“Welcome. Hashem is With You” reads a spray-painted wooden sign posted at the entrance to the army base at Gaza’s southernmost tip. This is the Israeli army’s main infantry training grounds and for the past several weeks it has been the site of major activity as Israel’s soldiers entered Gaza to root out Hamas operatives firing rockets into southern Israel.
I am inside car #3 of a six-vehicle convoy carrying top military rabbinical brass from the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and organization leaders from the Orthodox Union including Israel Director General Rabbi Avi Berman who I catch a lift with that day. “Hashem certainly is with us. Yes indeed,” Rabbi Berman nods and smiles.
It is week three of Operation Cast Lead and a ceasefire is in the works. The six-car-convoy mission is en route to delivering tefillin to soldiers who have specifically requested them. The tefillin – 200 pair – are a gift from the OU and sponsored by Beth Jacob Synagogue in Beverly Hills and its leader Rabbi Steven Weil, the Orthodox Union’s incoming Executive Vice President.
In Israel, the tefillin delivery is commandeered by OU Mashiv Ha’Ruach Project Director Rabbi Rafael Even Danan. Mashiv Ha’Ruach is a program aimed at helping soldiers return to their roots and get connected and anchored to Eretz Yisrael.
“We need to have very clear values in the army of why we, as Jews, live in this country,” Rabbi Even Danan explains. “That is our backbone. Through things such as tefillin we are trying to strengthen Israel’s soul and spirit to build up the soldiers in the field and elevate their Jewish spark and give them Jewish values and an attachment to this country. The minute you’re attached to a country you are automatically a better fighter.”
Because a good number of soldiers grow up in central Israel and do not venture to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria or other parts of the country, they are disconnected from greater Israel. Mashiv Ha’Ruach exposes them to various geographical regions and Jewish traditions by bringing them to meet students/soldiers in hesder yeshivot and visit cities in Judea and Samaria and introducing them to the people living there. In this way the soldiers gain a greater understanding of fundamentally important – and strategic – locations, while connecting to the people they are defending.
Rabbi Berman explains: “This is the only place we have in the world and we have to fight for it. It was given to us by God over 4000 years ago. But if a soldier doesn’t know where Sderot is, he’ll say to himself: ‘Why should I go there to protect those people? ‘We’re here to show them that we’re all one nation. We protect each other. It doesn’t matter if I go to shul on Shabbat and another guy goes to the beach as long as we understand that we both come from the same nation and this is our God-given land, then we can go out and defend our nation together.”
As we slowly wind our way through the sprawling base – a mini-city in its own rite – activity abounds. Fatigue clad soldiers practice at artillery ranges, mill about in a makeshift outdoor mess hall, stand in the parking lot, return from Gaza missions or rest outside barracks.
We park the cars and set out on foot led by Rabbi Even-Danan who is carrying bagfuls of tefillin encased in waterproof packs. The half dozen rabbis accompanying Rabbi Even-Danan greet officers and soldiers along the way.
We arrive at our destination: the Golani infantry unit synagogue in the midst of the army camp. Mincha is getting underway and the rabbis are welcomed warmly as they enter the synagogue and stand alongside the soldiers for the service. For the most part, the minyan is made up of young boys in their early to late twenties. The sounds of artillery fire and two-way radio communications break through the hum of prayer.
When the service concludes, the rabbis head outdoors into the chill of the late January afternoon carrying the bags of tefillin with them. Within ten minutes word has gotten out: There is tefillin on base and the rabbis are helping wrap and recite brachot (blessings). A crowd gathers and for the next two hours the rabbis are surrounded by a steady stream of soldiers patiently waiting to receive the tefillin they ordered in advance.
As the soldiers get their tefillin, there is joy and hugging, there are brachot (blessings) and kind words and most of all, there is emunah, faith, in abundance. Stories of military missions and miracles begin to surface.
Ezer, a tall 28-year-old with a long pony tail hanging down his back, is from a Northern Israel development town. Visibly weary, he has been in Gaza since day 1 of Operation Cast Lead.
“There’s no dilemma for me about being here in Gaza; the tefillin helps me with my deep inner strength and deep inner beliefs. It helps me to be. To live. To be true to myself. To be strong. Do I think of mortality when I’m on a mission in Gaza? Always. When you’re in danger you have thoughts. ‘Is this my time? Isn’t it?’ The belief, the practice…it helps pull the strength to the surface during those times.”
The boys flock to Rabbis Berman, Even-Danan and Stavsky who radiate warmth as they utter quiet words of encouragement. Ezer applies tefillin with the aid of Rabbi Stavsky, the Director of the Baal Shem Tov outreach home and a steady OU volunteer, who offers a bracha and hug to each soldier he helps.
Former Memphis, Tennessee NCSY’er Yair Ben Yishai, a bubbly 22-year-old sporting matching black fleece cap and jacket over his fatigues, says he already has a pair of tefillin. He has approached Rabbi Berman on behalf of his commander, rumor reached him about the OU’s visit and he “wants a pair but is too shy to come here with the crowd”.
Ben-Yishai, also in Gaza since the start of the Operation, says this has been a war that has solidified emunah.
“The whole war you could really feel Hashem. My mom was telling me: ‘There’s no atheist in a foxhole.’ Here you see people who never believed who started coming to shul. People in my unit who never thought anything about emunah are wearing tzeezeet. Every time we go into a battle we blow the shofar and pray. You really feel that this is a Jewish army; we’re doing what we need to do for Eretz Yisrael and that’s where you feel really close to God.”
Later that night as we exit the base, a satisfied Rabbi Berman sums up the mission.
“When you’re a pilot or a tank commander and you have to push that button, it’s not easy to do; you don’t get over it. But what gives you strength and gets you through it is belief in the Almighty and the land that He gave us. Whether your relationship with G-d is expressed three times a day or once a year in synagogue it’s about that personal connection. We’re trying to help these soldiers develop that relationship with the Almighty and build a sense of comfort around that.”
Stephanie Carmon is a freelance journalist living in Tel Aviv. Her personal blog is Stefanella’s Weblog. http://stefanella.wordpress.com/