Netta Epstein, a 21-year-old Israeli who spent several summers as a camper and Ozo (staff in training) at Herzl Camp, was killed Saturday morning in the initial wave of Hamas’ incursion into Israel.
Ayelet Epstein, Netta’s mother, said her son was killed saving his girlfriend, Irene when a grenade was thrown into the safe room at their apartment where they were taking refuge. He threw himself onto the grenade that terrorists threw into the room in order to save Irene. Irene stayed quiet and wasn’t found; she was later rescued.
“He was a beautiful child with wide brown eyes and long curly hair,” Ayelet wrote. “He turned into a beautiful man with a huge heart; caring and giving to all his surroundings. He volunteered for a year with kids with special needs from broken homes. He would read to them and play soccer with them. They all loved him so much.”
Epstein was an IDF combat soldier, leaving the service when his mandatory service ended. He moved back to his Kibbutz in July to live with his family.
Epstein first came to Herzl in 2014 with a group of campers from Sderot, in southern Israel. He would later return in 2015 and 2016 as a camper, and again in 2018 as an Ozo – where he was the first Israeli camper to return for his Ozo summer. His sister, Rona, also spent 3 summers at Herzl including her 2021 Ozo year. This past summer featured eight Israeli Ozrim who were campers.
St. Paul native Samantha Agranoff had worked at Herzl and been with Netta’s age group since 2013, staffing his cohort all three years he was a camper, and was Mama Ozo – one of the two leads in developing the Ozrim to be counselors – in 2018.
“He was like the wild one and he always had a big smile on his face. He always wanted to play and was very active and friendly and outgoing and funny,” Agranoff said. “That only continued, but was matched with added maturity as he grew older.”
Agranoff, who made aliyah to Israel five days after the summer of 2018 ended, said that when the teens from Sderot come to camp, it is usually around July 4. The fireworks that are shot off around Devil’s Lake, where camp sits, can be difficult for some of the Israeli campers.
“He knew where the trauma came from and knew how to navigate it,” said Drea Lear, the former Herzl Camp director. “He told us that it was tough for them. We never understood why until he explained that it can sound like rockets. He was 12 that first summer and told us. Part of it was his English was advanced, but he could pinpoint right away why they were hurting.”
Mia Cytron, who was a camper and Ozo with Epstein, said it was special that he kept coming back to camp.
“Israeli campers were always a temporary, one-summer type of thing,” said Cytron, who made aliyah recently and is in a program that prepares new arrivals to Israel for being drafted into the IDF, which for her will happen in January. “I remember finding out that he was coming back and how excited I was about it. We’ve all been sharing photos in our Ozo group and it’s been really nice to look back on those as a group. He was such a good friend.”
Lear grew close to the Epstein family thanks to Netta’s involvement in camp.
“Netta and his family are some of the people that made Israel come alive for so many people,” Lear said. “His mother has welcomed so many families into the Herzl community in Israel. Ayelet was always the person I’d call when we had a new family come. That was always really meaningful.”
In addition to his sister Rona, Epstein also had a 12-year-old sister Alma-Ruth.
“He was the best big brother,” Lear said. “I got to see him with both of his sisters. He was the fiercest sibling. He loved his siblings so much.”
Agranoff said that she FaceTimed with Rona Epstein on Saturday after the rest of the family evacuated from their Kibbutz. She said that she and Netta took a sibling’s trip to France a couple of weeks ago.
“Camp came up all the time when it was just the two of them,” she said. “He was a guy where if you had a camp connection he wanted to talk about it.”
Agranoff said that many of her conversations with Epstein after making aliyah were about his experience at Herzl.
“He would always talk about camp and reflect on how it was so important to him and how he made all these friends and how he felt like it really made him a better person,” Agranoff said. “He was always so excited to talk about it: The people, the memories, the programs, and what would have happened if he had been able to go back after his Ozo summer instead of doing his year of volunteering before he drafted the army.”
Agranoff said that Epstein had the ability to pick up with his camp peers right where they left off the summer before, even if they didn’t communicate much from one summer to the next. As a Lone Soldier, Agranoff understands the challenge and fatigue of working and communicating in a second language.
“I am blown away by how well he was able to make friendships retain friendships over the years and really create a community around in a camp,” she said.
Before he started in the IDF, Epstein was outspoken about the dangers of living in Israel less than 1 kilometer away from the Gaza border. As a high school senior in 2018, shortly after his last summer at Herzl Camp, Epstein was part of a student-led 43.5-mile march from Sderot to the Knesset in Jerusalem to protest what they deemed as the government ignoring their plight.
“We’re not from the center of Israel, so we’re not important. We’re just like part of a game,” Netta told TC Jewfolk during the march. “Since I was born, since everyone on this trip was born, we have rockets. [In 2017] we got the [incendiary] kites. And like, this is our life, this is how we live. And it’s really not okay. This has to change right now.”
Said Agranoff: “He was a great example of like the Israel education that Camp wants: You have somebody who is understandably critical of their own government and does so because he wants to hold it accountable. He’s the best of us.”