December 4, 2023

In Memoriam: Amir Sekori, z”l

Maj. Amir Sekori z”l

At the end of his first philosophy class at the start of his freshman year, Maj. Amir Sekori z”l approached lecturer Noam Cohen to share something on his mind. “He said, ‘In most courses at Shalem, we gain skills and knowledge. But in this one, all we did was ask questions,’” Cohen recalls him saying. “He didn’t like that everything was left open and unanswered. The lack of closure troubled him.”

At least, it did at first. In the classes that followed, recalls Cohen, Amir decided to test the waters. Slowly, and then with more confidence, he talked through his struggles with philosophical concepts. He revealed how much he’d been studying and reading and turning things over in his head. Sometimes, says Cohen, he didn’t need to say anything: His blue eyes gave him away. “His eyes always held a secret. You knew that he’d seen a lot, and that he was focused on important things.”

By the time of the first course assignment, Amir was in a different place.

“He came to my office to say that he felt he finally understood. ‘I see now that the questions are what matter,” he said, ‘and that we have to go in search of the answers ourselves.’”

Yet on the morning of October 7th, when Amir first heard of the Hamas attack in the South, there was never to him any question that he would respond. On the contrary, he had done his searching, and come to the answer long before. He said goodbye to his wife and children and headed South in his car; in his haste, his mother noted at the funeral, he left his daughters’ car seats in the back. He arrived at a staging point where he met up with his former team from Sayeret Matkal, the elite special-forces unit for which he’d been an officer. After collecting his weapon, he continued toward Kerem Shalom, a kibbutz on the border with Gaza and Egypt and the site of unimaginable slaughter. He was killed that afternoon by a Hamas ambush.

To Dr. Ido Hevroni, the lecturer for Amir’s freshman course on Western literature, the decision to risk his own life for his people was, for Amir, the most natural thing.

“In our third class together, we studied the Iliad, in particular the character of Hector,” Hevroni recalls. “He’s the head of the Trojan army, and a man of profound values, commitment to his country, and dedication to his people. At one point, he’s sent on a mission near the home front and stops in to see his family. We talked about the scene in which his wife asks him to stay, but he explains that, as a warrior, it’s his duty to leave. Then he turns to his young son, lifts off his helmet, and says very different things: that he hopes they’ll soon be together and he looks forward to their future. When I read that now, I think of Amir,” he says. Then he adds, “For his final paper, Amir chose to write about the relationship between fathers and sons in the Odyssey. Until that point, I hadn’t realized that these ancient texts touched him so much. Then I thought, how could they not? He could connect with both aspects of many of these texts’ heroic characters: the soldiers who were also fathers and loved their families deeply.”

In Hevroni’s telling, this connection with ancient texts—both Western and Jewish alike—came as a surprise to Amir, as well as source of delight. Calling him both his “oldest and youngest student,” Hevroni explains that at 31, Amir didn’t fit the usual Shalem profile. For a start, he was married with children: He had met his wife Yona at age fifteen and been with only her ever since. Together they had two daughters, the second of whom was born on his very first day at Shalem. But more important, by the time he began his studies, Amir had served for a full 12 years, first as a soldier in Givati and then in Sayeret Matkal. As part of the latter unit, he had taken part in numerous covert operations, the details of which only few will ever know. Yet while it’s clear he had reasons to be proud, Amir was beloved for his humility.

“Other than the fact that he devised his summer project with the precision of a mission,” says Annie Kantar Ben Hillel, the head of Shalem’s English Studies Program, “I would never have guessed how serious his role in the army was. He was incredibly modest, and to him all that mattered was how he could do things better, how he could improve himself. That, and being a father. He wrote the most beautiful essay about what being a father meant to him, and I was so moved, I couldn’t bring myself to correct the few errors in English I found,” she says with a smile. “Here was this decorated officer who had expressed something deep from the heart—I felt honored to have been given a glimpse of that very moving side of Amir.”

Perhaps most of all, however, what set Amir apart from the other students was his lack of experience with the subjects in Shalem’s unique curriculum. Hence Hevroni calling him his “youngest” student—but in the best possible way.

