Combining Combat, Study and Spirit: The story of three fallen soldiers who studied together in the same class
Three combat soldiers, all graduates of Ohr Torah Stone’s Neveh Shmuel Yeshiva High School, class of 2020, fell in action this past month: Yehonatan Semo, Eytan Dishon and Eitan Rosenzweig. The homeroom teacher of the three classmates, and some of their friends talk of the people they were and share their insights on how to deal with such loss.
Dudi Patimer, November 29, 2023
Graduates of Ohr Torah Stone’s Neveh Shmuel Yeshiva High School Class of 2020 parted from three of their classmates who fell in action one after the other in the battles in Gaza: Staff Sergeant Yehonatan Samo, Staff Sergeant Eytan Dishon and Staff Sergeant Eitan Rosenzweig, all of whom were only 21 years old.
“We have a Whatsapp group for the Class of 2020, and two years ago we changed the group’s name to ‘Engagements and Updates for the Class of 2020’, because some of our classmates had gotten engaged and everybody wanted to convey their well wishes and say mazel tov,” says Yair Tavori, a classmate of the three fallen soldiers. “However, in the past three weeks the congratulations turned into condolences, and instead of posting engagement pictures, people were posting pictures of our fallen classmates.
“One of the things we, as former classmates, have recently been discussing is the fact that we have been hurt on numerous fronts. Dishon, Samo and Rosenzweig had not been best friends; however, each had fostered his own close circle of friends and his special group of buddies. What this means is that this calamity did not only impact our specific class, but also the entire grade who had studied in our year, because all three of them had been very outgoing and popular and had impacted a great many people. It was truly impressive to see how all three had managed to combine their unique way of life and their Jewish faith with army life. All three were deeply rooted in the world of Torah, and, even as soldiers, did not forget the values upon which they were raised: the importance of serving one’s country; connecting between the realms of Torah and warfare, and living a life which fosters both the values of Judaism as well as those of mankind. The fact that our class has remained connected has helped us immensely in dealing with our loss.”
Neveh Shmuel Yeshiva High School, one of many schools belonging to the Ohr Torah Stone network of educational institutions, was founded in 1983 in the town of Efrat, and boasts some 300 students who study in grades 9 through 12. “We offer a long school day, from the early hours of the morning until late evening. While the morning hours are dedicated to Torah studies, the afternoon hours center around general studies and the students’ major tracks, typical of any high school,” says Rabbi Shlomo Moses, who had been the homeroom teacher of 12th grade-B in the year 2020. In fact, Rabbi Moses had taught the class for a period of two years, from the beginning of 11th grade until the end of 12th grade, in 2020, when the class graduated.
“When it comes to social activities, the students often remain in the yeshiva over Shabbat or Jewish festivals, which means the school setting is much more than just a scholastic framework. Rather, it offers a much broader envelope, which is intensive but also socially connecting, and in which the educational staff plays a significant and dominant role. In fact, the students view the yeshiva as their extended home. The three students who were killed shared a common denominator: they had all been very socially engaged and had forged meaningful and robust friendships. As high school students, each had paved a unique way of life for himself, and each had chosen to express himself in a distinct fashion.”
Upon their graduation, each of the three had decided upon a different course of life. Samo went to the Aderet pre-military preparatory program in Kfar Silver; Dishon chose to study in the Hesder Yeshiva of Kiryat Shmona, while Rosenzweig opted for the Hesder Yeshiva of Yerucham.
Staff Sergeant Yehonatan Yitzhak Samo of Karmei Zur, a fighter in the 202nd battalion of the Paratroopers Brigade, was critically wounded in the battles of the 8th of November and died of his injuries two days later, on November 10th. He was laid to rest in the military cemetery on Mt. Herzl. “Yehonatan was wise and witty and an excellent athlete. I think what characterized him most was the fact that he took every challenge in stride, and never made a fuss over anything,” says Rabbi Moses.
“When COVID broke out, these students were in 12th grade, so I would keep in touch with them on Whatsapp. I remember sending Yehonatan a message asking him how he was getting along during the difficult days of the pandemic, and he answered – ‘All good. No worries,’ attaching a snapshot of himself working on an archeological site in Karmei Zur. During his military service he volunteered for the Paratroopers Brigade, and in every correspondence with him he made sure to say that all was well and that there were no out of the ordinary hardships. During his training in the Aderet pre-military program, he was known to be an extremely sociable person. Much like the Biblical figure of Yehonatan, Yehonatan Samo was the first to volunteer for every social activity in school, and was also an intelligent student who excelled in whatever he chose to study.”
