Lt. Yannai Kaminka would have turned 21 on Oct. 30.
Lt. Yannai Kaminka would have turned 21 on Oct. 30.

Sacramento woman’s grandson died saving other IDF soldiers from Hamas

Hamas terrorists stormed the IDF base where Lt. Yannai Kaminka was stationed at around 6:30 a.m. on Oct. 7. Under heavy fire, Kaminka and a handful of fellow officers at the Zikim training base near Gaza’s border rushed to secure the younger, less experienced trainees in the base’s bomb shelters before taking over the perimeter guard posts.

Hit by a Hamas rocket-propelled grenade a couple of hours later, Kaminka did not survive the long battle. But because of his relentless efforts to keep the well-armed operatives from taking over the base, many others lived through that day.

“He was a hero,” said Brenda Wolfson, his maternal grandmother and a 72-year-old nurse practitioner who lives in Sacramento.

Wolfson is among the Northern California residents, including Berkeley Rabbi Yonatan Cohen, who lost family members in the Oct. 7 massacre and since then. Cohen’s 19-year-old nephew, 2nd Lt. Yoav Malayev, was killed on the same day at the same Israel Defense Forces base while helping fight off an estimated 50 terrorists.

Kaminka, Malayev and their comrades managed to kill all but one of the Hamas terrorists

The base commander, Lt. Col. Shay, told Haaretz on Oct. 20 that an investigation into the horrific events of the day continues but that the general picture is clear. Six officers and one new recruit saved the lives of about 90 trainees at the base, as well as civilians visiting for Sukkot and Simchat Torah, members of the adjacent Kibbutz Zikim and possibly Israelis elsewhere in the area.

Kaminka would have turned 21 on Oct. 30. 

Before his funeral in Israel on Oct. 9, a woman approached Wolfson, who managed to get a flight to Israel just in time. The woman was the mother of an IDF squad commander who sustained a head wound in the fighting at Zikim. Kaminka, she relayed, dragged her daughter to safety and bandaged her head, then immediately continued fighting.

“I want to thank you. Your grandson saved my daughter’s life,” the mother told Wolfson. Then she pointed to her daughter. 

Wolfson turned to the young sergeant. 

“I said, ‘Then take your life and live a good life for Yannai,'” she recalled over the phone, her voice cracking with tears.

Kaminka grew up in Tzur Hadassah, a village southwest of Jerusalem, the first-born child of Wolfson’s daughter, Elana. Elana Kaminka was raised in Davis and celebrated her bat mitzvah at Congregation Bet Haverim before making aliyah just after graduating from Davis Senior High School. She served in the IDF, where she met her husband, Eyal. The couple has three other children: 19-year-old Liam, 16-year-old Timna and 14-year-old Nevo.

He brought one of my Palestinian friends to speak to the group because he knew that everyone there was going to the army soon, and it was so important for him that they also understand other perspectives

“He was a peaceful kid from a peaceful family,” Wolfson said of her eldest grandson, who was raised by a mother dedicated to peace activism. Elana Kaminka’s volunteer efforts included joining a group that drives ill Palestinian children to hospitals.

“Yannai grew up in a home where he would come downstairs and find Palestinian friends sitting on the couch,” Elana Kaminka told Time magazine in an interview. “When he was doing his civilian national service, he brought one of my Palestinian friends to speak to the group because he knew that everyone there was going to the army soon, and it was so important for him that they also understand other perspectives.”

In high school, Yannai Kaminka led a scouts troop. During his year of national service before joining the army, he worked with at-risk children. 

He showed great personal interest in the lives of army recruits he would later lead, his mother said, and felt highly protective of them.

“He was a lovely young man, a real leader,” his grandmother said.

Wolfson’s heart is broken, but she takes comfort in knowing that others are alive because the adorable little boy who spent summers with her in Sacramento grew up to be a man of compassion, courage and conviction.

“Frankly, I’m grateful that if he had to die, that it was quick,” she said. “Thank goodness he wasn’t paraded around the Gaza Strip, and we had somebody to bury. And thank God he’s not a hostage. These poor hostages.”

Wolfson learned of her grandson’s death via a WhatsApp message she received on Oct. 7 just after boarding a plane for vacation with her husband, Jon Wolfson. 

The media was just beginning to report the atrocities in Israel’s south, but Wolfson assumed she’d soon receive news that her grandson was safe. Then came the six words that changed her life forever: “Yannai was killed. Come to Israel.”

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.