Hero Lives On Through IDF Torah Scroll Restoration Project

— by Toby Klein Greenwald

At the age of 17, boys in Israel receive their first draft notice. A fly on the wall can hear them discussing animatedly, with their friends, the units to which they hope they will be accepted. There are units whose names conjure up extra “prestige” — like the Shayetet (Israel’s Navy Seals), Duvdevan or Maglan.

But the most coveted assignment, for young men of sharpest wit and strongest body, is Sayeret Matkal — the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit. It is an elite special forces unit of the Israel Defense Forces, a commando unit that carries out the most dangerous and courageous operations, both in Israel and beyond its borders. The Entebbe rescue, in which commander Yoni Netanyahu was killed, was carried out by Sayeret Matkal. Even to be invited to what is called the “gibush” — the first intense level of screening — for Matkal, as it is called colloquially, is a badge of honor, and only a select few make it past that initial stage.

More after the jump.

In the Lebanon War of 2006, in which 44 Israeli civilians and 119 IDF soldiers were killed, the name of one man who belonged to Matkal stood out above the rest — “Moreno.” He was the highest ranking officer to die in that war, and the operations he performed during his career were so highly classified and so secretive that, to this day, it is not permissible to publish his photograph.

Moreno fell in combat towards the end of the war in a complex and secret commando mission, against the Hizbullah, in the Bekaa Valley. Among his commanders and his soldiers were those who compared him to Bar Kochba. One fellow soldier said, “James Bond films pale in comparison to Moreno.”

Who was Moreno?

Lt. Col. Emmanuel Yehuda Moreno was born in France in 1971. His family made aliyah when he was a year old and he grew up in Jerusalem, attending religious high schools and belonging to the B’nei Akiva youth group. He studied in the pre-army yeshiva military academy Eli, completed a degree in Law while he served in the IDF, and also worked for the Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet), before he returned to the Matkal unit. He was married with three children.

According to a 128-page book, Silence is Your Praise, published in his memory, he worked constantly on his character traits. The book’s chapters include: Belief, Kindness, Religious Observance, Leadership, Modesty, Truth and Dealing with Crisis.

In an powerful Jerusalem Post column of August 22, 2006, Caroline Glick describes not only Moreno’s heroism, but his humble behavior, how he lived quietly with his wife and three children in a moshav near Sderot. Shaul Mofaz, former minister of defense, who had been Moreno’s senior commander in Matkal, described how he heard, after Moreno’s death, how Moreno and his wife, Maya, lived modestly, and helped four or five other families from his paycheck. Mofaz also said, “Emmanuel was a man of stature; an officer, a leader, but also an individual of iron will.”

In a series of interviews on the Moreno website, “M”, one of his comrades in arms, says, “He was one of the most talented warriors who ever lived in Israel. I think the comparison to Bar Kochba, [the leader of Jewish revolt against Rome between 132 and 135 AD], made by one of his commanders, is accurate. I’ve known many fighters, but I don’t think the Jewish people ever had one like Emmanuel — for both his faith and his heroism… He never thought about himself, only about the big picture.”

In 1994 Moreno took part in a sensitive military operation in which Mustafa Dhirani was captured by the IDF, in his family home, in the heart of Lebanon. Israel TV Channel Two reported that, at one point, Dhirani had held missing IDF pilot Ron Arad captive, and it was believed that his capture might lead to information about Arad. For years Dhirani would sleep with a loaded gun under his pillow. When the sayeret burst into his bedroom in the middle of the night, he didn’t even have time to pull out his weapon.

Member of Knesset Avi Dichter, a former soldier in Matkal, says, “He was one of the sayeret of the sayeret — a member of a group that was the most elite even from within the Matkal unit. There is no way of knowing how many lives were saved by some of the operations [in which he was involved]. A lot of glory that nobody knows about and apparently will never know about — is related to Emmanuel’s abilities.”

Naftali Bennett, today a front runner for the Bayit Yehudi party in the Knesset and a hi-tech business guru, who served with Moreno, says, “His value system was different. Generally, people have regard for people who have succeeded, who’ve made money, who have a degree, who have military ranks on their shoulders. With Emmanuel, all that didn’t count. What was important was if you’re a good person, how much you help, how much you care about the people of Israel.”

Bennett spoke to him a few days before he died. “He said, ‘This war will wake up the nation, will cause the nation to understand what’s going on…I had the impression from him that he was preparing for something, I had no idea what it would be or when… I was impressed by his calmness…I think about him all the time, ask myself what he would do in this situation or that…and I hope it will help us to be better individuals.”

