he said. “[It’s what] thousands of Israeli soldiers have done, patrolling an Arab border or check point.”
Schwartz, who returned to the United States following his service, is currently completing his sophomore year at Yeshiva University in New York and studying psychology.

Following the talk, a brief memorial service was led by Rabbi Michael Paley, scholar-in-residence and director of the Jewish Resource Center at UJA-Federation of New York.