On Aug. 9, 2001, Izzy Ezagui and his parents walked out of a laundromat next to the Sbarro pizzeria in downtown Jerusalem. Twenty minutes later, a suicide bomber entered the restaurant, killing 13 Israelis, including seven children, a pregnant American woman, and a Brazilian tourist – and wounding 130 others.
The Ezagui family, part of the Chabad community in Miami, was visiting Israel to celebrate Izzy’s bar mitzvah. The 13-year-old vowed that day to return to Israel and join the Israel Defense Forces, an idea that gelled when he visited the country on a Taglit-Birthright Israel trip in 2006 and had the opportunity to meet several soldiers face-to-face. In 2007, he fulfilled his promise, enlisting in the IDF as a volunteer. When his parents and three younger sisters made aliyah (moved to Israel) the following year, he joined up as a fulltime conscript.
During Operation Cast Lead in 2008, Ezagui lost his left and dominant arm to a mortar attack. Two years later, he was allowed to return to a combat unit – the first person in Israel’s history to do so after suffering an injury of that magnitude – and went on to pass an officer-training course and become a decorated squad commander.
Now 28 and based in Brooklyn, Ezagui inspires audiences throughout the world with his remarkable life experience. He was named by The Algemeiner in 2013 among “The Top 100 People Positively Influencing Jewish Life.”
Ezagui will bring his story to the Milwaukee Jewish Federation Yom HaZikaron/Day of Remembrance program on Sunday, April 30 at the Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center.
Ezagui returns to Israel to staff the occasional Birthright trip and for annual reserve duty in the IDF Special Forces. “There’s still the real fight: any war that Israel faces, I’ll be there,” he says.
But just as critical is Ezagui’s fight against anti-Israel rhetoric and misinformation on U.S. college campuses. “It’s the hardest thing I have to do, the hardest day of the week, and I’ve had some really nasty experiences,” he says. “But those are the important ones.”
Ezagui is often asked by parents how they can help their college-aged kids effectively deal with the new climate on campus. “The other question I get is how we can stop Jewish students from buying into that, because unfortunately, a lot of the students who call me a terrorist or an apartheid-enforcer are Jewish,” he says. “That is the most painful experience I’ve ever had on stage: meeting a fellow Jew who’s so misinformed to the point that they’re willing to say such things.”
Ezagui advises parents to model a love of Jewish tradition and Israel at home.
“And the simplest solution to all of these problems is Birthright, American Jewry’s ultimate secret weapon,” he says. “There’s no better way to defend Israel and feel for Israel than to have boots on the ground. Over 10 days, in many different unique ways, the participants fall in love with an aspect of Israel and form their own opinions.”
No stranger to overcoming challenges, Ezagui will realize a longtime dream in May, when he graduates from an acting conservatory and hires an agent to add “actor” to his already-impressive resume.
Ezagui blogs at IzzySpeaks.com.
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Save the dates: Yamim 2017 event guide
Yom HaZikaron (Israel’s Day of Remembrance), Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) and Yom HaAtzmaut (Israel Independence Day) are together called Yamim or “days.” These days reflect the great journey of the Jewish people — from slavery to freedom.
Yom HaZikaron, Day of Remembrance
Sunday, April 30, 6 p.m., Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center, 6255 North Santa Monica Blvd., Whitefish Bay.
Israel’s Day of Remembrance honors veterans and fallen military personnel of the Israel Defense Forces, other Israeli security services, and victims of terror. This year marks 50 years since the Six Day War and the reunification of Jerusalem. Ceremony attendees are asked to wear white shirts.
Guest speaker: Izzy Ezagui, decorated IDF squad commander and amputee
Other upcoming Yamim 2017 events:
Yom Hashoah/Holocaust Remembrance Day: Sunday, April 23, 3 p.m., Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center, 6255 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Whitefish Bay. Keynote speaker: Estelle Glaser Laughlin, Warsaw Ghetto survivor
Yom HaAtzmaut/Israeli Independence Day and Walk for Israel: Sunday, May 7, 4 p.m., Milwaukee County War Memorial Center, 750 N. Lincoln Memorial Drive
For more information on all Yamim 2017 programs: MilwaukeeJewish.org/Yamim / 414-390-5705