IDF soldiers describe war experiences, thank community

BY ROBERT A. COHN, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF EMERITUS

Israeli soldiers Lior Applebaum, 43, and David Biton, 24, from St. Louis’s Partnership 2000 sister-city region of Yokneam-Megiddo visited St. Louis last week for a whirlwind, non-stop series of talks in which they described their personal experiences in the 34-day war in Lebanon, and expressed deep thanks to the Jewish community of St. Louis “for supporting Israel during a time of tremendous need.”

During their week-long visit to St. Louis, Applebaum and Biton shared their experiences of being called to duty for the Israel Defense Forces after the outbreak of war with Hezbollah in July, and the effect the war had on the population of northern Israel, where more than l million Israelis were forced to leave their homes and live in cramped bomb shelters for more than a month.

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Among their many local appearances, Applebaum and Biton, who were warmly received by both Jewish and general audiences, spoke to Jewish communal workers at an informal luncheon session af the Jewish Federation Kopolow Building, addressed students in the adult classes at the Central Agency for Jewish Education, appeared at the Saul Mirowitz Day School-Reform Jewish Academy, and were the featured speakers at Congregation B’nai Amoona last Thursday, where they presented a video and spoke on the topic “In the Aftermath of the Lebanon War: The View From Yokneam-Megiddo.”

Partnership 2000, chaired in St. Louis by Leslie Litwack and staffed locally by Jennifer Baer Lotsoff, is a program created in 2000 by the United Jewish Communities, in which local Jewish federations enter into “sister-city” relationships with communities in Israel. The Jewish Federation of St. Louis, along with the Atlanta Jewish Federation, have been the sister-cities to Yokneam-Megiddo since the program’s inception.

“Our two visiting soldiers really put a human face on both the recent conflict in Israel as well as clearly showing what our community’s donations have accomplished in that region and in Israel generally. Their messages were moving and meaningful,” said Leslie Litwack at the B’nai Amoona program, which was sponsored by the synagogue’s Israel Committee, chaired by Alan Wolchansky, who introduced Applebaum and Biton.

Captain Lior Applebaum, 43, serves as an assistant commander in the highly regarded Alexandroni Brigade, an infantry unit set up before Israel became independent. Applebaum volunteered to join his battalion on the first day of the war, July l2. Applebaum has a wife and three children, and described the emotional strain “of saying goodbye to my wife and kids, not knowing if I would really make it back alive or even in one piece.”

Applebaum’s eldest child was awaiting his bar mitzvah when he voluntarily rejoined his reserve unit for service in Lebanon. “He asked me, ‘Dad, you will come back for my bar mitzvah, won’t you?’ I told him yes, of course, but after I left to report for battle, I was not really sure myself.”

David Biton, 24, whose smile and good humor endeared him to the various audiences he addressed, is a demolition squad officer, handling dangerous explosives, which he smilingly said “is not big deal.” He described how he and his girlfriend had been living happily in Haifa where he was preparing to go to the University of Haifa, and had to leave for the border with Lebanon.

“I had been in Gaza in combat situations before, but the veteran guys would tell me that one was not really in combat until they had been in Lebanon, and they were right.” The youthful and cheerful Biton lost his smile when he made repeated references to “worrying about my Mom.”

Applebaum described being with his 75-member unit on the border with Lebanon when the order came through to go into Lebanon in ground assault to clear Hezbollah terrorists from the southern part of the country. “Sitting there, you just try to evaluate what you have done with your life and if it has been worthwhile. Most of us were introspective that night, but we came together as a unit the following day. I was pleased that 99 percent of my all-volunteer unit showed up for service to help the compulsory army in battle.”

Applebaum said that his unit decided not to inform their families that they were going in to Lebanon for a planned 72-hour mission. “We did not want them to worry too much, so we just told them we were going to a place outside of the range of cell phones,” he said.

Both soldiers were very candid about the lack of preparation for many aspects of the Lebanon campaign. “At one point, my men literally were out of water and were down to only a small number of boxes of tuna. One box of tuna had to be shared by four or five men. We were told to go into markets and homes to obtain such supplies, but to leave a bag of money in payment.”

Applebaum also stressed that the Hezbollah fighters were “much better trained and equipped than we anticipated. We inflicted many casualties on them, but they were well-trained and well-supplied by their sponsors in Iran and Syria.”

In their remarks and in the video they presented at their appearances, Biton and Applebaum described how the communities of Yokneam and Megiddo helped their fellow Israelis in northern areas which were much harder hit, such as Haifa, Tiberias and Nazareth. “Over 700 food packages were distributed at several northern communities,” Applebaum said. Some 2,100 Israelis were provided shelter, food and recreational facilities in Yokneam-Megiddo during the 34 days of fighting.

In all, over 4,000 Katyusha rockets rained down on nothern Israeli towns and cities. The Yokneam-Megiddo area was hit by one rocket. “Apparently, Hezbollah did not have our community on its priority list of targets,” Applebaum said.

Both speakers repeatedy expressed appreciation to the Jews of the United States, and especially to those in St. Louis and Atlanta for their strong support. “Not only was the financial help important, but so was the moral support, the emotional support and yes, the political support all of you provided,” Applebaum said. “There really are no words to describe how grateful we are.”

Several audience members expressed appreciation to Applebaum and Biton for their courageous service during the war in Lebanon and for the support their community provided to those hit hardest by the conflict.

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