By Larry Gordon
Who doesn’t know Aharon Karov? He is a legend and hero not only in Israel but in Jewish communities and military circles around the world. Last Friday I had the opportunity to hear Karov speak to students at a Friday-morning assembly at Rambam Mesivta in Lawrence.
I speak with Rabbi Zev Friedman, the founder and rosh yeshiva at Rambam, on a semi-regular basis. Most of the time it is because the school is hosting an engaging and important guest to inform, educate, and inspire the students. On other occasions he has invited me out to join the 200-plus students to protest demonstrations at places like the United Nations or the Iraqi mission to the United Nations.
A few years ago, I joined a demonstration in Queens outside the home of an identified and confirmed Nazi war criminal who lied on his immigration application that allowed him entry into the U.S. after World War II. That day and that experience will forever remain indelibly imprinted on my mind and conscience. It was early spring but still cold outside. About 150 or so young men stood outside the home in Queens protesting the presence of a man who, now about 90 years old, thought he had escaped notice and evaded justice for his being complicit in terrible crimes.
Here is an excerpt of a story on the subject that appeared online in November 2005: “200 students and faculty members of Rambam Mesivta High School descended upon the homes of Jakiw Palij and Jaroslaw Bilaniuk, both residents of Queens, to protest their continued presence in the United States despite rulings in federal courts calling for their deportation for serving as ‘cogs’ in the Nazi killing machine and ‘directly contributing’ to the slaughter of Jews at the hand of the Nazis.
“Both Palij and Bilaniuk served as guards at the notorious Trawniki labor camp, a training ground for Nazi brutality. 62 years ago last week, the Trawniki guards participated in the murder of 6,000 Trawniki Jews on November 3 and 4, 1943 and the eventual liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto.
“Busloads of students arrived at Palij’s house at 1:30 p.m. chanting, ‘No S.S. in the U.S.!’ and ‘Just get out!’ while waving placards demanding his immediate deportation.
“Based on the evidence so painstakingly compiled by O.S.I. [Office of Special Investigations] under the directorship of Eli Rosenbaum, ‘it seems clear that these are monsters who killed Jews together, lied together, lived together, and continue to conspire together. They must both be brought to justice together and be removed from the U.S.,’ said rally organizer Rabbi Zev Friedman.
“Students then headed to Bilaniuk’s house to assemble once again in order to send him a clear message that his crimes have not been forgotten and to support the U.S. government’s case that he be removed from the United States.”
These types of activities are uniquely characteristic of Rambam Mesivta and Shalhevet High School for Girls. The schools are certainly steeped in Torah scholarship and academic excellence. But there is also something more going on, and I witnessed it taking place once again in grand style last Friday morning.
Aharon Karov is a hero of sorts of Operation Cast Lead at the end of 2008 and spilling over into 2009. In Israel, prior to his nearly fatal injury, he became instantly known as “He’chatan,” “The Groom” who, the day after standing under the chuppah with his wife Tzviya, left to rejoin his combat unit that was about to enter Gaza to uproot the terrorist scourge that was getting all too comfortable there.
As Aharon meticulously described the situation as it unfolded for him, the room of Rambam students, faculty, and some parents sat spellbound and astounded that the leading character in the event was looking well and recounting the details for us.
But first there was the matter of his wedding that took place the night before Israeli forces moved into Gaza on a Friday evening. Though he commanded a unit, the fact that he was just married gave him the option of choosing whether to join. At this point he explained through an interpreter that at American civil weddings the centerpiece pronouncement is “Until death do us part.” Under the chuppah, however, the main focus is on the term, “Im eshkacheich Yerushalayim . . . If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand lose its cunning.”
Once they considered that fact, Aharon says, the decision was clear. With his wife’s blessing, ten hours after his wedding celebration, he was with his unit ready to enter Gaza. His unit’s job was to clear the terrorists out of homes in densely populated areas. They were assigned the task of clearing out a group of six abandoned homes on the perimeter of a field that would be on the route of ground forces and destroying missile launchers like those that had rained thousands of rockets on S’derot and other Israeli cities.
Karov led the way into the first of the six buildings. Leading his men to first check that there were no occupants, he raced up the stairs to a second floor which was booby-trapped, and his movements triggered a massive explosion. Aside from the force of the explosion itself, a good deal of the stone structure collapsed on top of him and two other members of the unit. Karov suffered the worst injuries and when the other men radioed for assistance they reported that Karov had died in the blast.
But then a faint pulse was detected and an evacuation helicopter was called in. On the trip to the hospital, the doctor on board performed a tracheotomy to help the injured soldier breathe. His face seemed to have absorbed the brunt of the blast and his nose seemed to have just disappeared from his face. Aharon Karov told the Rambam students last week that after he arrived at the hospital and doctors were able to examine the extent of his injuries, they told his family that considering the extent of the damage there was only a 5% chance that Aharon was going to live.
It has been a long, difficult, and circuitous road back, but this past November, Aharon Karov ran and finished the 26.2-mile New York City Marathon. To get to here from there, he has been in more than 10 medical institutions, has seen more than 20 doctors, and endured more than 50 medical procedures, including the reconstruction of his nose. There were minimal visible signs of his severe injuries as I observed him entering the assembly room to speak.
In Israel there was extensive coverage of “the chattan.” When he was so badly injured, the story took on a life of its own. Several years later, Aharon Karov is someone all of Israel looks up to, especially young enlistees just beginning their military service.
Rambam Principal Yotav Eliach said it best when he introduced Karov to the students. “Mitzvah 522 is not to be afraid of the enemy. You have to put everything out of your mind; that means your wife, your children, your family, your home, and your business. Aharon Karov kept that mitzvah squared,” Rabbi Eliach said.
There were also remarks by a former Rambam student and rebbe, Shua Konig, who talked about his experiences in the IDF and the immense respect and esteem he and so many others have for the young Mr. Karov. He said that one of the students asked him earlier that morning why he was wearing a suit and tie, and he responded by stretching out his hand to emphasize his point by saying he was all dressed in his Shabbos finery “because tzaddik ba la’ir,” a tzaddik has come to our community, gesturing toward Aharon Karov.
While this was an enlightening and inspiring morning, it was also in a subtle way a tribute to what Rabbi Zev Friedman has accomplished at Rambam over all these years. Rabbi Friedman is a man with a simple, straightforward vision. He cannot sit still if Nazis are living free in New York. And just the other day he was telling me that he wants the school to undertake two more projects, the battle in support of b’ris milah and the opposition to the increasing number of bans of shechitah (ritual slaughter of kosher animals) in Europe. “How can we sit idly by while these things are happening around us?” he asked.
And, yes, he also takes time to single out and provide a platform for Jewish heroes like Aharon Karov. A person that all his students as well as all of us can learn so much from. v
Comments for Larry Gordon are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.