He noticed the OU logo on the stickers affixed to the tefillin cases we were giving out to the soldiers at the Gaza base, and approached. He wore ‘tzahal green’ (IDF army fatigues) and spoke with an American accent. A few questions later I learned he hailed from Memphis and was an alumnus of NCSY, the youth movement of the Orthodox Union.
Through NCSY he learned about Judaism and developed an intense love of Israel. Making aliyah as soon as he could, his parents have since followed. I asked him what he would recommend as the theme for the next NCSY Shabbaton. Perhaps not surprisingly, given the context in which our conversation was taking place, he suggested “What We Can Learn from War.”
“As powerful as an NCSY Shabbaton can be,” he started, “it can’t compare with what happened in there.” (“In there,” of course, referred to Gaza, which was only yards away.) He told how his unit captured a house in Gaza. Each person was assigned a different location. One soldier, a friend of his, was instructed to sandbag a window. This is a standard procedure, blocking out virtually the entirety of a window, except for a small portion, through which one can look. That particular soldier was stationed by the window and would normally not move from his location.
What does an Israeli soldier do in Gaza when standing by at a sandbagged window? This soldier decided to say some Tehillim, some psalms. When he was finished, he wanted to put the Tehillim back in the box. It was only a feet away, he reasoned, he would barely be away from his post. It was at the very moment that he was returning the Tehillim to the box that an RPG, an anti-tank missile, exploded in the very place he had been standing at the sandbagged window.
The Memphis NCSYer, who was a witness to this miracle, called it “the hand of God.” And stories such as this one are not unique. Is there any unit in Israel that has not experienced the hand of God? This, he said, is what we can learn from war. “NCSY taught me about God,” he said, “but three weeks in Gaza have shown me God like nothing else could.”
For many soldiers, this war has intensified the search for a spiritual connection. Looking for an outlet to express this yearning, they want to put on tefillin, don tzitzit, say a chapter of tehillim and open a siddur. The OU has long worked with the IDF in helping to provide moral support, spiritual guidance and Jewish background to the soldiers. The IDF asked OU Israel to help them in meeting the demands of these soldiers and a new campaign was born.
The tefillin given out that day, were purchased with funds raised by an inspired Rabbi Steven Weil, incoming Executive Vice President of the Orthodox Union, and his congregation, Beth Jacob in Beverly Hills.
This former NCSYer has put on tefillin before. He has worn tzitzit and opened a prayerbook. He knows how to have a relationship with God. But seeing his comrades searching, their tremendous thirst for a relationship with God, the soldiers asking him to borrow his tefillin, he wondered. A door was opened and he questioned how they could keep the door open once the war was over.
“God opened a relationship with them,” he emphasized, “I wondered how many would lose that relationship once the war was over. You gave them a way to hold onto it.“