“I recall the day Samo joined our class in 10th grade. One couldn’t but notice that already on his first day at school he hung out with the rest of the gang and instantaneously became loved by all. From the very first moment, he became a dominant figure, and had a humorous and carefree air about him. Without talking much, he captivated all those around him with his charisma,” recounts Samo’s friend and classmate, Tzur Tachover. “He was an outstanding athlete, a really quick sprinter, and loved soccer. He was a Maccabi Haifa fan and had immense knowledge in world soccer. I used to be the class photographer, and I recently went over all the photographs I had taken during the course of our studies. It was hard to find a photograph of him standing alone; he always had somebody at his side. He was a real “people’s person” and must have found it difficult when there was nobody around. What I loved about him was the way he would look at you when he talked to you. His brown-black eyes would penetrate you, and you would find yourself drowning in his sincere gaze.”
“After we had graduated, there was a time Samo and I served together on the same Paratroopers military base although we were in different battalions. Whenever I spoke to him, he was as sharp as a razor and very focused on the mission at hand,” adds his classmate and friend, Yair Tavori. “He was the real deal. He was a quiet sort of guy, but got on well with everybody. He knew he was king. He felt like a king. But a quiet and modest one.”
The interface between Torah and the Arts
On the 20th of November, ten days after his classmate Samo had fallen in battle, Staff Sergeant Eytan Dishon of Jerusalem, a combat soldier in the Givati Reconnaissance unit fell in the battles in northern Gaza. He, too, was laid to rest in the military cemetery on Mt. Herzl. “I was very close to Eytan when we were students, and we slept in the same dorm room for two years,” says Tachover.
“He took higher grade Math and Physics and was a sort of genius. I would always see him studying, and everything came easily to him. He excelled in Torah study and wanted to be a rabbi. Everybody expected great things of him. In his free time, he would love to hang out and make everybody laugh. Our studies were very intensive, and so we used to chill out in our dorm room and have fun. He had a great sense of humor and knew how to make light of everything. Recently, he told us he was planning on staying in the yeshiva for an additional 4 or 5 years, and it became clear to us that he was on the path to becoming a rabbi. He always wore a smile on his face and was friendly to everybody.”
“I couldn’t believe it when I got the phone call informing me of Eytan Dishon’s death,” relates Rabbi Moses. “It felt like the whole world came crashing down on me. It happened just as the Samo family were getting up from their seven-day mourning period, and to hear the same bad news all over again was just incomprehensible. Eytan was a wonderful young man. I’ve known his family for years, having taught his uncle Yoni years ago, and then it was Eytan’s turn to be my student. He loved learning Torah and delving into the depth of the Talmud. In fact, he was interested in everything that had to do with Judaism. Whenever I asked a really hard question in class, everybody would mumble something or other, and after two minutes of futile attempts at an answer, I would say: ‘Okay Eytan, enlighten us’, and he would immediately give a detailed answer, smiling his shy smile. He was such a charming young man, and so humble. He never bragged about his extensive knowledge.
“As to his social life, well, he was a counselor in Bnei Akiva’s Armon Hanetziv branch in Jerusalem, and was well loved by all. He was very engaged socially, but also wanted to advance in his Torah learning. Ahead of his military service, he was found eligible to take the tests for elite intelligence units, which he would have passed quite easily, I imagine. However, he chose to persevere with his Torah studies and I heard some wonderful things about him from people in the yeshiva of Kiryat Shmona, where he studied. He joined the yeshiva’s first ever track for yeshiva students who enlisted in the Givati Reconnaissance unit, where he was driven by a strong sense of mission. To my great sorrow, he fell in Gaza, as a commander of a Namer, an armored personnel carrier.”
On November 22nd, two days after Dishon was killed in action, Staff Sergeant Eitan Dov Rosenzweig of Alon Shvut, a combat soldier in the Givati Brigade’s Shaked Battalion fell in battle in northern Gaza. He was laid to rest in the cemetery in Kfar Etzion. “I was about to pay a shiva call at the Dishons’ home, so I took out my phone to put it on silent mode, when a new message came in informing me of yet another student of mine who had just fallen. This time it was Eitan Rosenzweig,” Rabbi Moses recalls.
