Clarity and Confusion from Alex, Dina Epstein
The way I talk about Alex Singer at Har Herzl
Alex Singer was killed when I was eight years old. My most vivid memory of Alex had to do with Mom baking a seemingly-endless number of chocolate chip cookies to pack in shoe boxes to mail to Alex in the IDF. To my eight-year-old mind, seeing, smelling, and helping to bake cookies that I could not eat was one of life's great injustices.
Most of the biographical facts about Alex I've picked up since his death. Sure, I knew his family and I remember the devastation felt by the Washington D.C. community after his death, but I don't think the eight-year-old Dina knew that Alex went to Cornell, wrote a thesis called "Letters from the Diaspora," studied at the London School of Economics or even when he joined the Israeli army. I'm not sure that I knew that Alex was a writer, a painter, a poet. In one his letters to his Grandma Jeanne, he quotes my mother, Ellen Epstein, who says that she can't see Alex "running up and down hills since she always pictured me as drawing in the shade of an olive tree." At eight years old, though, I didn't really know any of this. At eight years old, I had not yet read any of Alex's writings.
Alex's impact on me after his death, though, has been immeasurable. If it were not for Alex, I probably would be in law school at this moment, rather than spending the year in Israel leading Birthright groups. If it were not for Alex, I might not lay awake at night, struggling with questions about my relationship to Israel, my to this country, the significance of being here. Through his writings Alex has shared his thought process, his doubts, his fears and his convictions. His writings make me more confused and, at the same time, give me immense clarity.
[I then read these excerpts from "Alex—Building a Life" to the group as we stand around Alex's grave.]
Letter to Grandma and Grandpa: "Comforting Grandparents" p. 205
Letter to Katherine: "Things I Hate About Israel" p. 222
Poem, "To Step Forward Myself" p. 206/207
"Last Letter (Unfinished)" p. 250
[I think these letters make Alex very real and give great insight into his decision-making and analysis of situations. I especially like the "Things I Hate About Israel." He gives all the reasons not to like Israel (which are great points) but then says:
"...but because I see this place as my home, I don't pile the cons on one side of the scale, and the pros on the other, and come to a conclusion about whether it was "worth" staying here. Home is home and it will take more than irritations to force me to leave. I want to make this place better."
In my closing comments to the group on the final evening I have also quoted this last line: "I want to make this place better".
Some Other Thoughts About the Power of Alex's Words
As I see it, the most compelling part of Alex Singer's writing is not his valorous deeds or selfless actions, although there are many. What impresses me the most is that Alex is no different from you or me, or any of the participants on the Birthright trips that I have led through Har Herzl and with whom I have shared Alex's writings. What students connect to the most is not Alex, the hero, but Alex, the person. Alex, just like almost any 25-year old I have known, was full of questions, self-doubt and confusion about where and how he could make his life meaningful.
What makes Alex exceptional is that he was able to push himself to make bold decisions, to put his thought into action. Alex Singer did not move to Israel, join the army, or lead troops without questioning each and every one of those decisions. He didn't have blind faith or unwavering confidence in his decisions. But, he made bold, thoughtful, decisions and he followed through with conviction.
Students simultaneously connect with and are challenged by Alex Singer. His writings provide insight, his actions provide inspiration.
A Letter to Alex. Phil Alexander from Kibbutz Ein Zurim
Not so long ago I started guiding tours, and soon became involved in the Birthright program. Every group that I took to Mt. Herzl went with me to Alex's grave. I would usually start by reading the letter, "Kippah Like a Yo-Yo" (page 198), describe Alex's background, tell about the final battle and then recite Yizkor for Alex and for all the other fallen soldiers. When we returned to the bus, I showed the film about Alex's life.
The visit to Mt. Herzl usually follows a morning at Yad Vashem. It is the most challenging day of the program. I'm always fighting with myself to maintain a "professional" posture. But I am never sorry that I go to Alex's grave because the participants always reap tremendous insights from the short time we are there.
Alex & The Legacy of Jewish Heroism. Yossi Katz
I was born and raised in the Philadelphia Jewish community and made aliyah in 1978. I served as a combat reconnaissance soldier in TZAHAL (Israel Defense Forces). Since 1980, after completion of my army service, I have been an educator at the Alexander Muss High School in Israel (AMHSI). One of the most wonderful students I ever taught was a young man named Adam Bier from Bethesda, Maryland. Adam's dad is a prominent DC physician and an ardent Zionist who tried unsuccessfully to get his son to go to Israel on a high school educational program.
