The IDF Now Faces the Invisible Enemy

Former Friends of the Israel Defense Forces National Director, Maj. General (Res) Yitzhak (Jerry) Gershon, currently serving as a General in the reserves in the IDF, shared his perspective on the IDF duties during this time, with Tzvia Wexler, FIDF Executive Director on the Pennsylvania/Southern New Jersey region.

Maj. General Gershon’s career in the IDF involved coordinating numerous IDF operations, including the first Lebanon War, ‘Defensive Shield’ during the second Intifada, and leading the Home Front Command in the second Lebanon war. He lived in the U.S. for six years while heading the national FIDF organization, and is now back in Israel with his eyes and ears on the ground.

The State of Israel celebrates 72 years of existence this month, and despite its independence, this young country is still in the midst of a historic nation-building process.

Wexler asked Maj. General Gershon about the upcoming national Israeli holidays and about how the IDF, and Israeli society, are managing the Covid-19 crisis.

(TW) We are just days before Israel’s Memorial Day and Independence Day celebrations. One of the strengths of the IDF is maintaining close ties with commanders, soldiers, and bereaved families, after losing their loved ones while serving. This year, it will look different. As a commander who lost soldiers during an IDF operation, what are your thoughts?

(JG) Memorial Day and Independence Day constitute the foundation upon which we are able to continue to live, grow, and develop. We could not have existed without the sacrifice of the commanders and fighters before the establishment of the state up to this day. Bereaved families do not need a remembrance day, as the empty space that has been created in their lives is a painful reminder that they face every day. Memorial Day is meant for all people to unite and to remember that those who lost their lives commanded us to live. As someone who has lost fighters on the battlefields, I am a bereaved commander who does not the ability to be with families in this special moment of the year, to shake their hands, hug them and be with them to remember together. As commanders, we are an important part of the memory of their loved one. Our presence has an effect on the lives of the bereaved. This year so as not to jeopardize anyone, we will remotely remember our lost soldiers and commanders through a phone call or the use of other technological means.

(TW) Last week marked the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. How did the IDF integrate themselves into the events?

(JG) The army and its commanders and fighters constitute the protective wall of the Jewish people and the State of Israel, with those in uniform ‘quietly shouting Never Again’ during the heroic ceremonies. It is customary on this day for young paratroopers in red berets to commemorate the Yom Ha’Shoah as the message goes out to the nation and the whole world that Israel is capable of protecting itself on its own.

(TW) What has been the role of the IDF in fighting the pandemic which presents a different kind of war?

(JG) The IDF and the Israeli security system have joined forces to stabilize actions to help save lives, fight the virus and defeat it. As always, when Israeli society is threatened, they unite and do everything possible to successfully meet the challenge. For example, the Israeli institution considered the best intelligence organization in the world, initiated and led the development of a protective app that lets you know in real time if you are close to a patient and what needs to be done. A plan was systemized to ensure that Israel would have the equipment needed to save lives. The Home Front Command and other IDF forces initiated and organized treatments at various locations where the virus broke out and the Ministry of Defense converted hotels to isolation sites for those infected. As always, the security system is mobilizing to meet national goals that are not necessarily linked to external military threats. This is part of Israel’s history. In the first few decades, the army helped establish settlements. In later years, the IDF brought in Ethiopian immigrants, rescued the kidnappers from Entebbe, and much more.

(TW) Since the founding of the State of Israel, IDF soldiers have been imbued with a strong sense of national identity to protect the nation’s independence and security of its citizens. Can they continue in the midst of the pandemic?

(JG) All countries around us, including Iran, are heavily preoccupied with the virus, but their targets against Israel have not changed. IDF soldiers, today as always, are on the brink, practicing vigorously to prevent war, and if it comes, to defeat it as quickly as possible. IDF commanders cannot afford to forget their main mission for one moment. The IDF is dealing with the epidemic and maintaining the military’s operational competence both at the same time.

(TW) As a commander, what is the connection you have observed between the IDF and Diaspora Jews?

(JG) The IDF commanders and their fighters are known as a defense army for Israel – defenders of the entire nation of Israel, and every Jew everywhere across the globe. Know that the State of Israel will be there for them. Every Jew knows that Israel and the Israel Defense Forces are the insurance certificates that allow them to live anywhere, develop, create, and influence in any good ways that they choose for all of humanity.

What message would you like to share at the close of this interview?

(JG) The virus that pervades the world and has largely stopped the world from turning, allows us to think about the moment after the virus is defeated and we go back to our daily routines: The world probably won’t return to exactly where it used to be, but it may well be a better world if we learn the good that we discover and leave behind the less good. Take care of the globe since it is our home. Be more humble and family oriented. Understand one another and always try to see the glass half full.

FIDF Event Shines a Light on Siblings of Fallen Soldiers

Gil Lesnik

The Friends of the Israel Defense Forces hosted a Shabbat dinner in Center City. The evening’s special guest was Israeli writer, producer and director Gil Lesnik, who screened his film “My Younger Elder Brother” at the dinner. The film documents the struggles of a previously overlooked group of bereaved people: the younger siblings of fallen soldiers. [Read more…]

Holocaust Survivors Travel With IDF Officers to Poland and Israel

Miroslawa Gruszczynska (left) and Holocaust survivor Miri Amir. Photo credit: Shahar Azran.

