By: Chana Weinberg | Opinions  | 

After 37 Years, Zecharia Baumel Finally Returns Home

When Gilad Shalit miraculously returned to Israel in Oct. 2011, Rabbi Moshe Rosenberg of Cong. Etz Chaim in Kew Gardens Hills replaced Shalit’s name with an extended pause during the prayer for the return of lost soldiers. This past Shabbat, Zecharia Shlomo ben Miriam Baumel, or, Zecharia Baumel, received the same treatment — after 37 years of uncertainty, his remains have returned to Israel for proper burial.

Israeli Intelligence operatives in Syria located the remains of Sgt. Baumel, one of the IDF soldiers MIA since the First Lebanon War in 1982. Russian and Syrian forces extracted the body, which arrived in Israel via El-Al airplane on April 3. He was buried in the military cemetery on Mt. Hertzel on April 4.

After a painful wait, the Baumel family could finally eulogize and sit shiva for their loved one.

“Your commanders and comrades — some of them have grandchildren,” President Reuven Rivlin told the Israeli flag-clad coffin, “but we are burying you today as a 22-year-old soldier.” At 22-years old, Baumel was a student in the tenth class of Yeshivat Har Etzion. American born, Zach was a sort of advisor to the yeshiva’s American students, known to attend their basketball games and other events. He was also a brother and a son.

In her eulogy, Osnat Haberman told the thousands of funeral-goers that for 37 years she longed to give her brother a hug — how she now finds solace in knowing that the earth for which Zecharia gave his life now embraces him in an eternal hug.

His return is a miracle. I am not referring to how the extraction team was able to retrieve the body, though that was miraculous as well. I mean the miracle of grief, the grief that comes with knowing. Now the family can sit shiva and grieve, they can take the first step in the healing process — an unthinkable step they could not have taken when awaiting news of Zecharia’s return.

Etched into my brain is the image of the rectangular card with the prayer that I received as an eight-year-old and the strong voice of my congregation saying his name during Shabbat services. The full Hebrew name, Zecharia Shlomo ben Miriam Baumel, is so ingrained in my consciousness that when I saw the notification about his return, I had to read it twice before realizing that I knew the person it was talking about. I do not think I am alone in that experience. This is the consequence that comes with the gap time created — a gap where people were born and grew up while Zecharia remained his 22-year-old self.

While the eulogies of President Rivlin and Prime Minister Netanyahu contained plenty of political maneuvers, at one point Rivlin quoted a letter Zecharia wrote to his family days before he went missing: “It seems that I will not be home very soon.” No one could have known how long his family would have to wait until their son returned home, and now that he has, it is finally time to mourn. Time to mourn and time to continue to ask G-d to return the other missing soldiers to their families, so that they too can begin to mourn.