A Mother’s Pain, a Mother’s Pride: The Faith of Jen Airley

On the 5th of Kislev, 21-year-old Binyamin Airley hy”d fell in Gaza. Since then, Binyamin’s mother Jen has been an inspiration to all of Am Yisrael, speaking openly from the heart with extraordinary strength and faith. Rabbi Aron White spoke with Jen to hear about Binyamin’s life and legacy. 

 

Thank you for speaking with us, Jen. Can you tell us about your family and your journey to Israel?

I am from Florida, my husband Robert is from Manchester and we met in Yerushalayim. We got married in 1999 and started our lives together in New York. For me, the plan was always to make Aliyah. Robert wasn’t as eager. During Thanksgiving in 2003, he went on a mission to Israel with the Red Shul of the Five Towns, and in Chevron he had a powerful, emotional experience. When he got home he said, “Alright, I’m ready for a five-year plan to make Aliyah.” Hashem helped us out, and we reached the financial target we had set sooner than we expected, so three years later we moved with our three kids to Ramat Beit Shemesh. In Israel, we had another three children. Binyamin was our oldest son. When we moved, he was only 4 years old, so we weren’t thinking about him serving in the army, but it was also clear that the path we were taking was one where our children would serve in the army. 

Tell us about Binyamin.

Physically, he was tall and good looking, but even more beautiful and strong on the inside. He was very connected to the ideal of growing as a person, that real gevurah is the battle with the yetzer hara, and growing to be the best person he could be. “Eizehu gibor, hakovesh et yitzro, Who is strong? One who conquers his desires.” When he was in the army, he had said: “We need to do what we need to do, but the real battle is fought through our prayers.” 

He went to quite a few different schools. Ultimately, by 11th grade we found the right fit – which ended up being a yeshiva high school in Eilat. He thrived there before joining the hesder yeshiva in Tzfat. It’s fitting that he received his education at opposite ends of the country, because he loved every inch of this country and knew almost every junction, almost every natural spring, and almost every tiyul in Israel. 

He wanted to join an elite army unit. He passed the test for paratroopers, and joined Unit 101. He was drafted in August 2021 and really loved the yeshiva boys he was with. 

He was taken up to shamayim on November 18th. He was actually supposed to be finishing his service in December 2023, but he probably would have stayed on longer. He wouldn’t have been able to return to yeshiva while the war was still going on – he wanted to continue fighting and couldn’t stand the idea that others would be fighting while he would be far from the war. 

Jen and Binyamin hy”d.

Where were you, and where was Binyamin, on October 7th?

Binyamin spent a lot of time on a farm near Neve Tzuf, protecting the area there. On Sukkot, he was doing shemirot in Chevron with the army, but was released on Hoshana Rabbah for chag. He went to Neve Tzuf to make a minyan for Simchat Torah. 

We were in Ramat Beit Shemesh for Yom Tov. Once we saw all the surreal scenes of all the soldiers driving on streets that are usually silent on Shabbat, I knew that Binyamin had also been called up. That night, he called to say that he was at a base in the north, and from there they were helicoptering down south. 

His unit went to Nir Am, a kibbutz adjacent to Sderot, checking house by house to make sure there were no terrorists. After a few days, he called from some landline to tell us he was ok. After some time, his tzevet went to a paratrooper training base for intensive training to prepare for going into Gaza. Before they went in, the army hosted a family picnic on October 27th just outside the base. We had a couple of hours all together. On Monday they gave in their phones and on Tuesday they went into Gaza, where he fought for two and a half weeks before he was killed.

He trained as a “Negevist,” a role given to the stronger soldiers who operate the Negev machine gun. When they were training to go into Gaza, he was in a group of 16 guys who were essentially bodyguards of the brigadier general and the special equipment for all the paratroopers in Gaza. Technically, they were “safe,” as they weren’t on the frontline of battle, and other soldiers were assigned to protect these guys. Binyamin was frustrated that he wasn’t fighting himself. At one point, the other Negevist got injured, so Binyamin was then given the Negev gun and was involved in the fighting. 

They were stationed in northern Gaza. There was a house from which Hamas terrorists were shooting. The soldiers engaged them, but they weren’t able to neutralize the terrorists from afar. One mefaked, Jamal Abbas, a Druze soldier, along with his right-hand man Shachar Friedman, said: “I’m going in – we just can’t have the terrorists shooting at us and putting many soldiers in danger.” Binyamin saw they were going in and he still had his Negev, and he said: “You need ammo. I am coming with you.” He pushed his way in to join the soldiers. They got into the house, killing two terrorists, but one was hiding in the corner, and he killed all three of the IDF soldiers. It was typical of Binyamin to push his way forward – to take care of whatever needs to get done. 

This was on Shabbat morning, November 18th. When were you informed that he had fallen?

That Shabbat morning, I was at shul. Right after Torah reading I started feeling antsy and unable to stay. My ten-year-old daughter was surprised to see me going home, but I said I felt I had to go home and say Tehillim. I was bawling and davening for a while – I didn’t know what I was feeling. I just told my daughter I wished everyone could be home for Shabbat together. My Chana sat there hugging me. She gave me Sefer Mitzvat HaBitachon (The Mitzvah of Trusting G-d) and said, “I think you need this.” We learned together, wiped my face and carried on. We got ready for lunch, and that afternoon we were taking a nap. My husband, who had been napping on the couch downstairs, woke me up and frantically said: “Get dressed and come downstairs.” “Are the kids ok?” I asked him. “No,” he said. I worried something happened to Chana, but why was it so quiet? No ambulance siren? As soon as I left my room and saw the soldiers at the staircase, I knew what that meant. I understood the phrase: “Vayidom Aharon, And Aharon was silent,” when he learned of the death of his sons. There was nothing to say other than “Baruch Dayan HaEmet.” 

