‘A Bright, Warm Light’: Remembering Omer Balva

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Courtesy of Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School

With a deep and abiding love of the state of Israel, Omer Balva made the decision to head to Israel and enlist in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) after he graduated from Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School (CESJDS) in Rockville in 2019. And after Hamas unleashed a series of heinous terrorist attacks on Israel on Oct.7, Balva knew what he had to do. After purchasing supplies that he understood his fellow soldiers might need, he got on a plane and flew back to Israel so he could do his part in defending the Jewish state.

On Oct. 20, Balva, a 22-year-old Maryland native and a staff sergeant in the 9203rd battalion of the IDF’s Alexandroni Brigade, was tragically killed in northern Israel on the Lebanon border in an anti-tank missile attack. The IDF confirmed Balva’s death, noting in a written statement that it “will not stand by as its soldiers and civilians are attacked” and that it “shares in the family’s grief and will continue to support them.”

A spokesperson for the U.S. Department of State confirmed the death of a U.S. citizen in Israel on Oct. 20 in an emailed statement, offered the State Department’s “sincerest condolences to the family on their loss” and noted that it had no further comment out of respect for the family’s privacy during this difficult time.

“I don’t think I’ll ever really come to terms with the fact that he’s no longer with us. He had such a bright, warm light, and he just made everybody feel so incredibly loved and important. And there really are no words to explain how much love he had and how pure his soul was,” said Alexa Bennaim of Gaithersburg, a close family friend who noted that Balva was “like a little brother to me,” in a phone interview.

Bennaim, who called the Balvas her chosen family and considers Balva’s parents, Sigal and Eyal, her “second parents,” grew up just a few houses down from Balva and spent every morning together with him on their way to school at CESJDS. The two families celebrated holidays together, went to the synagogue together and “did everything together,” she said, noting that her parents and Balva’s parents are best friends. When the Balvas moved back to Israel, it was very difficult for the two families because of the geographic distance that would now be between them.

Balva’s decision to forego the traditional college experience at the time and join the IDF after high school was an easy one, according to Bennaim.

“That was something that Omer always wanted to do. He had such a strong love of Israel and a passion to defend his country, and that was something that he had talked about since he was young,” she said. “He followed in his older sister Shahar’s footsteps. She was in Oketz [the IDF’s canine unit] when she was in the military in the IDF. And he was so proud of her, and he wanted to do his part to contribute in keeping Israel safe.”

Bennaim’s father flew to Israel to be with the Balva family at Omer’s funeral, which was held in Herzliya on Oct. 22, and she has been in touch with Omer’s sister every day since his tragic death.

“Shahar always says to make sure that people know what an incredible and pure hero Omer is, was and always will be,” said Bennaim as she fought back tears.

Balva recently returned to the U.S. for the wedding of a close family friend in California and was making a trip out of it with his girlfriend, Odelia, who was “the absolute love of his life,” according to Bennaim.

The two were in Las Vegas when Balva got news of the Oct. 7 terrorist attacks and he immediately decided that he needed to head back to Israel to fight with his peers. He first traveled to Maryland to spend a few days there before leaving for Israel, during which time he got to visit with his brother, Barak, who lives in Boston and came to see him. Balva and his girlfriend also went to Bennaim’s house for dinner, where they spent time together.

“We joked and laughed, and really took in every moment we had with him knowing what he was going into,” Bennaim said. “We spent Omer’s last Shabbat together. He promised us he would come back. I’m just honored that we got to spend that time with him … and really got to enjoy his special presence with all of us.”

When Balva was getting to ready to leave at the end of the night, Bennaim gave him a really long hug and said, “don’t go and be a hero.” In response, Balva didn’t say ‘I won’t;’ he said, “don’t worry about me.”

“That is something that was very true to Omer’s spirit,” Bennaim said, referring to that final heartfelt exchange with Balva. “He always wanted to make everybody else feel good and feel comfortable and feel safe. It just speaks to the kind and loving nature of his soul.”

Thousands of people attended Omer Balva’s funeral on Oct. 22 in Herzliya, Israel. Photo credit: Aviva Klompas

“We are saddened by the death of Staff sergeant (res.) Omer Balva, a brave commander who served Israel with courage and dedication. We express our heartfelt condolences to his family and friends,” Israel’s Embassy in Washington said in an emailed statement. “Omer Balva was a commander in the 9203 battalion who answered the call to defend Israel after Hamas’s horrific acts and the threats on the Israeli-Lebanese border. He sacrificed his life for the security of Israel and the values of our people. May his memory be a source of inspiration and strength to us all. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family during this difficult time, and may his loved ones find comfort in knowing that Omer was a true hero.”

Balva described his strong connection to Israel and his love of the Jewish state in a 2018 Prezi project that he made for school in 2018. Noting that his paternal grandmother was born in Tiberias, Israel, and that her family had been in Tiberias since the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, he outlined how she survived the Tiberias massacre of 1938, in which a band of Arabs went from home to home attacking the Jews who lived there. He also described his grandmother’s heroic efforts to help wounded soldiers coming back from Egypt during the Suez Crisis in 1956, and how she acted as a nurse and brought food to soldiers during the Yom Kippur War in 1973.

Balva was the first member of his family to be born in the U.S., with his two older siblings having been born in Tiberias before his parents moved to the U.S. in 1996 and settled in Bethesda.

“My passion has always been to protect Israel and suggest what is best for what I believe is the greatest country in the world,” Balva wrote as part of his school project.

“He was the kind of kid who walked into the room and had a smile that would lighten up the room. He was really loved by his friends, other students and teachers, and he was involved in a lot of activities at school. He was just a real pleasure … people enjoyed having him in the room as a friend, as a student,” said Rabbi Mitchel Malkus, Ed.D., Head of School at CESJDS, in a phone interview.

Malkus described Balva, who began attending CESJDS at the age of seven, as “an unabashed and proud supporter of Israel and the Jewish people,” noting that he went on the school’s 12-week Irene and Daniel Simpkins Senior Capstone Israel Trip after graduation and then enlisted in the IDF. He described the Balva family as being “deeply embedded in this community, but also in Israel,” and spoke about their love of Judaism and Israel.

For the CESJDS community and the greater Washington Jewish community, Balva’s loss has hit particularly hard.

“There’s been an outpouring of support for his family and people trying to send words of comfort to the school through me. When we heard the news, my wife and I were crying and she said, ‘this isn’t just close to home – this is in our house.’ And that’s how it feels. It’s just devastating,” Malkus said.

While noting that the school community is still processing what happened, Malkus said they are going to plan a memorial for Balva “because we need to come together as a community to mourn him.”

“He knew inside deeply that he wanted to be in Israel, to defend the state of Israel and to serve in the IDF,” Malkus said. “What I take from all of this, and it is some comfort, is his tremendous passion for Israel. And that’s something that lives in our community currently, but we can be strengthened in what we’re doing, in our resolve, when we know that there are kids like Omer who are willing to put themselves on the line in ways that are unbelievable and that touch us really deeply.”

Courtesy of Alexa Bennaim

Statements of support in the wake of Balva’s death came from a range of sources, including the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and Reichman University, where Balva was studying business and economics.

When asked about the best way that people could honor Balva’s memory, Bennaim spoke about his incredible sense of kindness for others.

“I think the best thing to do is to stand up for Israel, speak out against terrorism, advocate for goodness and find kindness in your heart to show to others. Omer was always so kind to everybody he met, and I know how much he loved making everybody feel so good and so loved. So, if we can all find it in our hearts to show the love that Omer would show to everybody, I know that it would honor his legacy,” she said.

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