Every weekday morning, Mitch Wenzel of Monroe, N.Y., honors the memory of his son: He painstakingly wraps the very tefillin used by Gregg Wenzel, who passed away at the young age of 33 in Ethiopia.

On Monday, the nation also got an opportunity to honor the man when CIA Director Leon Panetta revealed that the attorney from suburban New York was really a covert operative who dedicated his life to protecting the United States.

“During months of rigorous training, Gregg stood out as a leader for his talent and for his intellect, but also for his great sense of humor and a great penchant for fun,” Panetta said at the memorial service at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., noting that Wenzel – who as a public defender in Miami, attended services at a local Chabad-Lubavitch center – was among the first cadets to join the clandestine service after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

“He helped unite the class,” added Panetta, “and kept its spirits high in the toughest moments.”

One of six fallen operatives whose identities were finally revealed this week, Wenzel was driving the streets of Addis Ababa in July 2003 when another vehicle served into his path, killing him and his passenger, a high-ranking Ethiopian official. Obituaries at the time identified Wenzel as an employee of the U.S. State Department and attributed the crash to a drunken driver, who still has not been found.

Mitch Wenzel, who has attended each annual memorial service for fallen officers since 2003, told the New York Daily News that the actual circumstances of his son’s passing remain murky.

Several times since Wenzel’s death, the father had lobbied the CIA and other agencies to reveal his son’s true profession, most recently in a Dec. 18 letter to departing President George W. Bush.

“I asked President Bush to do a mitzvah for our family before he leaves office,” said Wenzel.

At the ceremony, Mitch and Gladys Wenzel received a replica of a star displayed in their son’s memory on a wall in Langley. Today, there are a total of 90 stars, each commemorating an officer who died in the line of duty. Many remain anonymous.

Mitch Wenzel, left, wore tefillin to a 2006 memorial ceremony for fallen CIA operatives presided over by the then-director of the agency Porter Goss.
Mitch Wenzel, left, wore tefillin to a 2006 memorial ceremony for fallen CIA operatives presided over by the then-director of the agency Porter Goss.

The parents, who saw Wenzel graduate from Monroe-Woodbury High School in 1987 and move south after university, said that he spread his love and passion for Judaism and Jewish learning among the many people he knew.

“Gregg was born on the 18th [of the month], which is chai in Hebrew,” a word meaning “life,” said Gladys Wenzel. It “was so appropriate for Gregg, who knew how to live life to the fullest.”

In 2004, when Rabbi Pesach and Chana Burston opened Chabad-Lubavitch of Orange County in Goshen, N.Y., the Wenzels established the Gregg David Scholarship Fund for children to attend the center’s Hebrew school. The scholarship, noted the parents, was a fitting example of their son’s philosophy: “Take time every day to help someone. It is the little acts of random kindness that, in the end, make a bigger difference.”

Pesach Burston, who attended the Virginia ceremony at the Wenzels’ invitation, told Panetta that the fallen officer was an inspiration to many in Orange County.

“I got to know Gregg after he passed away,” said the rabbi. “I got to know him through the wonderful things that the Wenzel family do for so many in Gregg’s memory. His soul must be so proud.”

Responded Panetta: “We all are.”