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Yom Kippur War vet recalls battle, on eve of holiest holiday for Jews

The Jewish holiday involves 25 hours of fasting and deep prayer.

On the eve of the 45th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War on Tuesday, Jewish leaders and community members commemorated the fallen soldiers at the Museum of American Armor in Old Bethpage. (Credit: Newsday / Raychel Brightman)

Yuval Neria was on the front lines as a member of the Israeli military the day the Yom Kippur War broke out in October 1973 on the holiest day of the year on the Jewish calendar.

On Tuesday, as he spoke at the 45th commemoration of that war at the Museum of American Armor in Old Bethpage hours before the start of Yom Kippur at sunset, he said he was lucky to be alive.

“We were in the front line absorbing the” surprise attack by the Egyptian military at the Suez Canal, Neria said. By the end of the first day and night of battle, only one of 11 tanks in his battalion had survived, and some 67 soldiers out of 300 were dead.

The former captain stood before one of the actual tanks from the battle — an M-48 Patton that the museum acquired from an anonymous donor two years ago.

“It is very emotional for me to see and touch it,” said Neria, 66, a professor of medical psychology at Columbia University who also researches post-traumatic stress disorder among veterans, prisoners of war and terrorism victims.

Yom Kippur, also known as the Day of Atonement, involves 25 hours of fasting and deep prayer for observant Jews, with a focus on how they can improve their relations with others.

The holy day, which ends Wednesday an hour after sunset, is the culmination of the High Holy Days, which began with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, at sunset on Sept. 9.

The Yom Kippur War stunned Israel and much of the world on Oct. 6, 1973, when Egyptian and Syrian forces attacked Israel to try to regain land — mainly the Sinai Peninsula and Golan Heights — that Israel had taken in the Six-Day War of 1967.

The Egyptians crossed the Suez Canal and took control of the Sinai Peninsula, pummeling troops, including some that Neria commanded. At the same time the Syrians took control of the Golan Heights.

Neria, a captain who was awarded Israel’s highest decoration for combat bravery, the Medal of Valor, said he narrowly missed being killed the first day. He was one of five officers on a tank but left to get on another vehicle. The tank he left was attacked and the other four officers died.

Eventually Israel counterattacked against Egypt and Syria, and took back the Golan Heights and the Sinai Peninsula. A cease-fire was negotiated on Oct. 25.

Neria survived 12 days of the war until he was seriously wounded and evacuated to a hospital in Tel Aviv.

Speakers at the commemoration said Neria’s story and the museum itself are reminders that, while war is a nightmare, strong militaries are needed to protect democracy.

The museum “is not here to glorify combat,” said Lawrence Kadish, its president. But “democracy, freedom and liberty come with a price.”

Nassau County Executive Laura Curran said the tank and Neria’s story were “a very dramatic and compelling reminder that our democracy can be very fragile, any democracy, here or abroad.”

Neria and his comrades “went into combat understanding that their nation’s very survival was at stake,” she said. “If they failed, the still-young state of Israel would be gone.”

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