On a clear day in Gush Etzion, you can see for miles. And if you know the history of the region, you can feel its spirit in your bones. You drive along the highway, pass the different yishuvim, point out Yeshivat Har Etzion, fall silent where hundreds fell in the War of Independence and you hear the place crying out triumphantly, “Am Yisrael Chai.”
If you’re an Israeli soldier with limited exposure to Jewish history, to Torah, and to religious Jews, it may sometimes be difficult to understand what you’re fighting for and who you represent. Which is why a group of 250 soldiers spent the day in Gush Etzion this past Monday. They came as part of OU Israel’s Mashiv Haruach program to learn about the Gush, to attune their hearing so that they too could hear the spirit cry of the Jewish people that resounds in the region. The goal of Mashiv Haruach is to expose Tzahal’s secular soldiers to the beauty and complexity of the Land of Israel, to Torah and to religious life. The program seeks to inspire soldiers to connect with their land and their people. And what better place to do it in than Gush Etzion?
According to Rabbi Avi Berman, Director of OU Israel, Mashiv Haruach takes one day in a soldier’s service and breaks several barriers. A great divide has managed to split the people of this small land so that there is little dialogue between the secular and religious populations, and even less understanding. The program brings the soldiers to Yesha, so they see it with their own eyes. For many this is their first visit, for the first time Yesha is real for them, and they recognize that it is a vibrant part of the Land of Israel. The soldiers learn how Jews sacrificed their lives for the region, how it was an integral part of the battle to save Jerusalem in 1948. They spend time in Yeshivat Har Etzion and meet religious Jews who serve in the army. They discover that though they may not agree with religious Jews, they can respect them.
Mashiv Haruach guides groups of soldiers through the Gush several times a week in a three-part educational experience. First, the soldiers spend time in the Yeshiva, exposed to Torah and interacting with religious Jews. Second, they visit historical and spiritually inspiring locations in the Gush to enhance their understanding of the region and create a personal connection to the land. Finally, they enjoy good, plain fun on the second longest zip line in the world, located in Gush Etzion.
Monday’s group of soldiers hailed from an elite army unit enrolled in Officer’s Training Camp. The soldiers flooded Yeshivat Har Etzion with green fatigues, army boots, and the laughter and good cheer of a “day off” from the army. During the first session of the day, the soldiers met with a Rabbi who spoke with them about his army service and about the unique spiritual qualities of the Jewish People. For some soldiers, it was their first personal encounter with an individual of religious appearance. They heard “the beard” speak their language. He too had served in the army. He understood their world. He spoke and laughed with them in their own tongue. At the end of the talk, some of the soldiers walked to the front of the room to exchange a few personal words with the Rabbi of the long beard – a soldier in disguise, perhaps?
The soldiers then broke into smaller groups of 10 or 12 to learn a little Torah and tour the Yeshiva with a Yeshiva student as guide. The soldiers met young men their own age who combined yeshiva with army service in the hesder program. They learned what a gemara is and were surprised by the intensity and sheer noise of morning seder in the Beit Midrash. Then, they settled into a circle on the grass to talk.
“My unit actually had a lot of Beinishim (Yeshiva students),” one soldier said with a shrug and a little laugh, but then continued, “they brought an element of morality, they talked about things that we could go one day to the next without ever thinking about.” The other soldiers nodded and looked around, some agreeing, some merely absorbing. And then the group fell silent.
Sensing that some words were left unsaid, the yeshiva student took off his kippah. “Look, if this is what’s holding you back,” he said, “I’ll take it off. I really want to hear your thoughts.” One soldier spoke up, “I don’t understand what’s so special about hesder,” he said. “Sure, learn in Yeshiva for a few years and knock off half your army service. It sounds like a great deal, I know a lot of guys who would go for that.” Others in the group echoed their agreement. (Hesder is a five year program, 3 ½ years in Yeshiva and 1 ½ in the army, while regular army service is 3 years.) The yeshiva student didn’t speak right away. He gave the soldiers a chance to speak their minds before he replaced his kippah and responded, “I’m not going to add my opinion, you all know what it is” he said, amidst good natured laughter. “But. I think it’s important to realize that you may be right. Or I may be right. We need to recognize that there are people with different world views. I look at the world in one way, and you look at it in another. We just need to understand where the other person is coming from.”
The group walked back to the buses together, the yeshiva student and secular soldiers, contemplating the dialogue they had begun. “They need to see the people who live here,” says Rafi Even Danan, Mashiv Haruach program director,” they need to appreciate what the Yeshiva stands for and understand that they are also part of the Jewish People and the Land of Israel.”
During the second part of the day, the soldiers were bused to the memorial for the fallen Lamed Hey, a group of 35 Jewish heroes who fell in 1948 on a mission to assist the desperate fighters of Gush Etzion. The soldiers settled onto the ground around the memorial, nestled in the inspiring Gush Etzion hills. The tour guide stood before them in bare feet. “I remove my shoes because I am standing on holy ground,” he began, “the ground on which our brothers fought to their last breath to protect each other and to protect the land of Israel.” He went on to tell the story of the Lamed Hey, to read Ben Gurion’s letter in which Israel’s first Prime Minister declared that he could think of no braver unit in the Israeli army, or in any army in the world, than the Lamed Hey who fell to protect Gush Etzion. The soldiers visited the memorial for the fallen Gush Etzion fighters and learned the story of the Gush in 1948. As they left the memorial, the soldiers were silent. Some pointed out names on the lists of the fallen, others merely walked away, heads down. “They see that the land means something, that Jews fought and gave their lives to protect it,” says Rabbi Berman. Mashiv Haruach opens a new door for the soldiers; it helps them gain a deeper and more inclusive understanding of what they are fighting for and who they represent.
After the heavier experiences of the day, and a chance to chill on the zip line, the soldiers return to their base. Hopefully they take with them a new connection to their land and their people. In one jam-packed day, loaded with history, tiyulim and Torah, Mashiv Haruach opens up the minds and hearts of soldiers who didn’t know the stories of the men who fell in the Gush in 1948, who didn’t know the meaning of the word “gemara,” who didn’t know that the “settlements” in Gush Etzion were such a beautiful, vibrant part of the Land of Israel. At the end of one Mashiv Haruach day in Gush Etzion, a soldier shared, “I’m secular. I grew up hating religious people. I still won’t vote for a right wing party, but I don’t hate you anymore.”
Elisheva Rosenblatt is a freelance writer living in Beit Shemesh, Israel
Abba Richman is an Israeli-based photographer. To view more of Abba Richman’s photographs and contact him, visit http://www.abbarichman.com