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Kaddish at Jewish WWI graves in Gaza

By Shifra Epstein

I write this in memory of the IDF soldiers who gave their lives during the Israel-Hamas War in Gaza, as well as the Jewish soldiers who sacrificed their lives during World War I and are laid to rest in two British Army Cemeteries in Gaza. Their courage, dedication, and ultimate sacrifice will always be remembered and cherished.

Some 50,000 Jewish soldiers fought in the British army during World War I, with 8,600 falling in battles. At least 10 of them who took part in the battles for Gaza are buried in the British Army Cemetery in the town of Al-Maazi, in the center of Gaza. According to news reports in January and February, “While fighting their way through Gaza, Israeli soldiers have stumbled across several well-preserved Jewish graves.”

The 188th “Barak” (Lightning) Armored Brigade made an unexpected historical detour when they ran across a well-kept World War I British military cemetery. This brigade has a long history beginning before the foundation of the State of Israel. The late Yoni Netanyahu, Benyamin Netanyahu’s brother, was one among the legendary commanders of the 188th Barak Brigade.

In an interview with the Israeli Radio, Lt. Col. Oren Schindler, the commander of the Barak Brigade, described the unexpected discovery of the cemetery. His soldiers found among the hundred tombstones seven tombstones of Jews. “We photographed the tombstones with the names of the places where they fought and died. I said to myself, we are not the first Jews fighting in Gaza, that this is not only our battle. Our war here is because they (the Jews) fought here in the beginning of the last century.”

The discovery and the recitation of Kaddish in Gaza was an event representing a moment of realization that the IDF’s war in Gaza is intimately connected with events from World War I, where Jewish British soldiers also fought on the same soil. This realization brings the Jewish/Israeli soldiers in Gaza to a full circle, highlighting the continuity of struggle and sacrifice across generations.

Too tired and exhausted, Lt. Col. Schindler and his commanders promised to return to the cemetery later to say Kaddish on the graves of the British Jewish soldiers buried there.

A two-minute video posted by the Barak Brigade documented the return to the cemetery of two commanders as they had promised.

The video documenting the event starts with a long shot from one end of the cemetery, zooming to a commander dressed in an army uniform holding a siddur.

Standing in front of a tombstone with a Magen David covered with an Israeli flag, the commander started with an introduction, “We are in the cemetery where dead soldiers from WWI are buried, among them Jews. And we will say Kaddish.”

Though already inside the cemetery, in the video, one of the commanders, started with asher yatzar etkhem badin, “he who created you in judgment,” a blessing usually recited before entering a cemetery after not seeing a grave for 30 days. He followed with the recitation of Kaddish, ending with Ose Shalom, the prayer which poignantly concludes the Mourner’s Kaddish, a prayer used for remembrance of those who have passed on or are in need.

And finally, the commander ended with Shabbat Shalom.

A picture of the two commanders holding the Israeli flag next to a grave of a Jewish soldier has gone viral, with more than 3.5 million viewers in Israel and abroad. The event in the cemetery received a great deal of attention in the Israeli media, both secular and religious.

I felt the event in the cemetery was a moment of unity and commemoration, honoring the Jewish soldiers who fought in Gaza more than 100 years ago and who are buried in the cemetery.

For me, the recitation of Kaddish in the British Army Cemetery in Gaza underscores the universal human impulse to honor the dead and to seek connection with those who came before us. I believe that during conflict and chaos, such gestures of respect and reverence serve as powerful reminders of our shared humanity and the importance of preserving the memories of those who have gone before us.

During the past several months since I first read these reports of the British Cemetery in Gaza and the recitation of Kaddish in the cemetery, I found myself surfing YouTube videos taken there while I recite Kaddish for Israelis and Palestinians who died in Gaza.

Personally, I like to replace the line in the Kaddish “v’al kol Yisra’eil” (and upon all Israel) with “v’al kol yoshvei tevel” (and upon all the inhabitants of the world).

I hope that the recitation of Kaddish by the commander in the British Army Cemetery in Gaza will inspire you as it inspired me to recite Kaddish for Jews and non-Jews, Israelis and Palestinians, who were killed during the Hama-Israel war in Gaza. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dTSOIEzEPhI

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