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Community, school, family and friends mourn Cpl. Albert Bitton
‘Eich naflu giborim—How the mighty have fallen’
Hundreds of community members, family and friends packed Congregation Adas Yeshurun of West Rogers Park to honor the memory of Corporal Albert Bitton on Feb. 26. They gathered in the same synagogue where congregants had previously joined each week to recite Psalms in the merit of Albert’s safety in Iraq.
Albert, a medic serving his seventh month in Iraq, was killed—along with two other soldiers—in Bagdad when his Humvee was struck by an improvised explosive device. He was part of the 1st Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), according to the Defense Department.
Cpl. Bitton was buried with full military honors in a ceremony precided over by an honor guard under Major General Robert Radin, including: a 21-gun salute and a flag, Bronze Star Medal and Purple Heart presentation to Bitton’s wife and parents.
Albert joined the U.S. Army in 2005 after graduating from Ida Crown Jewish Academy with hopes of receiving the training and financial help to someday become a surgeon.
When news of Albert’s death spread to his friends, many of them Ida Crown alumni, an impromptu prayer service was held at Yeshiva University in New York. And by the time his funeral was held, one week after his death, dozens of friends across the nation and in Israel had volunteered to learn Torah in his memory.
It seemed everyone who had encountered Albert was affected by his charm and infectuous smile. And all those who heard of the 20-year-old’s death were left in shock because of his life and all his potential that was lost.
“On Wed., when I received the call that an Iraqi terrorist had murdered Albert, it was as if someone had punched me in the gut,” said Rabbi Leonard Matanky, who had officiated at Albert’s bar mitzvah as the rabbi of K.I.N.S. and who was his principal at Ida Crown Jewish Academy.
“Eich naflu giborim, how the mighty have fallen,” said Matanky, “He had strength not only for fighting for our country, but also spiritual strength.”
Albert placed a card with tefillat haderech, the travelers’ prayer, on his rifle and prayed with tefillin daily.
But what most of those who knew Albert will remember was his smile. As Matanky said, he fulfilled the verse in Ethics of our Fathers to greet every person with a pleasant face. “Albert’s smile was infectious. His interactions with others drew them in. In recent months when he began to understand the reality of the dangers in Iraq, it was his smile that convinced his parents he was okay.”
Max Saltzman, a former ICJA classmate and close friend of Albert, said at his funeral, “Albert had a great smile, it’s true. But it was not his smile alone that made him so great. It was the kindness behind that smile.”
Saltzman said that serving in the army was Albert’s way of “not only getting to go on to be a doctor, but he also got the privilege to serve his country that he loved dearly…He put his life on the line to protect mine.”
Benjy Kandelman, another classmate of Albert’s said at the funeral, “You had exceptional people skills. You could have gone on and excelled in any position you wanted.”
He said that while in Iraq, Albert asked his father to send him $1 bills to give to Iraqi children because he loved making them happy.
In a letter to friends before being deployed to Iraq, Albert tried to quell their concerns about maintaining his Jewish commitment. He promised to pray with his tefillin every day and wrote, “I will always remain a Jew, every step of the way.”
Mourning Albert’s death at such a young age, Rabbi Zev Cohen, rabbi at Adas Yeshurun said, “Maybe Albert’s last lesson is to teach us not to waste any second of life.”
Albert is survived by his wife, Melissa Handelman, his parents, Elie and Silvia, and his sisters, Jackie and Elizabeth. May they be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem and may his memory be for a blessing.
Wendy Margolin is communications director at Ida Crown Jewish Academy and a Chicago writer.