Ask any camp counselor or administrator what is the hardest time of the week, and the universal answer is bound to be the late, waning hours of shabbos. Try keeping upwards of three hundred rambunctious boys cooped up in their stale, sock-infested bunkhouses for a long afternoon with little to do and even less supervision. It is no wonder that the swarm of boys converging on the camp dining room for seudas shlishis looks like it contains triumphant survivors of a war zone. Grape juice and grass stained shirts, torn pants concealing fresh knee scrapes, and various cuts and bruises that would make a Navy SEAL proud. The boys troop in with mischievous smiles on their faces telling the story of an afternoon of pillow fights, friendly and not-so-friendly pranks, and the occasional water fight. Tired and overworked staff members futilely attempt to make their hoarse voices heard over the incessant chatter and bickering. Milk spills and games of tag ensue as the division heads remind themselves that this too will pass, come bedtime in just a few hours.
It is against this backdrop that the best memories are created. Experience of many years has showed the talented head counselors the power of harnessing this energy and diverting it into heartfelt zemiros and passionate chanting. The dining room becomes charged with electricity as the banging increases and voices become hoarse from the unending repetitions of twenty years worth of camp songs.
And it is in this context in Camp Na’arim that emerged its most beloved tradition. As the walls vibrated to the sound of song, at the signal from the head counselor, the entire dining room erupted into spirited banging to a beat handed down for generations in an unspoken signal that they were ready for the next portion of the evening. The relentless beat reached a crescendo, and the venerated director of the camp, Rabbi Dovid Presser, made his way onto a platform in the center of the crowd. Silence filled the room, and with the smile of a man who loves his job, Rabbi Presser proceeded to lead the boys in a rousing, home-cooked rendition of the ubiquitous “Amar Reb Akiva”. For many, it was the highlight of the week. Rabbi Presser always made it a point to stress the beauty of this mishna containing a cornerstone of Jewish faith: that our relationship with Hashem is special, and that His love for us makes us unique and is not something to be taken for granted.
One week, before Rabbi Presser ascended the platform to face his cheering campers, the revered head counselor, Rabbi Avi Lichtenstein, surprised the boys by raising his hand for quiet. “Boys,” he said, voice ringing clear in the palpable silence, “I want to tell you a story.”
“Every week we sing and dance and try to internalize how fortunate we are to be part of the special nation that Hakadosh Baruch Hu calls his own. I want to share with you a story I recently heard that illustrates for us just how special of a nation we are.”
I have never forgotten his words, and the story has made an indelible impression that remains with me to this day. The details have become somewhat hazy through the passage of many years’ time, and names and details have been changed, but the gist of the story remains the same. This, for the benefit of those who were not privileged to be there, is the story he told:
During the turmoil and carnage of the Yom Kippur war, two very special brothers, Gadi and Uri Strauss, were called up to serve in their respective units. Gadi, 31, was a reserve captain in the the Air Force, and Uri, three years his junior, was a radio technician in the infantry. Like most Israeli reservists, the brothers were no strangers to immediate call-ups. Reporting for duty on three hours’ notice is a way of life for those heroes, and the order to appear to defend their beloved people is met with as much pride as trepidation. Quick packing, last minute arrangements for the kids, and tearful goodbyes were all taken care of in less than no time, and the brothers found themselves in Uri’s beat-up Chevy, nervously speeding up Highway 1 toward their respective bases.
“Ima’s really not taking it well this time,” murmured Gadi, eyes glued to the scenery passing by way too quickly. “Last time we saw combat, she couldn’t sleep for a week straight.”
Uri grunted in response.
Not another word was spoken. The silence was deafening; inaudible waves of communication passed between them. Having grown up the closest of friends, there was no need for words in the tensest of moments.
Pulling into Gadi’s base, Uri suddenly felt the urge to give him a bear hug. Strange. This drill was not new to them. How many times had they done this drive before? His manly instincts had always held him in reserve, but now, there was no holding back. Clutching, holding on for dear life, he refused to let his brother go. After what seems like hours, Gadi pulled away reluctantly. Was that a tear in Uri’s eye? He would never know.
Uri watched as Gadi slowly made his way into the building, bags and weapon slung over his shoulder, shoulders erect, poised to meet the newest enemy with a vengeance. Then he sat, staring into space for a long, long time, before slowly turning on the ignition.
The call came in twelve days later. There was a commander from the Air Force on the line, and he was looking for Uri Strauss. Hesitating, Uri stared at the phone for a long time before picking up the receiver. Something far away told him he did not want to take this call.
I’m so sorry, he said, it was so sudden. Enemy fire. Plane shot down. The only one aboard. Such a brave man.
“Sergeant Strauss,” he said, “You’re listed as next of kin, and we need you to come identify your brother’s body.” Silence. The commander heard faint sobbing.
“Ani Lo Yachol,” Uri whispered.
Uri heard muffled conversation in the background. Suddenly, another voice was on the line. The velvety, mellifluous tone of a trained army psychologist. Were they really speaking to him?
Without thinking, he slammed down the receiver and fled into the crisp summer night. They didn’t understand. How could they? Flashbacks of his brother’s winning smile raced through his head at an alarming rate. He felt faint, his mind numb and his senses fading. He walked, eyes unfocused, oblivious to his surroundings. He walked for over an hour, crying, thinking, remembering.
Suddenly, he had a powerful revelation. He slammed his fist on a nearby concrete wall, and blood slowly trickled out of his bruised hand. Turning back toward the base with a resolve, he knew exactly what he would do. Or more accurately, he knew what he would not do. He could not, and he would not. He must be in touch with the commander, and fast. Reaching the commander proved to be the easy part; he had not stopped trying to reach Uri for the last hour.
Before the Commander even asked, Uri blurted out, “I’m sorry, I can’t do it!”
“Uri,” the commander responded, “I know it’s hard.”
“No, it’s not that!” Uri cut him off, voice slightly tinged with annoyance.
“I’m not afraid to come identify the body. I can accept the fact that Gadi is no longer with us. But I’m afraid that it won’t be Gadi, and I will have a flutter of excitement. That a fellow Jew was killed and I should be happy? I’m sorry; I cannot bring myself to do it.”