Then on September 15, 1987 Alex Singer, an American Jew from the DC area who had moved to Israel and had become an officer in the Israeli army, fell heroically in battle on his 25th birthday, in defense of our people on the rugged foothills of Mt Hermon. According to Israeli Army protocol, a delegation from the Israeli Embassy in Washington was sent to inform Alex's family in DC of the tragic news. The Israeli Military Attache at the Embassy , Gen. Amos Yaron, was entrusted with this sensitive task and brought a physician along in case of any possible emergency. The physician was Dr. Charles Bier, Adam's father. One month later a memorial service was held at the Israeli Embassy in DC and Benjamin Netanyahu, who had lost his brother, Yoni Netanyahu, during the 1976 Entebbe Rescue Mission, gave one of the eulogies for Alex.
Dr. Bier brought his son Adam to the memorial ceremony and Adam was so touched by Alex's story that he chose to come in 1989 to the Alexander Muss High School in Israel where I was his teacher. One of our class debates focused on the question of whether the students would choose to come to Israel if the country was imperiled and needed volunteers. Most of the students said they would not leave college to come help, but Adam said that if Israel ever needed him he would be there. This was not just an emotional promise to impress his teacher.
In 1991 Adam came to Israel during the Gulf War and, after he completed college, he made aliyah and joined an elite commando unit in TZAHAL and served with distinction. He returned to the USA for medical school but left those studies to rejoin his army unit during the Israeli campaign in Jenin in Operation Defensive Shield. Adam's Unit received a Citation from the Israeli Chief of Staff for their heroism in battle. Adam was my student; today he is my hero and inspiration. Adam would never have come to Israel had he not been inspired that night at the memorial ceremony for Alex. His path to Israel was lit by the light of Alex Singer's life and sacrifice.
For many years now I have been using the story of Alex Singer to help inspire my high school students at AMHSI. I show the wonderful video (now also in DVD) and tell his story in class. When we visit the area near Mt Hermon, we read Alex’s letters and are touched by his wisdom and love for Israel. On the final day of our studies we visit his grave at the National Military Cemetary at Mt Herzl in Jerusalem. By then, all of our students feel they are beside the grave of a dear friend. Alex’s letters help me teach several important Jewish values. Among them:
Love of Family
Love of Judaism
Love of Israel
Defending the Jewish State & People
Making Tikkun Olam an integral part of one's life
One of the most powerful moments for our students occurs while on "tiyul" (field trip) along the Banias River and falls, that Alex loved so much. As we leave the beautiful nature reserve we face a stunning vista of the Golan Heights, the Nimrod Fortress and majestic Mt Hermon....the very terrain where Alex fell in battle. It is there that I read several of Alex' letters to my students. Alex teaches us so much about the sacrifice and commitment of Israeli soldiers through his words and experience. i usually focus in on 4 of his letters that are all included in the book of Alex’s letters and journals, Alex: Building a Life:
May 6, 1985 - "Pure Fear" (p. 120): Alex writes about how tough and challenging it is to serve in TZAHA
May 21, 1985 - Visit to Kibbutz Lochame Haghettaot (pp. 121-122): Alex writes about the moral dlemnas facing TZAHAL and shows the moral side of Israel's soldiers
August 14, 1986 - "Life is Many Things" (p. 204): Alex writes to a non-Jewish friend about the realities Israel faces in the Middle East
August 17, 1986 - "To Step Forward Myself" (p. 207): Alex writes about his responsibility to lead his young men in battle by personal example. This poem expresses the ideal that every Israeli Officer is taught and the legacy that Alex left when he fell in battle at the head of his men.
Alex's life and words have touched so many of my students over the years. We try to be better Jews and human beings so as not to let Alex down. Several years ago I was asked to be the keynote speaker a large educational conference in Florida. I chose to speak about Alex and how to use his story to teach important Jewish values. I showcased the Alex video and gave everyone a gift copy of Alex: Building a Life. We studied many of the letters together and categorized them by the values they imparted and discussed how to use them with our students.
During the question and answer period, most of the attendees spoke about how touched they were by Alex's story and legacy. Then a woman, who served as an administrator at a local yeshiva, raised her hand and passionately remarked, "Alex's life was a waste. Every Israeli soldier who has died in Israel's defense is a useless waste of human life! Had Alex studied in a yeshiva he would not have died and his life would not have been a wasted." I was not prepared for such shocking comments from a "Jewish educator." With Alex's picture on the front cover of the book in my hands, I gathered my composure and responded:
"The loss of Alex in battle and the fall of every Israeli soldier is a great tragedy and a sad loss of precious life. Since 1947 over 20,000 young men and women have fallen in Israel's defense. We must remember that 20,000 was also the number of Jewish victims gassed in one day at Auschwitz by the Nazis. Alex and the 20,000 soldiers who heroically fell in Israel's defense died so that NEVER AGAIN would there be another Auschwitz. Their loss was surely not in vain."
I believe it is legitimate to discuss and debate differing forms of Jewish Identity (Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, Orthodox, Secular-Zionist). After all, Yisrael means to "wrestle with God." But there must be some common denominator that unite all Jews: Love of Israel, love of Torah, and perhaps most importantly, love of our people.