Omer Balva rushed from Maryland to Israel to fight. On Friday, he was killed.

Omer Balva, a 22-year-old Rockville native, was back from his home in Israel. Then, during his U.S. vacation earlier this month, Hamas stormed southern Israel, kidnapping hundreds and killing more than 1,000. Balva’s reserve infantry unit in the Israel Defense Forces quickly recalled him.

But before his return, he wanted to gather supplies he knew that soldiers in his unit might need. So he and his friend Ethan Missner, who has known Balva since they were 7-year-old students at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, went shopping. They bought knee pads, elbow pads, earmuffs and other supplies for the 9203rd Battalion of the Alexandroni Brigade, Missner recalled. The two spent Balva’s last night stateside at Missner’s parents’ home in Potomac stuffing a duffel bag full of gear.

A week later, Balva was dead. The Israeli American was killed Friday by an antitank missile fired from Lebanon by the militant group Hezbollah while his unit served on that country’s border with Israel, the IDF confirmed.

“He was such a loving person,” said Missner, 23. “He brought a lot of light to the world.”

Balva, who grew up in the Maryland suburbs of Washington with three siblings, was among the 360,000 reservists that the Israeli military called up to battle Hamas. After finishing high school, in 2019, Balva had moved to Israel with his parents, enlisted and enrolled in Reichman University, Missner said.

The pair remained in contact after Balva was deployed to the Israeli border.

“He said that he could hear bombs dropping at night and it was tough for him to sleep,” Missner said. “But on par with who Omer is, if anything he was more concerned with how his family was feeling, his girlfriend, me. He didn’t want people to feel sad for him.”

On Israel’s northern border, Hezbollah missiles fly and civilians flee

The Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School community — including alumni, students, faculty and staff — is “completely devastated and heartbroken” to learn of Balva’s death, said Rabbi Mitchel Malkus, head of the school, in an emailed statement.

“Omer was a beloved student,” Malkus said. “He was an unabashed advocate for the state of Israel. He is a hero to the state of Israel, the Jewish people and the school. We mourn his loss.”

Classmate Emma Hoch, 23, remembers Balva as “vibrant,” the kind of person who lit up any room he entered. After learning of his death through a family friend, Hoch said she re-watched a series of videos Balva posted on YouTube cataloguing their senior trip to Israel. In one, Balva interviews his classmates as they take in the sights of Jerusalem and drop a few hip-hop rhymes along the way.

“Omer had a very contagious laugh and just was filled with love,” said Hoch, a resident of Gaithersburg. “This is just absolutely gut-wrenching.”

Hoch said Balva was proud of his Israeli roots, which he detailed in a class presentation on his family that still lives online. In it, Balva shared that his father’s family had resided in the Israeli city of Tiberias since the 1400s and his grandmother had survived the many wars that ensued in Israel. Balva said his father, Eyal Balva, migrated to the United States in 1996 to join his brothers and start his own business. Balva said he planned to raise his children in Israel and had a “passion” to protect the land.

When Balva enlisted at 18, he wrote Missner a letter to remind him of all they had shared as children and all they had to look forward to as men — marriage, kids, a lifetime of memories.

“He wrote that when he’s having a tough time, he imagines us at 24, 25 with our families on vacation, just being together. … That’s the one thought that always put a smile on his face, because he wanted to start a family young,” Missner said.

Balva’s family could not be immediately reached for comment. His father is the chief executive of Floranation, a company based in Landover, Md., that imports flowers, and Eyal Balva splits his time between the United States and Israel, Missner said.

The Israeli army has been positioning military forces along the border with Lebanon, some 115 miles from Gaza, amid an exchange of fire from both sides. That is where Balva’s unit was stationed.

Dan Rosenzweig-Ziff contributed to this report.

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