Three days before Passover, Eytan Meyersdorf, a 20-year-old American oleh and soldier in a unit of the Israel Defense Force’s elite Golani Brigade, was told by an officer to pack a bag, leave his post near the Gaza Strip and head to Jerusalem.
The Elizabeth, NJ, native, who joined the IDF less than a year ago, soon learned that he was not headed for a commando raid, but would be one of two soldiers in the country invited to join Israeli president Shimon Peres at his seder in Jerusalem. Coincidentally, the second soldier was also from New Jersey; Lior Suissa, 27, of Marlboro.
“When he called to tell us the news,” said Eytan’s father, Joseph Meyersdorf, “he said that they were selected to represent soldiers who’d made aliyah without their parents, in order to join the IDF. He didn’t mention—he’s always been modest– that they were honored also because of their excellent service record.”
Eytan Meyersdorf made aliyah on August 12, 2008, at 18, and was in an army uniform just seven months later. The product of an ardently Zionist, Orthodox upbringing and a graduate of the Jewish Educational Center in Elizabeth, he sees his aliyah and army service as a very logical response to a specific need.
And so it came to pass that the young soldier came to break matzah with Peres, the 86-year-old president of Israel, three-time prime minister, Nobel laureate, Labor Party kingpin, and David Ben Gurion’s point man in securing weapons for Israel during and after the State’s War of Independence.
Eytan clearly doesn’t scare easily, but he felt a touch of cold fear when, after a brief waiting period in a den at Beit Hanassi, the President’s Residence, he was escorted into the room where the seder was about to be held. “I sort of imagined that there would be some other government dignitaries in attendance, and that I wouldn’t really stand out that,” he says. Instead, the only people there were the president, his daughter and son-in law, three grandchildren, two great- grandchildren—and the two soldiers in uniform.
“It really was a family seder. Everybody called the president ‘Saba [grandpa] Shimon.’”
So what was the actual seder like? “We pretty much read the Haggadah word for word.”
Peres did not discuss politics at the seder. “He asked me about the situation in Gaza,” Eytan recalled, “and before the seder began, he told everyone of how painful his visit with the family of Major Eliraz Peretz, the officer who’d been killed in Gaza, on March 26, had been. The room was very quiet.”
“When his little granddaughter found the afikomen, Peres asked what she wanted as a prize,” Meyersdorf recalled. “Her father whispered to her that she should ask for peace. And so she did.”
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