When Avner Porat and Meni Godard met each other as teenage soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces, back in the late 1960s, they would sometimes kick a soccer ball around, blow off some steam.
When they weren’t doing that, they were training – in the Golan, soon after the 1967 Six-Day War – to find the enemy in Jeeps. The Jeeps offered little protection for the young soldiers, just a big gun. This was pre-GPS reconnaissance.
Fifty years later, Meni organized a reunion for that old IDF reconnaissance unit, with the help of his wife Ayelet. It was held in their hometown, kibbutz Beeri. The kibbutz is near Gaza.
That 50-year reunion was held in 2018, and Avner was not able to fly from Wisconsin to Israel to attend. He didn’t learn about it until the last minute. But he did join a What’sApp group that was created for the reunion, a group that has been active ever since.
Before Oct. 7, the What’sApp messages from veterans of the unit were a lot of family updates, politics and other chitchat.
On Oct. 7, as the kibbutz was overrun by Hamas, the group became a struggle to understand the unfolding crisis and about friends who lived near the Gaza border.
The Jewish people are a small group, so very tiny. There are just 16 million Jews worldwide. That’s less than three states of Wisconsin, with its population of six million. That’s it, for the whole world. This helps to connect the whole Jewish people. In this horribly oversized moment, everyone knows somebody, or everyone knows somebody who knows somebody.
This is a brief story of just one of these great losses.
Meni, that organizer of the reunion, is now remembered in a funeral announcement as “the person with the most friends and loved by everyone … a force in organizing evenings of singing for the region.” He was a lifeguard and swimmer, a family man. He was killed on Oct. 7 by Hamas terrorists.
“This is a guy, I call him my friend. And I feel like we were great, good friends. I haven’t seen him for 50 years,” Avner said. In the army, Meni was in a kind of subunit with Avner, like a squad.
Avner had asked Meni if he could visit, back in 2020, and Meni invited him to stay in his home. Aver canceled the trip just beforehand, because of the pandemic.
“Meni had a good sense of humor,” Avner said. “He was a modest person. He would make funny comments, but never in a nasty way. He was just a great guy. I think every person in the unit liked him. You know, it’s one of those guys that everybody was very fond of.”
The What’sApp group started sharing – something’s happening near Gaza.
“Nobody knew the scope of what’s happening. We know it’s horrible,” said Avner, remembering those early hours on Oct. 7. “Everybody’s trying to call Meni.”
Someone from the old army unit found Meni’s wife that morning on What’s App, the messaging service that’s so often used for texting among Israelis. “His wife Ayelet told him that Meni just died in her arms, but asked the friend not to tell anyone yet because her kids lived nearby and did not know yet,” Avner said.
“She said she is hiding from the terrorists in some bushes. Their house was set on fire by Hamas after they shot Meni. The last time my friend heard from Ayelet was at 10:30 a.m., when she said there are terrorists all around her hiding place. She was never heard from again. The family was hoping that she was kidnapped; at least she would be alive,” Avner said.
Her body was later identified.
“They have four children on the kibbutz and six grandkids. The oldest daughter was hiding with her two little kids in her own house. She locked herself in the security room while her husband went out to bring a car to evacuate. Hamas got to her house during that time and set the house on fire in order to smoke her out of the security room. She took a blanket and moistened it, tore it apart, and used it as a smoke filter. She held it over her kids’ faces as protection against the smoke. That is how she managed with her kids to survive, till 7 p.m. in the evening when soldiers came to the rescue. Her husband was OK too. The other three adult siblings and the kids survived too.”
A kibbutz security team would have had small weapons, maybe pistols, Avner said. He said he and his group have since gathered that a large number of terrorists with assault rifles on pickup trucks and rocket propelled grenades overwhelmed the kibbutz.
Meni and Ayelet had raised their kids on the kibbutz. Meni was in charge of the swimming pool there for many years and Ayelet was very involved in all the kibbutz culture activities. She was a force in organizing the holiday events on the kibbutz and all cultural happenings, Avner said.
The What’sApp group has continued.
“Whenever we hear someone is lost, everybody puts a note, says something,” Avner said. “And oftentimes we all say very similar things and we then hear about someone else, and we say the same thing. We are all crying and crying.”
“’I’m hugging you all,’ ‘I send my love,’ ‘I just can’t believe it,’ ‘We’ve got no words to console you, but we are with you,’ ‘Be strong, as much as you can.’”
“‘And we support you, whatever you need, and we’ll do whatever needs to be done.’”
But the mood is not despair. Avner gets animated as he starts to talk about Israel’s resilience. Avner said, even from Wisconsin, he feels a renewed sense of unity coming from Israel. It seems everyone is coming up with ways that they can help, whether it’s delivering food or helping to organize.
“It’s amazing,” he said. “Just amazing.”