I asked them when he had fallen, and they told me the battle was between 9:30 and 10:30 in the morning – pretty much when I had left shul and came home. It was a shock, but on some level it wasn’t. 

The soldiers were holy and special. What a horrible job to have but they were very caring, gentle, tried to help any way they could and worked to figure out how to tell the other children and family members who were in different places for Shabbat. It was surreal.1

When a soldier dies defending Israel, there is often a dynamic where the private pain of the family and friends becomes also the national pain of a whole nation. Did you experience that?

Initially, we felt it was our personal tragedy but within a very short time we realized Binyamin’s loss was a national one. Binyamin was the son/brother of the entire nation. 

Many people attended the funeral. It was pouring rain. All we could see were the people in the front who we knew; we had no idea how many people were there, apparently there were many of whom we had never met. We knew it was live streamed for our family in the Diaspora, but only later learned that so many people we don’t know from Israel and around the world also watched it. It was very personal to begin with, but as the shiva was getting larger and larger, it dawned on me that you never know who is hearing you and watching you. Binyamin became someone people could connect with, a dugma, a role model, and people want to learn from him and gain inspiration from him. Every step of the way he has reached hundreds and thousands more people; we never could have imagined that he would reach so many people. He was our Binyamin, but now he belongs to everyone, as every soldier does. I feel that way visiting other shivas – these soldiers are all my soldiers, they are all our soldiers. Everyone feels this connection to them. 

I was hesitant, but decided that I should speak at the levaya. I asked each person to take on one thing to try and improve themselves as a person to hasten the Geulah. People I never met were coming into the shiva and signing up to commit – I was told one woman turned her whole kitchen kosher! I tend to be a positive person and try to help others and raise them up usually on a one-to-one basis, not with crowds. It’s been different now. I think people have connected to me because I am a mother, and I speak from the heart – I am just going one day at a time, speaking to whichever person, group or community Hashem brings our way. 

You have become a source of strength for many others, but what gives you strength?

Firstly, I really feel and see that Hashem is constantly sending us hugs and kisses. Through all the pain of losing Binyamin, we are zoche to witness and experience so much of His chessed. I take great comfort in the verse, “Shivtecha u’mishantecha heima yenachamuni, Your rod and Your staff – they comfort me,” that even when there is seemingly stricter judgment, II know that too all comes from Hashem and is part of our relationship. I take comfort knowing that HHe is watching out for me and is directly involved in every moment my life. 

I also take great comfort seeing the thousands of people Binyamin is now effecting. People are striving to learn from him and grow because of him. It is the greatest comfort that– thousands of people are learning and taking things on in his memory and are literally becoming better people. He is part of bringing Mashiach. I really feel Binyamin is giving me the koach to keep going, and Hashem keeps sending me people to speak to. I see the growth of Am Yisrael. It’s remarkable and a great comfort. 

We cry virtually every day for him – when we see a new picture of him, when we hear something else that he accomplished or simply think of how much he’s missed– but Rob and I  have made a conscious decision not to ask “Lama, Why?”, but “Le’ma, For what? What can we do now? How can we grow? How can we try to make good of this?” 

There is no point in going down the dark road. We need to live life. That’s what these soldiers are fighting for and even dying for. Yes, we have moments. We feel pain, we acknowledge it, and then we pick up and move forward. Binyamin wouldn’t want it another way. He wants us to dance. 

How do you want Binyamin to be remembered?

Binyamin was a magnet for all kinds of Jews, and had a way of bringing people in. One thing he loved doing was bringing people along to Kabbalat Shabbat, so one thing we want to do is to create a spiritual, emotional place for therapeutic recovery. There are so many soldiers who have become religiously aware and even inspired during this time, from wearing tzitzit to connecting to other elements of Judaism. Binyamin learned in the Hesder Tzfat Yeshiva. We plan to open a program there b’ezrat Hashem that can be a point of entry for them where they can heal in a religious context. 

Binyamin’s essence was also intertwined with kedusha, with holiness. He believed deeply in kedushat haAretz, the holiness of the Land of Israel, and that this holiness is intertwined with kedushat Am Yisrael, the holiness of the people of Israel. He really believed that we are fighting this war to enable Jews to be able to live all over Israel, and believed passionately in Jews moving to live here. On Sukkot, he was involved in planting a new vineyard in the Shomron. It was so Binyamin that at his funeral, the first rain of the season started to fall. He believed deeply in the gift of Eretz Yisrael

Binyamin hy”d and his father Robert.

You are speaking to communities around the world. What is your message to the Jewish people?

Part of Binyamin’s legacy is that he really worked on himself and maximized his life, even if it was short. He accomplished in 21 years what might take a long lifetime for others who are not focussed on their life mission. The message I hope he leaves is to inspire others to try and be their best self, and stay focused on their goals, of what’s really important in life.

I really believe that each of our soldiers who have fallen in this war are working in heaven, building the Beit HaMikdash. It is our job, here in this world, to work on ourselves and keep our Achdut, to be worthy to bring it down. To be zoche of the complete redemption.

 

1 Editor’s Note: In the past, it was IDF policy to not to inform families of a death on Shabbat. However, in an age of pervasive social media and instant knowledge, this policy was changed. Unfortunately, numerous families of fallen soldiers and terror victims found out through neighbors and WhatsApp messages, rather than through trained IDF soldiers. In order to prevent this problem, the IDF now informs families of a loved one’s death on Shabbat.

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