'We Didn't Know This Benji at All'

Former Londoners Judy and Danny Hillman speak out for the first time since their son was killed in Lebanon this summer.

Charlotte Halle
Charlotte Hallé
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Charlotte Halle
Charlotte Hallé

"The final stage of the aliyah process" is how British-born Ra'anana resident Danny Hillman describes the grim act of burying his son in Israel. Benji Hillman, 26, who was killed in a clash with Hezbollah in southern Lebanon in July, viewed himself as totally Israeli, his father attests.

Benji was four years old when his family immigrated to Israel from Kingsbury in northwest London, "but he always wanted to be considered an Israeli, not as an immigrant or an Anglo-Saxon," says Danny Hillman, in his only interview since losing his son three months ago.

"I don't know how to put it - it's ironic I suppose, but this was like the final stage of the aliyah [immigration] process - burying our son here. Putting him in the ground, in Eretz Hakodesh [the Holy Land]. I hope no other immigrants will have to go through it."

When Benji Hillman, a platoon commander in the elite Egoz unit, was killed along with four of his soldiers on July 20, tributes flowed in about the "outstanding" officer who was admired "by comrades and commanders alike." Haaretz military correspondent Amos Harel wrote that "even among a generation of remarkable Golani field commanders, Benji Hillman stood out," while a British newspaper wrote that his death, just three weeks after his marriage, seemed "particularly to have encapsulated public grief."

But last week, in his family's third-floor Ra'anana apartment - where the air remains thick with grief and the television has not been switched on since the news came through - Benji's parents describe their son in their own words.

"As far as we were concerned, Benji was a totally normal boy," says Danny, who wears a knitted skullcap and owns a stationery shop in Ramat Aviv. "He liked to muck around with his brother and sister, to annoy his mother and do all the things that boys do. He had a messy room and he'd come home late. He had a totally normal childhood and adolescence. As for his army career, we knew very little about it before he died."

Benji's mother, Judy Hillman, who works locally as an editor for Eric Cohen Books, points to a large framed photograph of Benji with his face painted in preparation for combat, which was presented to them by the IDF and now adorns the living room wall. "We didn't know this Benji at all," she says.

Judy does not hide her wariness of the media and contributes sparingly; when she speaks, it is mainly to tell of the dozens of young men who flowed into the house with stories of a friend and a commander who endeavored to help those around him "even before they asked him."

It is clear that she is deeply proud of her son; his parents learned only after Benji's death of the soldiers he had counseled and the needy bridegroom for whom he had helped purchase a suit. "He'd never feel the need to tell us what he'd done to help people," she says. "That wasn't his way at all."

The sideboard is laden with family snaps from celebrations and holidays, including pictures of the younger Hillman son, Shimon, and the oldest child Abigail, who is married with two young daughters. Almost the entire extended family lives in Israel, including Benji's two grandmothers, Helene Stalbow of Ra'anana and Joan Hillman of Kfar Sava.

Conspicuously absent are photographs from Benji's wedding in June to his long-time girlfriend Ayala Borger, when several hundred guests gathered to celebrate near Netanya, just three weeks before he was killed. The Hillmans are fiercely protective of Ayala - a 27-year-old physiotherapist who was born in Argentina - and maintain close contact with her and her family.

Comfort over the last three months, they say, has come from the extensive support shown by family and friends - "his friends are wonderful, they come all the time," says Judy - but also in the form of an ambitious social welfare project to memorialize Benji, which is speedily taking shape.

During the seven-day shiva period of mourning, the Hillmans report, several ideas for commemorating Benji were raised by family members, including something in the religious sphere. Judy and Danny, however, opted firmly for "something to help soldiers."

The plan, developed mainly by Benji's cousins, is to create a "home for lone soldiers," encompassing both those who serve in the IDF without family in Israel and soldiers from deprived backgrounds without a proper home to go to when they are on leave. Benji's platoon and the Golani Brigade as a whole have a significant number of such soldiers, many of whom Benji was involved in assisting, Danny relates. "It's a natural progression of what Benji did," he adds. "We're putting into practice what Benji saw as something that had to be done."

The project, which is already deep in the planning stages, has been named Habayit shel Benji [Benji's Home.] "It's a great credit to Benji that so many people feel they want to be involved," says Danny. "That it also attracts people [who didn't know him] means he was on the right path, that he was doing things that people approved of but maybe weren't doing themselves. It re-emphasizes how proud we are of everything he did."

Judy and Danny Hillman both acknowledge that their son "wouldn't have liked a project with his name all over the place," but they made a careful calculation before deciding to go ahead with the initiative. Danny says: "Anything he wanted to do, he'd have arranged for it to have happened, but he'd be in the background. We can't reflect that [in this case]. But we're doing it because it needs to be done and using his name is a means of getting it done."