A 22-year-old Israeli military reservist who grew up outside Washington, DC, and rushed back to Israel to fight Hamas was killed when anti-tank missile fire hit his unit near Israel’s northern border with Lebanon on Friday, the Israeli military said.
Omer Balva was one of over 300,000 reservists summoned by the Israel Defense Forces after declaring war on Hamas following the militant group’s surprise Oct. 7 terror attack.
Balva served as a staff sergeant and platoon commander in the 9203 battalion of the Alexandroni Brigade.
“Yesterday, SSGT (res.) Omer Balva, a reservist in the Artillery Corps, was killed by anti-tank missile fire adjacent to the northern border,” The IDF wrote in its Friday newsletter.
Balva, a dual Israeli-American citizen with Israeli parents, grew up in Rockville, Maryland where he attended the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day school.
The school honored the 2019 graduate on social media, noting he was “an unabashed advocate for the State of Israel.”
Balva enlisted in the IDF after moving to Israel in 2019 but had been in the US visiting a childhood friend when he was called up for reserve duty earlier this month, NBC 4 Washington reported.
He was also a student at Reichman University in Herzliya, Israel, where he was working toward a Bachelor’s degree in business administration and economics, the university said while announcing his death.
Ethan Missner, who had been friends with Balva since they were just 6 years old, said he wants him to be remembered as a hero.
“I want him to be remembered as extremely selfless and prideful for what he did, and as a hero, because he is a hero. He was a hero when he was alive. He was a hero before he went to the army, because he makes everybody feel amazing,” Missner told NBC 4.
Balva had been visiting Missner in the US and the two were spending time together just weeks ago before Balva returned to Israel to fight in the war.
“It doesn’t matter who you are or where you came from. Everybody around him had a smile on their face because he would always smile at them and laugh with them. That’s how I want him to be remembered,” Missner added.
Jagger Balkin, a friend of both Balva and Missner, said his friend’s love of Israel solidified during a trip where high school seniors spent three months living in the Jewish state.
“Ethan went to Georgetown. I went to Penn State. We all wanted him to do the college experience with us,” Balkin told The Washington Post. “He even got accepted into American University and a few other schools. But he chose the IDF instead. He loved Israel too much. It felt like a calling, something he needed to do.”
Balva had big plans for the future, including proposing to his girlfriend and working for his father’s floral business.
Thousands flocked to Balva’s funeral held Sunday in Herzliya, a town just north of Tel Aviv, his former teacher Akiva Gersh told The Washington Post.
During the service, his father and three siblings “talked about how even though Omer had been at that village where he was killed for only a few days, already all the villagers knew and loved him,” Gersh said.
“That was so him … he knew what he wanted to do and where he needed to be. And wherever that was, people always loved him,” Gersh added.
Among those in attendance was William Daroff, Chief Executive Officer at the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
“A blessing to attend the funeral of Staff Sgt (res) Omer Balva z”l. A hero and a patriot. May his memory forever be for a blessing. May his strength carry us, the soldiers, and the hostages forward in his merit,” Daroff wrote on Facebook.