DATA-Plano group’s mission to Israel
Photos: Courtesy Rabbi Nesanya Zakon
Front row, from left: Rabbi Ari Katz of the Sderot Hesder Yeshiva, David Immerman, Eldad Bloch, Rabbi Nesanya Zakon, Joe Savariego, Yan Epshtein, tour guide Patrick Amar and IDF soldier Shira Spinell; back row, Todd Sternberg, Lee Raphael and Yury Mintskovsky.

By Deb Silverthorn

On the recent Stand with Israel Solidarity Tour of Israel for Dallas, eight Dallas-area residents fulfilled their mission to experience Israel post-Oct. 7.

“In the 1940s, Jews were dying and there were so many who did nothing. I couldn’t stand on my watch and do nothing today,” said Rabbi Nesanya Zakon, of DATA of Plano, who led the tour and had been at a Friends of the Israel Defense Forces event last December.

“We had to go, we had to be witnesses to what happened and, in 30 years God willing, we’ll tell our grandchildren what happened, what we saw and what we did,” Zakon added.

Eldad Bloch, Yan Epshtein, David Immerman, Yury Mintskovsky, Lee Raphael, Joe Savariego and Todd Sternberg joined Zakon from Feb. 26 to March 3. 

The men met with Alex Malayev, whose 19-year-old son Yoav, a second lieutenant in the Israel Defense Forces, was killed the morning of Oct. 7 and with Leon Bilmes, whose 24-year-old daughter Sapir was killed at the Nova Music Festival.

“Leon told us he and his son searched for Sapir, but it was days before she was found. The heart-wrenching experience left us worn and wanting to do anything we could,” said Mintskovsky, a relative of the Bilmeses. “Sapir was a light and it’s impossible to believe that she is gone. There is an effort, through Magen David Adom, to purchase an ambulance in memory of Sapir that she should live on doing good in this world.

“The soldiers we met were filled with grace and thankfulness,” said Mintskovsky. “Can you imagine? These heroes thanked us. We met so many heroes.”

With some connections made by the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas and the Dallas chapter of Jewish National Fund, the group met with Rabbi Ari Katz of the Hesder Yeshiva, which combines military service with Torah learning; Eitan Na’eh, Israel’s ambassador in Bahrain; and Olivier Rafowicz, the IDF international media spokesperson.

They met with Dalia Rabin-Pelossof, the daughter of the late Yitzhak Rabin and founder of the Yitzhak Rabin Center for research and library; Eyal Shmueli, the mayor of Kfar Vradim; and a security officer who offered security briefings, a visit to the operating center and the base’s medical room in the north. They visited the Akko Center for Arts and Technology, went to Hostages Square and met with Yoni Spigelman of United Hatzalah.

Rabbi Zakon took a group of seven men to Israel. Some of them are shown here at a special operations base.

There was time for shopping, good food and dancing in the streets with IDF soldiers from Colombia, India, Israel and the U.S., all with their rifles at the ready.

They went to the Harvey and Gloria Kaylie Rehabilitation Medical Center at ADI Negev-Nahalat Eran in the southern region and to the Western Galilee Hospital in the north. Inspired by the underground facilities, hosting 450 patients, the group hopes to help raise funds for a much-needed addition.

“The Israeli government will match up to $4 million raised, a total of $8 million to complete the addition,” Zakon said, emphasizing the need for help.

The group gave out hundreds of Dallas Mavericks, Rangers and Stars jerseys. Levine Academy sent T-shirts and letters and painted rocks from students. Coordinating with Ivan Sacks, Zakon had raised funds for and delivered 60 raptor scissors to Thank Israeli Soldiers. The scissors are used to remove uniforms in an emergency. They also brought dozens of pairs of boots and more.

The group cooked and served a barbecue for IDF soldiers near the Gaza border, a project of Dallas native Lily Feinstein; they met with business and investment executives Jonathan Rand and Alon Tal, partner and senior vice president at the investing platform OurCrowd.

They spent Shabbat at the Kotel and on Saturday afternoon they met with Aish HaTorah’s Daniel Ratner, a relationship and personal growth coach.

Yossi Landau, head of operations of the southern region of ZAKA Search and Rescue, took the Dallas visitors to Kibbutz Be’eri, to the site of the Reim music festival massacre and to Sderot, where the town’s police station was destroyed during the massacre.

ZAKA has performed many tasks including victim recovery missions after disasters worldwide.

“We know about bodies, about disasters. At 6:30 in the morning the sirens rang and while my family ran to shelter,” he said, “my job is to go wherever I can to help.”

ZAKA Search and Rescue team volunteer Yossi Landau with Dallas visitors to Israel, Lee Raphael (left) and Joe Savriego.

On Oct. 7, Landau said goodbye to his wife and most of his 10 children and 22 grandchildren who were together for Simchat Torah — most of whom he didn’t see again for many months.

“Hug your children, hug your loved ones. We know it’s not over and we must be prepared. We cry about what’s waiting for us,” he said. “We saw bodies, people running, terrorists. Nine of our heroes were killed and with the number of bullets over my head I shouldn’t be here.”

On a visit to Dallas April 14, Landau shared his story at the home of Lee Raphael to those who had been on the trip and to invited guests, both Jews and of the greater community.

“Not only as a Jew, but as a human being, what you do is try to save lives. We never leave — it’s a promise — without bringing back every person for a proper burial,” he added. “It’s important these men from Dallas came, to be witness and to learn what is going on and to bring it home.

“Their courage is magnificent,” said Landau, “and the love we received is like they are my brothers all my life.”

Landau spoke of recovering parts of bodies, house after house, child after parent. The emotional toll on the volunteers is one that requires trauma support, which comes at great expense. Supporting that expense is just one of many ways the Dallas entourage is already at work.

Raphael said, “It’s worse than any of us could imagine — evil exists and it’s there. It can be anywhere. We have to open the world’s eyes to the reality.

“Yossi and the ZAKA volunteers are all angels and that can’t be understated,” he said. “We must show them they are not alone.”

Once the rest of the participants left, Zakon remained to visit with his son, Yaakov, studying at Yeshivat Meir; his niece and nephew, Elisheva and Yisrael Probstein, who have made aliyah; as well as other North Texas families who have made Israel home.

Zakon spent Shabbat at Kibbutz HaHotrim, where former Allen residents Adi and Avi Armoza are now living. While the kibbutz has no synagogue, they pulled together more than two dozen people to study Torah.

“We ended up learning together, the boys from the kibbutz,” said Zakon. “My Yaakov and Yisrael played soccer together and I saw friendships developing. My goal in everything I do is to build bridges. That happened from before the trip began and it is continuing.”

Zakon hopes to make one or more return trips. “This group of businessmen left their families and their jobs to go to Israel, to do what Jews should do,” he said. “They went looking for insight. They’ve returned knowing they can make a difference and they will.”

To donate to ZAKA, visit tinyurl.com/ZAKA-support. To make a donation to the Magen David Adom ambulance in memory of Sapir Bilmes, visit tinyurl.com/Sapirs-Ambulance. To donate to the Western Galilee Hospital project, email rabbizakon@gmail.com.

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