His brother, who fought in the same unit, said that the last time they spoke, Emmanuel said he knew this was a difficult war and it would require a human toll, “And we spoke about the fact that we both have families, children, but if we had to, we were ready to sacrifice ourselves.”

Another brother, Rabbi Shmuel Moreno, says, “Emmanuel, like his comrades-in-arms, was a sealed vault – he took the key and threw it into the sea.”

Medals and Decorations

Lt. Col. Emmanuel Yehuda Moreno was awarded the Jerusalem Prize for Jewish Heroism by the Jerusalem Conference. He was awarded the Medal of the Chief of Staff of the IDF. He was awarded the Medal of the Chief of the Intelligence Services for his life’s work. He was awarded many additional decorations for military operations, the nature of which, for security reasons, cannot be publicized.

At the azkara (memorial service) held for Lt. Col. Emmanuel Yehuda Moreno, on the sixth anniversary of his death, a senior intelligence officer said,

From a place of anonymity, Emanuel became a national figure, an emulated role model for the nation, for young fighters, for commanders, for comrades, for his family…From a man who lived in the shadows Emanuel became a figure of distinction and renown… From a person who, in his lifetime, influenced military operations and command strategy, through his character and his connection with those to whom he was close, he became a figure who has impacted almost an entire people.

If Emanuel will enter our lives as a mythical figure we will miss the point. Emanuel teaches us about the possible, about how to accomplish today what we did not achieve yesterday. It is about how we will become a little bit better, yet we are still only human beings, not angels and not sons of angels.

From his death we can take with us love, courage, kindness, sacrifice, great faith and great joy among the sadness. Our lives that have been emptied of his physical presence are filled with a different presence…All this we can do because Emanuel is with us. And even though I am not a religious person in the usual sense, I can say that Emanuel can be with us, because God is with us and God is among us, within human beings.

And what is the meaning of God being with us? The meaning is that we, too, are creators of worlds – creators of our own internal worlds. The choice is in our hands.

SafraVeseifa -The Torah Scroll Project

The IDF is a professional, well equipped army with some of the most advanced weapons systems in the world. But Tzahal marches also on the power of faith and courage of warriors like Moreno, and on the mission of Am Yisrael as outlined in the Torah.

In April 2012, Rabbi Shmuel, head of the Beit Midrash of Derech AMI, the post-army Institute for Jewish Studies in Honor of Lt. Col Moreno, of blessed memory, initiated a project called “SafraVeseifa” — “The book and the sword.”

SafraVeseifa repairs sifrei Torah (Torah scrolls) that have been damaged, often due to the rugged physical conditions in the field. “What distinguishes the IDF from other armies in the world,” the project directors say, “is that there is a Torah Scroll on each base, that strengthens their fighting spirit and reminds them about what they are fighting for.” Moreno’s family created the SafraVeseifa project as a tribute to his memory, and to the bravery and belief of those who serve.

Derech Ami has taken upon itself to repair the more than 200 IDF sifrei Torah that now invalid. The checking and repairing of the scroll must be painstaking and thorough. The Moreno scrolls undergo hundreds of hours of meticulous proofreading and editing, including a final computerized scan and check to ensure accuracy. The process takes between three months to half a year. The students of Derech AMI are being trained in this skill so that, in addition to their Torah learning, they will acquire a profession. The fact that they are studying in an institute dedicated to Moreno’s memory affords them additional motivation and inspiration in their work of tikun on the sifrei Torah.

When the scroll is pronounced “kosher” it goes back to “active service,” sent to an army base, and a re-dedication ceremony organized by the IDF, a hachnasat sefer Torah, is held. The project is dependent on donations, and the IDF permits the donor to decide in whose name he or she wants to re-dedicate the Scroll. The cost of repairing each sefer Torah is approximately $10,000.

In the first two months of the project, donations to repair five Torah scrolls were already pledged. It is apparently the aura of Moreno’s heroism that is prompting people to take part in this important mitzvah. Torah scrolls dedicated by Marc Belzberg of Jerusalem; Isaac Appelbaum of Oakland, California; the Mizell brothers of Denver, Colorado; and the community of Raanana, Israel will go to the Iron Dome battery near Ashkelon; emergencies and the IDF delegation to Poland; the unit of Emergency Preparedness of the IDF; and an Air Force base, respectively.

Uri Dopelt, who directs the Safra Veseifa project, was recently in the U.S. During his first week there, he received donations to repair fifteen more Moreno Torah scrolls.