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,” Missner, 23, said Sunday. “He brought a lot of light to the world.”
Balva, who grew up in the Maryland suburbs 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 in the Israeli army 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.”
The Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School community — including graduates, students, faculty and staff — is “completely devastated and heartbroken” to learn of Balva’s death, said Rabbi Mitchel Malkus, head of the school.
“Omer was a beloved student,” Malkus said in an email. “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.”
It was at the Jewish day school that Balva, Missner and a third student named Jagger Balkin became an inseparable trio. “We’d do crazy stuff. Ethan had an electric bike, Omer and me would attach ropes to it and ride behind on skateboards,” Balkin said. “We did everything together, video games, basketball, soccer. We’d throw parties for each other whenever one of us had a birthday.”
Every summer, however, Balva would disappear, traveling to Israel to live with relatives there. “I think that’s part of why he loved Israel so much,” Balkin said. “It meant so much to him that this placed existed that was almost a safe haven for all of us. When you love something so much, you instinctively want to defend it.”
During his last year of high school — as part of their school’s program — Balva and other seniors spent three months living in Israel, touring the country and learning about its history.
That trip solidified Balva’s love for Israel, said several people who knew him.
“You could see it as soon as you met him, his passion for Israel and the return of his people to their homeland,” said Akiva Gersh, who taught Balva and other high school seniors in the program run by JNF Alexander Muss High School in Israel. “People were drawn to him because he was always positive with this big smile on his face. Always ready to go and do and help.”
The students spent time volunteering on a kibbutz — an intentional Israeli community where residents traditionally share resources. While most students rotated between stints at the farm and bakery, Balva spent the entire time working with children at the local school.
“All he wanted to do was teach the kids and play with them,” said Balkin, 22. “They just loved him.”
Another classmate at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School, Emma Hoch, 23, has spent much of the past three days since Balva’s death re-watching videos he 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.”
At the end of the program, while other classmates scattered to various U.S. colleges, Balva signed up for the Israel Defense Forces. “Ethan went to Georgetown. I went to Penn State. We all wanted him to do the college experience with us,” Balkin said. “He even got accepted into American University and a few other schools. But he chose the IDF instead. He loved Israel too much. It felt like a calling, something he needed to do.”
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 immigrated 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.
During Balva’s last days in the United States a few weeks ago — shortly before he rejoined his military unit in Israel — he talked to his two best friends about his plans for the future.
“He was going to get engaged soon to his girlfriend, who’s from the D.C. area,” Balkin said. “He talked about working with his dad at their flower company, how much he loved that business.”
Balva’s family could not be immediately reached for comment. His father, Eyal Balva, is the chief executive of Floranation, a company based in Landover, Md., that imports flowers. He splits his time between the United States and Israel, Missner said.
The Israeli army has been positioning military forces along the border with Lebanon, about 115 miles from Gaza, amid an exchange of fire from both sides. That is where Balva’s unit was stationed.
Thousands flocked to his funeral on Sunday in Herzliya — a town just north of Tel Aviv, said Gersh, his former teacher, who was there. Balva’s father and three siblings shared stories about him.
A military representative from the IDF also spoke.
“He talked about how even though Omer had been at that village where he was killed for only a few days, already all the villagers knew and loved him,” Gersh said. “That was so him … he knew what he wanted to do and where he needed to be. And wherever that was, people always loved him.”
Dan Rosenzweig-Ziff contributed to this report.