Omer Balva was on vacation in Maryland, where he was born and lived until graduating from high school, when Hamas attacked Israel Oct. 7.
The child of Israeli parents who lived in the United States for decades, Balva, 22, recently finished a stint in the Israel Defense Forces and was among the 360,000 reservists called up as Israel mobilized to respond. Like an untold number of Israelis in the United States, he quickly booked a flight, packed safety gear and headed home.
There, Balva was killed Friday by a rocket fired by Hezbollah from Lebanon, just days after he was deployed to Israel’s northern border.
Balva’s death was a blow not only to his family and country but to his friends and teachers from Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Maryland, which he attended starting in second grade. After graduating in 2019, he moved to Israel to join the IDF.
The pluralistic Jewish school mourned Balva, whom it said had been “a beloved student,” on its Facebook page. “Omer was an unabashed advocate for the State of Israel. He is a hero to the State of Israel, the Jewish people, and the school,” the school wrote. “We are devastated and heartbroken.”
Dozens of condolences from people who knew him followed, including one woman who said he had performed in a school production of “Mamma Mia!” alongside her son.
Balva detailed his family’s ties to Israel in a class presentation posted online when he was a high school junior. His father’s family had been in the land since being expelled from Spain during the Inquisition, he wrote, and his grandmother survived a 1938 Arab massacre of Jews in her native Tiberias when she was hidden between two mattresses. While his parents moved to the United States in 1996, he said the family spoke only Hebrew at home.
“One day I plan on moving back to Israel and raising my children in the Jewish land,” he wrote in the presentation. He added, “My passion has always been to protect Israel and suggest what is best for what I believe is the greatest country in the world.”
Balva had recently enrolled at Reichman University in Herzliya, Israel, where he was studying business and economics, according to his LinkedIn profile. He had returned to Maryland to visit friends during the Sukkot holiday.
“He was such a loving person,” one of those friends, Ethan Missner, told the Washington Post. “He brought a lot of light to the world.”
Balva and Missner had spent the night before Balva’s return flight to Israel packing supplies for his IDF unit, as part of a massive effort to supply Israeli troops with necessary supplies. Unusually for them, they also put on tefillin, the leather straps and boxes that Jews wear on the head and on the arm, typically during weekday morning prayers, Missner’s father told the Forward.
Balva is one of hundreds of Israeli soldiers and security forces killed on and after Oct. 7. Most died in the initial attack, but half a dozen have been killed near the Lebanon border as Israel contends with rockets and incursions there. On Sunday, an Israeli soldier was killed while trying to retrieve bodies near a southern kibbutz that was hard hit on Oct. 7, the IDF said.
Balva is survived by his parents, Sigal and Eyal, and his three siblings, Barak, Shahar and Itai. He was buried Sunday in the military cemetery in Herzliya.