“I felt my legs shaking, and literally couldn’t walk up the stairs to the Dishons’ apartment. After speaking to a friend for half an hour and sharing the pain I was feeling, I mustered the courage to walk into the Dishon home and offer my condolences. Eitan wasn’t what one might call mainstream, and yet he was very sociable and active. For example, he organized a Poetry Slam and was also a talented artist. He would get up and perform little witty monologues on serious subjects, and at the age of 17 he gave a one-man show on old age which astounded us. His art piece for his matriculation project expressed his personal connection to Jewish History, and was made of materials similar to those used for writing a Torah Scroll. After they had all graduated, Rosenzweig organized a get-together for the class and invited me as well. It just goes to show what a sociable person he was.”
“Up until our military service, Eitan and I were inseparable,” says Tavori. “We have been together since pre-school, and even now my house is right next to his. He was a true artist. He was all about art, creativity, painting, writing and literature. He lived and breathed the humanities. He was invigorated by the Arts. When we were in 4th grade, we went on a school trip to Bet Shemesh. During the hike, Eitan, as was his custom, ventured off to look at the scenery and examine the stones. He even found a little stone figure from the Middle Ages or something to that effect. It was because of his little discovery, that the area was later closed off and marked for excavation and an entire hidden village was found. The story was even published in the papers and I remember the day he brought the newspaper to school and how thrilled he was. Such was Eitan, a lover of history and archeology from a very young age. He was a man of books and words. He always spoke words of sense because he was well informed on just about everything. He was always learning or doing research on something, and preferred sitting on the sidelines and not sticking out too much, as befitting a person with an artistic soul. But when one spoke to him, one would discover a wealth of knowledge. “
In high school, he majored in Art and Literature and even got a university scholarship, but preferred going to yeshiva and serving in the army and leaving university for a later time, because it was important to him to study Torah. And yet he was a master when it came to connecting the physical world and the Arts to the spiritual realm. The way he combined all of these worlds was truly remarkable, hardly something most people are capable of doing. In this regard, he was indeed an exemplary figure.”
“Eitan knew how to put down his thoughts in writing, and his written words were always inspirational. I tried to draw as much as I could from his exceptional mind, his works of art and his written words,” adds Tachover. “Whenever he disagreed with somebody during a discussion on some topic or other, by the end of the discussion Eitan would always land up agreeing with the other party without even noticing. That’s how egoless he was. He had no problem backtracking. That was his greatness. He truly had the soul of an artist, in the deepest sense. It’s absurd that such a guy was given a weapon. Instead, he should have been given a paintbrush. He was not one for fighting; he was one for creating works of art.”
A family for life
“Now is the time to return to fight and do what is required of us on the battlefield; however, there will also come a time when we will be there for the bereaved families, mourn the fallen and perpetuate their memory,” says Tachover when asked about how one deals with loss at such a time. “We must go on living. Our mission is to live, which is the opposite of what our enemies want. The evening I received the terrible news about Eytan Dishon’s death, I was attending the wedding of another classmate of ours. I think the bizarre situation in which I found myself is quintessentially Israeli – happiness and sadness interwoven. As absurd as it is, this is our Israeli reality. We are constantly seeking life. We are always looking to build and grow. It is who we are.”
“Our sources tell us that ‘Torah scholars increase peace in the world’, that they fight in order to bring peace to the world,” says President and Rosh HaYeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone, Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander. “And, indeed, our three students, as well as all of the fallen soldiers, gave up their lives not only for the sake of the people living in Israel, but for the sake of the entire free world. Their families and all of us – rabbis, educators, friends – know this without a doubt. Those we have lost were not only committed to upholding the values of our forefathers and our leaders, but they had chosen to enlist in military units that required responsibility and a sense of mission. These fallen soldiers will continue to live on through the friends they left behind, the good deeds they did for all of us, and through the numerous activities and projects we will launch in their memory.”
Rabbi Moses goes on to say that he has invited his former classmates to a get-together in his house this coming Shabbat to talk of the three fallen classmates and to think together of how best to keep their memory alive. “We all feel,” says Tavori, “like one big family, especially after coming together for the funerals, and then going from one shiva home to the next. I think it has left a mark on all of us, and has made it clear that we will always be there one for the other, no matter how difficult things get. We will always be able to talk of our fallen friends and to think back on who they were. Forever.”