‘Help Israel. I am OK.’

‘Help Israel. I am OK.’

Sgt. Joseph Gitarts is remembered in Morris Plains

Joseph Gitarts, after he was called up.
Joseph Gitarts, after he was called up.

This is the letter that Sgt. First Class (res.) Joseph Gitarts wrote to his parents.

“Dear Mom and Dad,

“I love you very much. Everything is as it is supposed to be. I have chosen this. I had a good and interesting life. And yet, I was never afraid of death. I could have skipped reserve duty and hid. But this would contradict everything I believe in and appreciate, and who I consider myself to be. So I didn’t really have a choice, and I would do the same if I could choose again. I came to this decision by myself and stuck with it until the end. I fell proudly for the sake of my people. I have no regrets.

“I love you very much and I am proud that you are my parents. You gave me a lot. I had a very interesting, happy, unique life. My death only highlights it,” he continued. “Undoubtedly, you are in deep pain. But you will manage it. I would like it a lot. It is the main thing that I want. Both of you have many close people who will support you. Please, find something positive in all of this. Spend time with your grandchildren. Help Israel. I am OK.”

If the world were sane, if the unthinkable weren’t happening every day, if life was fair, we’d never know about this letter, written in Russian, destined for Larissa and Ya’akov Gitarts to read only if son Joseph were to die in battle.

The world is not sane, and terrible things happen all the time.

So Larissa and Ya’akov received this letter from their son — the youngest and only one of five siblings and half sibs to have been born to both of them — because he died.

He was 25, in the reserves and very close to the end of his stint in the IDF, when an anti-tank missile hit the tank he was driving in south Gaza and killed him. No one else in the tank with him was harmed.

And like every single person killed or wounded in Israel or Gaza or anywhere else, he was unique and irreplaceable, a loss both to his family and friends and to the world.

Mr. Gitarts was a citizen of three countries — he was born in Washington, D.C., in 1998. His parents went back to Russia, bringing him with them, when he was an infant. And then in 2007, the family moved to Israel — first to Herzliya, then to Tel Aviv. “He never lived here, in this country, but he was a citizen of the United States, Russia, and Israel,” Inna Benin of Morris Plains said.

There was an official shloshim — the commemoration that marks 30 days since a funeral — in Israel, and there was one in New Jersey as well. It was held at Ms. Benin’s shul, Adath Israel, in Morris Plains.

Ms. Benin was Mr. Gitart’s cousin, as a dictionary’s cold logic would define it, but she and Mr. Gitarts saw themselves as aunt and nephew; she was as close to his mother, technically her cousin, as if they were sisters, she said. The last time she saw Mr. Gitarts was in the winter of 2022, when he stayed with her and her family; he was traveling, as young Israelis do, to fill the gap between his IDF service, which he’d just finished, and college.

Joseph Gitarts with his cat.

He was a student at Reichman University in Herzliya; “he’d been admitted to Columbia, but he decided to stay in Israel,” Ms. Benin said. Like other Israeli men his age, he was called up as a reservist in response to the terrorist attack on October 7.

Mr. Gitarts had unusual promise as a data scientist. “When he was about 18, he participated in writing a book” — he was listed second among the authors of an academic paper in a book called “Artificial Intelligence for Healthy Longevity.”

He had finished his IDF service in 2022, but when he was called up, “whether or not to be a reservist on the first day of the war was not a question for Joseph,” Ms. Benin said at the shloshim. “The commander of his group, where he served in military service — Joseph was a tank driver — called him and said,  ‘If you decide, prepare your boots at the front door. We can go at any time.’

“Joseph left on the third day of the war.”

He was beloved, his aunt said. “He was the guy who wants to help everybody. He was the person who would not sit and wait until he was asked to help. If he sees that you need help, he will help you.

“He was very down to earth, he was very funny, very easygoing, and he loved Israel. He loved the United States. He loved his family.”

And people loved him.

The letter he left his family became public, and it “has stirred up an unprecedented wave of patriotism in Israel,” Ms. Benin wrote. “It has been reposted on social networks thousands of times, with an incredible number of comments in support and with gratitude, it was published in almost all Israeli newspapers; it was read in high schools, read repeatedly on television, and has caused endless streams of complete strangers who came to support family, to express the gratitude to the parents for such a son.”

“This shows us what’s going on in Israel affects all of us in the Jewish community,” Adath Israel’s Rabbi Moshe Rudin said. “More than 100 people came to the shloshim at our shul. We were all grief-stricken by the loss of this special young man. His cousin Dmitri read the letter, and it had people speechless and in tears.

“I am not sure if he had a premonition of his death, but the way he ended that letter — it just killed us.”

There is a great and terrible irony in Mr. Gitart’s death at 25. “He was a brilliant mathematician,” Rabbi Rudin said. He wanted to work as a biotechnologist; his goal was to use his knowledge as a computer scientist to research questions of aging. He was robbed of the chance not only to work in his chosen field, but to age himself. But “he wanted to make a difference in people’s lives,” and through the passion and compassion in his letter to his parents, he has made that difference.

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