Fans of the Maccabi Haifa soccer club are known for their unbending loyalty and for getting a tad emotional when cheering on their team, ranked one of the top in Israel.
When they heard that one of their own, Texas-raised Israeli military First Sgt. Nissim Sean Carmeli, was killed in Gaza over the weekend and had few to escort his body to its final resting spot, they took to Facebook to beg others to attend his funeral in the northern Israeli city.
What the fans didn’t expect was that 20,000 people would answer their call, pouring in on buses, trains and cars for the 11 p.m. funeral Monday night, scheduled to accommodate Carmeli’s parents flying in from the U.S.
Both the team's page and a fan page had posted appeals all day on Facebook, begging strangers to support the family with a respectable showing at the funeral.
“This is a huge request from us to you Maccabi Haifa fans and this is your chance to do a great mitzvah [good deed]," one Facebook appeal read. "Sean Carmeli, who was killed last night was a lone soldier and we do not want his funeral to be empty. … Let's pay our last respects to a hero who died so we could live. It's the least we can do for him and for our people.”
Ohad Lalush spearheaded the Facebook campaign and described the sense of pride that overwhelmed those who poured in to pay their respects.
“A lone soldier died in this war, and thanks to a small post on Facebook tens of thousands arrived,” an emotional Lalush told Israel’s Channel 2. “It simply warms your heart. Even in a city like Haifa that had maybe one or two [incoming missile] sirens, everyone got together to support the country and the army.”
The Tazpit news agency reported that the turnout was so overwhelming that mourners got stuck in traffic and others required medical attention because of the crowding.
U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro and Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav also attended the funeral, the Jerusalem Post reported.
"I don’t know him, and I am not a Maccabi Haifa fan, but I received the message and decided I was going. We are coming to pay our last respects to someone who is a hero to us," one attendee told Tazpit.
Another who made the long drive from southern Israel said she just wanted to say thank you.
"He came here to protect us. He has no family, and so we are his family at this time," the unnamed woman told Tazpit.
A handwritten sign at the cemetery read, "See Sean, our hero. The entire nation of Israel is here with you."
Carmeli’s parents, Alon and Dalya, are natives of Israel who moved to the Texas border town of South Padre Island. Sean felt a strong connection to his parents’ homeland and after graduating high school decided to join his two sisters in Israel and become a combat infantryman in the IDF, the Jerusalem Post reported.
“Everything may be bigger in Texas, but the beaches and parties could not distract a native son from returning home to defend and protect his people,” read a post on the Michael Levin Israel Lone Soldier Center’s Facebook page.
“Sean was a gentle, kind boy,” said Rabbi Asher Hecht of the Rio Grande Valley Chabad Jewish outreach organization, who had met Carmeli at summer camp. “He was the oldest of the local boys in our camp, and was a sweet and kind example to everyone else.”
“Our hearts go out to his parents and dear sisters, Gal and Or,” Hecht said. “They lost their only son today, their only brother. The vacuum left by this tragedy will never be filled.”
Daniella Shemi said she didn’t know Carmeli but wanted to attend his funeral.
“It’s shocking and your heart hurts for the family. This situation was forced on us. All we want is to live here in quiet and they [Hamas] don’t let us. When I see the image of all the people here, it makes me proud to be a part of this nation," Shemi said.
Carmeli was killed in Gaza Saturday night when his armored personnel carrier was fired on by Hamas militants shooting an anti-tank weapon.
In his eulogy, Lt. Col. Moshe Dango said, “You always stood boldly at the forefront of the battalion. From your commanders I heard you’re crazy about soccer and the Maccabi Haifa team. You fell as a hero opposite a cowardly enemy and we will never forget that. Your image and your values will continue to be with us. May your memory be blessed.”
This video from Israel's Reshet TV was posted on YouTube showing Carmeli's casket arriving flanked by the huge crowd: