The Jewish community of South Padre Island, Texas, is mourning the loss of native-born Sgt. Sean Carmeli, one of 13 soldiers from the Golani brigade who died in battle overnight in the Shejaiyah section of Gaza City.

Sean, known in Hebrew as Nissim, was born to Israeli parents—Alon and Dalya Carmeli—who had moved to the island in pursuit of business opportunities. Over time, along with his parents and two sisters, he reconnected with his Jewish roots and began living a Torah lifestyle.

“Sean was a gentle, kind boy,” said Rabbi Asher Hecht, co-director of Chabad of the Rio Grande Valley, who met the boy in summer of 2006 when he and a friend ran a day camp for local Jewish children. “He was the oldest of the local boys in our camp, and was a sweet and kind example to everyone else.”

“He was my older brother, my best friend, my everything,” Hecht reported being told by a community youth, who continued to say, “I need Sean now more than ever.”

The Carmelis were leaders in the religious awakening that took place in South Padre Island during the first decade of the millennium. Within a few years, community members constructed a synagogue, hired a rabbi, and almost all of the entire, tight-knit community observes Torah and mitzvot.

Alon Carmeli purchased the community’s first Torah scroll and dedicated the synagogue in memory of his father-in-law, Nissim Buganim, after whom his son was named.

After spending his summers in the Chabad day and overnight camps, Sean’s parents saw that their children were growing up without many Jewish friends and made the decision to move back to Israel, said Hecht. Sean, who held dual U.S and Israeli citizenship, completed high school in Ra’anana and went on to join the army where he served with honor and distinction in the Golani brigade.

Sean Carmeli as a young teen at a Havdalah service at Camp Gan Israel near his home in South Padre Island, Texas.
Sean Carmeli as a young teen at a Havdalah service at Camp Gan Israel near his home in South Padre Island, Texas.

“Just before it was time for him to enter the army, Sean made a decision to spend some time in a yeshivah,” recalled Hecht.

“On a visit to Israel, my wife and I met up with Sean in the Old City in Jerusalem where he was studying, and he told us just how excited and happy he was to be able to dedicate this important time in his life to Torah study, hoping that it would open his horizons and give him the right perspective before starting his army service and influence his life as a proud Jew.”

Hecht related that when Sean was called up, his superior told him that he did not need to go to the front because of a wound on his foot. Sean, however, insisted on accompanying his comrades into Gaza.

“Our hearts go out to his parents and dear sisters, Gal and Or,” said Hecht. “They lost their only son today, their only brother. The vacuum left by this tragedy will never be filled.

“Sean Carmeli is a hero of the Jewish people,” he continued. “Like Rabbi Akiva and so many others before him, he gave his life to protect the survival of the Jewish people. Sean will never be forgotten.”

Carmeli, left, as a teenager, leading prayers at Camp Gan Israel near his home in South Padre Island, Texas.
Carmeli, left, as a teenager, leading prayers at Camp Gan Israel near his home in South Padre Island, Texas.