Australian leaders mourn fallen Jewish soldier

Private Gregory Sher's parents place his beret and medals on his coffin during a ramp ceremony at the airport in Melbourne on Friday, Jan. 9, 2009.</p>
<p> (Australian Department of Defense)

Private Gregory Sher’s parents place his beret and medals on his coffin during a ramp ceremony at the airport in Melbourne on Friday, Jan. 9, 2009.

(Australian Department of Defense)

Australian soldiers carry the coffin of Private Gregory Sher into the hangar in Afghanistan on Thursday, Jan. 8, 2008, before its repatriation to Melbourne.  (Australian Department of Defense)

Australian soldiers carry the coffin of Private Gregory Sher into the hangar in Afghanistan on Thursday, Jan. 8, 2008, before its repatriation to Melbourne. (Australian Department of Defense)

SYDNEY, Australia (JTA) — Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd delivered a moving eulogy at the military funeral Sunday of a Jewish soldier killed by the Taliban in Afghanistan.

At the request of the slain soldier’s family, donning a yarmulke, Rudd delivered a euology, telling almost 2,000 mourners at Melbourne’s Lyndhurst Jewish Cemetery that Pvt. Gregory Sher’s death was not in vain.

"He believed not just in the service of which he was a proud member, but also in the ideals to which Australia was committed in the fight against terrorism," Rudd said.

Sher, a 30-year-old South African-born soldier, was killed Jan. 4 in a rocket attack on a military compound southwest of Kabul.

Dozens of dignitaries followed Rabbi Philip Heilbrunn from the makeshift marquee to the grave site, including opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull, Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard, Defense Minister Joel Fitzgibbon, members of the military’s top brass and Israeli Ambassador Yuval Rotem. They were joined by dozens of soldiers and war veterans.

Private Sher’s casket, draped in the Australian flag, arrived at the burial site in a gun-carriage escorted by members of Australia’s elite forces and an honor guard from his own company.

A volley of gun shots was fired before Sher’s coffin was buried. The prime minister joined the Sher family and other mourners in shoveling earth into the grave.

Sher is the eighth Australian soldier, and the first of the country’s reservists, killed in Afghanistan since Australia sent forces to aid the United States-led coalition against the Taliban and al-Qaida in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. He is believed to be Australia’s first Jewish military casualty at least since the Vietnam War.

Fitzgibbon, the defense minister, told local media that Sher was "an Australian hero."

"He understood the risks but willingly did what his country asked of him,"  Fitzgibbon said.

Michael Danby, a Jewish parliamentarian in Rudd’s government, told JTA he had never seen a funeral like it before. "There will probably never be a funeral like that ever again, where not just parents but the prime minister, leader of the opposition and three generals helped bury Greg Sher," he said.

Rabbi Ralph Genende, the local Jewish chaplain to the armed forces, told the Australian Jewish News that Sher was "a courageous soldier, a mensch and a committed Jew."

Sher received a farewell from his comrades at a military ceremony Thursday in Afghanistan; a star of David was hung above his casket in the hangar before his body was repatriated to Melbourne Jan. 9.

In a statement issued issued through the Defense Department late last week, the Sher family declared: "Greg was a man of purpose and committed determination" and "was an extremely positive person with a kind soul. He was the sort of mate who would do anything for anyone, and his friends knew him for the great guy that he was."

Sher had previously served in East Timor, where he received several medals. He was also awarded the Afghanistan Campaign Medal, the NATO medal and the Australian Defense Medal.

He moved to Australia with his family in 1986, and is survived by his two brothers, his parents and his partner.

NEXT STORY