Destroyed home in Be’eri (Photo: Tomer Persico), Elchanan Kalmanson (Photo: Yeshivat Otniel)

Gibor Yisrael: The Heroic Story of Elchanan Kalmanson

As the news of the Hamas invasion of southern Israel spread, hundreds of Israelis poured in from around the country to help. While Be’eri, Kfar Aza, Nir Oz and other kibbutzim were overrun by hundreds of Hamas terrorists, elite IDF units, off-duty policemen and many “ordinary” citizens engaged in heroic combat, without having been called up to duty. These heroes saved hundreds of lives and many of them paid for it with their own. One such hero is Elchanan Kalmanson. This is the story of a father of five who jumped in his car, saved tens of lives, and died Al Kiddush Hashem.

On the morning of Shemini Atzeret, 42-year-old Elchanan Kalmanson’s phone started pinging. As Otniel’s head of security and a veteran of the Israeli security services (his precise role is still classified), he heard news of the massacre early on. “It doesn’t look good,” he told his parents and wife, “and I need to go and help.” His brother Menachem and nephew Itiel joined him. They jumped in their car and drove towards the Gaza border, to the unknown. 

As thousands of rockets were fired into Israel, they kept driving towards the border. They heard that Kibbutz Be’eri was where they were needed most. Be’eri is the largest kibbutz in the Gaza envelope, and its 1,100 residents were now under attack by hundreds of brutal terrorists. They arrived at an unimaginable scene smoke rising from burning homes, the sounds of gunshots, screaming and explosions everywhere. This was a full-blown battlefield, in the pastoral setting of a usually tranquil kibbutz.

“Elchanan had trained extensively in anti-terror security operations,” said his father, Rabbi Beni Kalmanson, in an interview with Makor Rishon. “When he arrived, the army had many special forces in Be’eri, but the terrorists had already overtaken tens of homes. The only way to help people was to go house to house, without knowing what you were going to find in each one.”

As the Shaldag special forces from the IDF tried first to secure the perimeter, ensuring no more terrorists could get into Be’eri, Elchanan, Menachem and Itiel took an armored truck from one of the soldiers there and began going from house to house to evacuate as many residents as they could. They experienced every possible scenario in some houses they saved entire families, in others they tragically discovered that there was no one to save, while in others they saved children who had seen their parents murdered or kidnapped. In many cases, they had to neutralize terrorists before they could get into the house. They successfully freed some families from their safe rooms, even as their house burned around them. They would pack ten or twelve people into the back of a truck made for 4 and drive them out of the kibbutz before heading back into the inferno. “Each time, we would say how much we don’t want to go back in,” said Itiel. “But we knew what we had to do.” Hour after hour, the ad hoc “Tzevet Elchanan” saved lives.

Elchanan Kalmanson and his family (Photo: Courtesy of Kalmanson Family)

In many homes, after neutralizing terrorists, Elchanan would knock on the safe room door: “We are here to save you, open the door!” Several of the terrified families were worried that Hamas terrorists were trying to trick them into leaving the safe room, and they would start asking questions. “Which unit of the army are you from?” they asked. “Otniel we are not from the army,” he responded. If they were still unconvinced, Elchanan had to prove they were genuinely Israeli. Sometimes they started singing Simchat Torah songs, but he was most successful in convincing them that he was indeed Israeli when he recited the Shema. The families would open the door, hug him, and he would drive them to safety.

For 14 hours, Elchanan and his team went door to door, saving over 100 people. Be’eri is a town of 1,100 people, and army commandos had arrived by 8:30 am, but it would take close to 48 hours to clear the village of all the terrorists, many of whom had taken Israelis as human shields and hostages. Tzevet Elchanan entered a dark house, but a terrorist was inside, and released a round of bullets. Elchanan and Menachem were both hit, and tragically Elchanan died in Menachem’s arms. Together with 85 residents of Be’eri and 26 policemen and IDF soldiers, Elchanan Kalmanson had fallen in the battle for Be’eri.

There are hundreds of stories of Israeli heroism on October 7th. 52-year-old Oz Davidian saved tens of people from the Nova massacre, while 9-year-old Michael Idan called the police and hid his 6-year-old sister after his parents had been killed in Kfar Aza. But the story of Elchanan Kalmanson encapsulates not only a story of individual heroism, but the greater arc of the story of October 7th.

Like Elchanan, most of the heroes of this day were not dispatched by institutions the government, the army, or the intelligence but were simply individuals who ran into the fire. And these heroes made no distinctions between different kinds of Jews.

Elchanan drove from Otniel to Be’eri, a distance of 100 kilometers, to save lives. Otniel is a Religious Zionist community in Harei Yehuda, while Be’eri is a secular kibbutz named after Berl Katzenelson, the spiritual father of the Labor Zionist movement. In November 2022, 80% of Otniel voted for Tzionut Datit and Likud, while 80% of Be’eri voted for Labour, Meretz and Yesh Atid. They both could be said to be emblematic of two different camps that have been at loggerheads for the past nine months. But when Hamas attacked, it didn’t matter. Elchanan and his team risked their lives to save Jews, wherever and whomever they were. The residents of Be’eri have comforted the mourning Kalmanson family, eternally grateful for Elchanan’s sacrifice. And despite all the divisions, the words of Shema Yisrael were the code that bound them together, telling the families Elchanan was one of theirs. 

As the Be’eri survivors comforted the Kalmanson family, thousands of religious and secular Jews had similar experiences across the country. After years of divide, we have been forced to unite, in tanks, kibbutzim, funerals and shiva homes. As our soldiers fight shoulder to shoulder, may we see the fulfillment of the verse “שַׂמְּחֵנוּ כִּימוֹת עִנִּיתָנוּ, Cause us to rejoice according to the days that You afflicted us” (Tehillim 90:15). Just as we have cried together, may we rejoice together in victory, peace and redemption.

The tombstone of Elchanan Kalmanson. According to his brother Menachem, Elchanan was the first person in Israel’s history to have two symbols on his headstone – that of the IDK and that of the Mossad. He was a Major in the IDF, and his position in the Mossd remains classified. (Photo: Menachem Kalmanson)

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