Soldier Killed in Lebanon War 'Finally Promoted to Rank of Jew'

Petition to Chief Rabbi enabled Yesmao Yela'o, killed in clash with Hezbollah, to be buried in regular plot.

Yesmao Yela'o was preparing to visit his mother in Ethiopia, whom he had not seen in five years, but the Second Lebanon War started and he was called up. "He told me that if he comes back from the war he would go then," says Moshe Aylim, a childhood friend from Ethiopia who immigrated with Yesmao to Israel. On August 6, 2006 Yesmao was killed in a pre-dawn clash with Hezbollah fighters in the western sector.

Yesmao was the youngest of 13 siblings fathered by Fentai, a Jew who moved to Israel 20 years ago with some of his children from a previous marriage. Yesmao remained in Ethiopia with his sister Azamara and their Christian mother. But he was raised Jewish in Ethiopia, where religion follows the father.

On reaching adulthood Yesmao could immigrate on his own, and he came with Azmara and her children. They lived at the absorption center on Kibbutz Ayelet Hashahar. Yesmao was accepted to an intensive Jewish Agency program for Ethiopian immigrants in their teens and early 20s.

"He had lived as a Jew in Ethiopia, immigrated to Israel as a Jew, and completed the conversion process successfully," says Rabbi Menachem Waldman, director of the Shvut Am organization, which has accompanied the process for 17 years on the Chief Rabbinate's behalf. "When he arrived at the rabbinic court for the final stage, they pulled the same trick on him as on other youngsters. The rabbinic judges demanded he furnish confirmation from the synagogue he prays at, but from what synagogue is a young guy like him, without a family, going to get confirmation?"

Yesmao enlisted in the IDF at 23 and served as a sniper with Battalion 12 of the Golani Brigade. Yaron Lipman, his squad commander throughout combat training, describes a shy soldier.

After the army he worked as a security guard for the Postal Authority, saving up for school while continuing to help support his sister and saving for the visit to his mother.

Then the war began and he was called up, his first reserve duty. "We set out for battle unprepared, unequipped and untrained," Hezki Shoham, a soldier in his platoon, says. Yesmao was killed by a direct hit to the head in a battle with Hezbollah.

Then the issue of his burial place arose. IDF records listed him as non-Jewish, but after special application to Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, Yesmao was ruled to have completed the conversion process, and was buried in a regular plot.

"After his death he was promoted to the rank of Jew," a buddy from his platoon said with bitterness.

The Jewish Agency brought his mother, Gondria, to the funeral, where it was revealed that Yesmao had a 6-year-old son, born while he was in Gondar awaiting immigration. The boy came for the memorial service on the first anniversary of his father's death. The authorities said he and his grandmother could stay, "but there was no one here to support them," Azmara says.