“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.”
VOICES FROM THE FIELD
When Orthodox Union Rabbis Avi Berman, Rafael Even-Danan and half a dozen other leading OU and military rabbis delivered tefillin to soldiers serving in Israel’s Operation Cast Lead, the soldiers discussed the significance of the delivery for them and shared their stories about war and emunah. These are some of the stories. . .
Assaf Azriel, Chief Rabbi, Kfir Infantry Battalion:
“A few weeks ago, Itai, the commander of the Kfir Battalion, was getting his men ready to go into Gaza. He called me over specially to say the traditional blessing before going into battle.
All of a sudden, Itai starts screaming the Shemah at the top of his lungs. And all of his soldiers – very few were religious – start screaming it after him. And he continues with the next verse and says it seven times. And it’s all screaming. And the soldiers are screaming it after him. Then they put on their vests and helmets and go into Gaza.
The next day I got a report that an anti-tank missile hit the home they were operating from and that Itai was hit. I helicoptered to the hospital to be with him but it was too late.
Since then, the soldiers from his unit have been approaching me – one after the other – for tefillin and tzeezeet. They want to do something in his memory and they feel very strongly that the shemah was his final atonement before going into battle.
On Shabbat the Bet Knesset was full – soldiers were praying and singing and they stayed for shiureem. These are special times. These are strong soldiers. We’re strong. “
Brian Elbert, 25 – originally from Philadelphia. Made aliya in 2006. Serving in Golani Infantry for a year.
I’ve been in Gaza since the operation started and I spoke with my mother for the first time today – my parents are in the U.S. It was very traumatic. My parents were literally freaking out for weeks.
I was raised secular but since making aliya I’ve moved more and more toward religion. I always felt I was lacking something spiritually and the more I’ve learned the more I appreciate what I’m learning.
Getting tefillin today is a very big step for me. Because religion played very strongly during this war. When you’re faced with fear, moral dilemmas and the reality of what’s going on around you the religious component becomes more meaningful and authentic.
For the past three weeks I prayed like I’ve never prayed before. And I promised myself that if I got through this okay I’d get off my behind and learn more and reach a point where I want to be spiritually.
Every day I prayed to G-d to just let me see my parents again. Just let me see my parents again.
So the tefillin symbolizes a reward. I made it. God answered my prayers to get through this okay and now I’ve got to keep up my end of the bargain and my commitment to praying regularly.
Yair Ben Yishai, 22. Golani Brigade. Born in Israel, lived in Memphis during high school years
Usually when you’re in the army, if you’re serving somewhere random & you’re not doing much of anything, G-d is nice as a concept but he’s not really there. Suddenly in a time of war, you really feel an explosion of religion and let me tell you. .. It’s an incredible feeling.
Also: We heard an incredible story about a paratroop unit serving in Gaza going from house to house to search for Hamas terrorists.
Sometimes the houses are booby-trapped but the soldiers never know so they’re very careful.
So this unit is searching and suddenly an old lady comes out of a house and says to them in Hebrew, Don’t go to this house, this house and this house – they’re all booby-trapped.
So the soldiers ask: Who are you? You’re in Gaza and you speak perfect Hebrew? Where did you come from?
She answered: I’m Rachel mother of Joseph and Benjamin and I’m here to protect you. And then she disappeared.
When we heard the story, people who were not religious at all said: The mashiach has finally come. Finally. It’s time.
Alexi Shun, 20, Golani Infantry Brigade. In Gaza since the start of the Operation.
I’m from Ashkelon but I was born in St. Petersburg, moved to Israel as a child and at 13 moved to Washington, D.C. for a few years. When I turned 18 I came to Israel and went into army.
I did a bar mitzvah but grew up completely secular. I started saying prayers and doing a few things like that when I went into the army because a few of the guys in my unit would put on tefillin each morning and pray. I decided I wanted to too. It calls you to do it. It’s the Jewish connection.
I came out here today to get tefillin because I don’t have any and I want my own. I don’t want to take them from my friends anymore.
I’m glad I found this – religion and tefillin and the customs. Because when you pray it gives you strength and reminds you inside and out that you’re Jewish. It renews your pact with that connection and reminds you that you have to protect this country. It’s part of the obligation.
Stephanie Carmon is a freelance journalist living in Tel Aviv. Her personal blog is Stefanella’s Weblog. http://stefanella.wordpress.com/