“Amir hadn’t had much of a chance to study literature, philosophy, history. But that ended up being a large part of why he loved the learning here so much,” says Hevroni. “That, and the fact that he was so naturally curious. He was also incredibly determined, and willing to invest enormous energy in closing the gaps.”

That was precisely what Efrat Mazuz, Shalem’s director of admissions, assured college leadership would happen when she presented his unusual case.

“A Shalem student told me that I had to speak with her husband’s good friend, someone he’d served with in the army,” remembers Mazuz. “She warned me that on paper, he wouldn’t be a match: He didn’t have a matriculation certificate in math, he wasn’t proficient in English. But she insisted that he was just the kind of student for which this college was made.” When she called him, however, she discovered two more reasons his enrollment was unlikely: He was settled with his wife and daughter in the central district. And he had already registered for studies somewhere else.

“He was about to start studies in law and business administration—a very practical degree, subjects he believed would always ensure he could support his family. And this other institution had even granted him an exemption in math. But he came to Shalem to sit in on a few classes, and at the end of the day, he had made up his mind,” Mazuz says. “You could see that he was mesmerized.” She warned him that if he were accepted, he would still have to pass the mathematics matriculation exam.

By way of an answer, he began to search for a new home for his family in Jerusalem.

“Here was this incredibly accomplished officer who had done amazing things, and he decided to be the least-knowledgeable one in the room. He truly wanted to learn for the sake of learning. He was so excited by all these new worlds opening up, he was willing to shift to the long, hard route from the smooth path he’d been on,” states Mazuz. She adds that he spent every free moment in the lounge, studying for that math test with a cup of black coffee, no sugar, no milk.

“He had a toddler at home and a baby to care for, on top of his very rigorous studies. His wife was also opening a ceramics studio, and he was helping her build her business. He had so much going on, but he never slacked off for a minute. I’d see him with his head in his books, and he’d look up at me with those bright blue eyes. I’d say, Amir, you don’t have to ace it! You just have to pass. But of course, that’s not how he was. He gave everything his all.”

To Noa Alon Yitzhak ’26, who would become one of Amir’s closest friends, the responsibilities that kept him so busy weren’t lost on fellow students.

“My first memories of Amir are of him sitting in the college courtyard, drinking coffee all alone in the sun. There was this natural distance between him and the rest of us, who were so much younger and more inexperienced,” Noa recalls. “From the little I knew about him, I assumed that we had nothing in common. And then for an assignment in history class, we were asked to choose a historical quote whose meaning had changed over time. There are literally countless options, yet Amir and I both chose the same one. It was by Seneca—who thinks of Seneca? It was so crazy, it was clear to both of us that had to work together.”

In the weeks that followed, Noa began to change her perception of “unapproachable Amir.” She saw how hard he was working, she says, and how much he struggled in his new role as student. And the more he shared his challenges, the more real a person he became.

“We came from very different backgrounds and often had different views. He was also very firm in his positions, especially in areas in which he knew a lot. But he was candid about what he didn’t know, and always curious about me. It was clear he had so much to offer, but he also sought out what I could give him. That made for such a meaningful friendship. I used to think, ‘He’s one in a million. Amir is a friend for life.’”

Reflecting on his final year, Noa echoes Hevroni’s belief that his time at Shalem was “a pinnacle in his short life, the last hill that he conquered on a remarkable journey.” She explains that his studies changed him, something his family noticed as well: At his funeral and throughout the shiva, his wife and parents mentioned that Shalem had brought out a different side in him. He was so happy and felt so fulfilled, they said. On Shabbat, he used to speak with his family about what he was learning and the places the texts had taken him that week.

They were grateful, she said, to have met this other Amir, however briefly.

“Looking back, I’m so glad that he was able to spend his last year doing something so different. That it wasn’t another year in the army, on the same path he’d already been on. He had a chance to reflect on everything he’d done until then and place it in a larger context. And he had the opportunity to learn things about himself and discover abilities he didn’t know he had.”

The truth is, concludes Noa, “We’ll never know just how much we as a nation lost, because even at the end, right up until his very last moment, he showed us—and himself—that he was capable of so many extraordinary things.”

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