Miroslawa Gruszczynska (left) and Holocaust survivor Miri Amir. Photo credit: Shahar Azran.

Auschwitz-Birkenau survivor Bronia Brandman, 86, returned to the death camp for the first time since her liberation. Holocaust survivor Miri Amir was reunited yesterday with Miroslawa Gruszczynska, the woman whose family — awarded the title “Righteous Among the Nations” by Yad Vashem — hid her from the Nazis in Poland during World War II. Both of these emotionally charged events took place during a trip to Poland by Holocaust survivors, officers from the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and a delegation of 40 supporters of the organization Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF). During the second leg of the journey, the group also traveled together to Israel.

[Read more…]

20 Lone Soldiers Make Aliyah, Fulfilling a Modern-Day Story of Hanukkah

Group of olim. Photo credit: Ben Kelmer, courtesy of Nefesh B'Nefesh.

Group of olim.
Photo credit: Ben Kelmer, courtesy of Nefesh B’Nefesh.

Seventy-two new immigrants (olim) from North America landed in Israel on December 28, including 20 soon-to-be IDF (Israel Defense Forces) lone soldiers. Lone soldiers serve in the Israeli army without family support in Israel. [Read more…]

The Wings Program: Advocates for Lone Soldiers

<a href=The Wings Program for Lone Soldiers, run by the Merage Foundation and the Jewish Agency for Israel, was represented last week in a caucus for lone soldiers in the Israeli Knesset. The caucus convened to discuss the issue of lone immigrant soldiers and their integration into Israeli society after their release from the IDF. [Read more…]

Let Haredim and Soldiers Swap Roles

— by David Benkof

Controversy over haredi military service roils Israeli society, but respect for each side’s concerns and values can help resolve it.

Photo credit: Paul Arps

Photo credit: Paul Arps.

Haredim believe Jews of all backgrounds are equally commanded to learn Torah. Israel could diffuse Torah study by allowing non-religious, non-essential soldiers to choose among several serious beit midrash programs for beginners with different traditional, non-coercive approaches to learning. Topics covered could include military ethics and the holiness of protecting the Jewish people and its land.

For every hour a soldier learns, a yeshiva student would lend his abilities to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) for an hour – checking an eruv, helping with kashrut and holiday observance, etc. Some haredi volunteers may prefer to relieve soldiers by repairing equipment, cleaning barracks, preparing meals, and performing clerical tasks. Haredi managers would supervise yeshiva students in all-male settings, with other accommodations when necessary. The program could coincide with bein hazmanim, when yeshivas are on break anyway.

Yeshiva students will help spread Torah learning, and promote halachic observance on military bases. They will also gain useful experience for entering the work force, and have a ready answer for accusations of refusing to help protect the country.

Non-religious soldiers will get time off after intensive training and duty, and some might find meaning and even inspiration in classical Jewish texts, especially those related to the military. Their morale will improve as responsibility for national defense becomes more equally distributed.

Photo credit: Israel Defense Forces

Photo credit: Israel Defense Forces.

IDF service and Jewish learning will be maintained or grow, and a wrenching national debate will begin to subside as very different Israelis gain exposure to other lifestyles without compromising their values.

Because of mutual wariness, neither community is likely to embrace the proposal right away, but a pilot program involving those most open to adjusting could help work out the details and build trust.

Accusing haredim of being lazy, unpatriotic ingrates has not facilitated solutions. But reminding haredim that their learning is no more meritorious than that of their less-educated brethren may actually gain their attention.

The Torah praises the arrangement of two Israelite tribes: Issachar, who learned; and Zebulun, who provided for their needs. Halachically, an Issachar-Zebulun partnership offers each side the same heavenly reward. So far, only haredim have been Issachar. If Israelis switched roles on occasion, the entire nation would benefit from the twin virtues of duty and Torah.

David Benkof is a freelance writer living in St. Louis. Follow him on Facebook, or E-mail him at [email protected].

Are Dirty Army Uniforms Appropriate for Prayer?

Tank soldiers holding Mincha service before going into battle during Second Lebanon War. (Courtesy of American Friends of the IDF Rabbinate)

Tank soldiers holding Mincha service
before going into battle during Second Lebanon War. (Courtesy of American Friends of the IDF Rabbinate)

— by Rabbi Aharon Ziegler

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik was very meticulous and stringent in every phase of Hilchot Tefillah, the laws of prayer. He often cited the Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Tefilah 5) that eight specific aspects of prayer should be adhered to while standing for Shemoneh Esrei (the central element in all Jewish prayer), the fourth of which is Tikun HaMalbushim, proper and dignified attire.
[Read more…]

A Home Away From Home for IDF Volunteers


IDF troop swearing-in ceremony. Photo by IDF.

— by Ronit Treatman

“If you will it, it is no dream,” Theodore Herzl wrote in his book The Old New Land in 1902. This phrase has inspired Jews from around the world to help make the Zionist endeavor a reality for more than a century.

This proud tradition continues to this day. Currently, 6,000 volunteers from abroad are serving in the Israeli Defense Forces. Their official status is that of “lone soldiers,” because they leave their families behind and come to Israel alone.

The Lone Soldier Center in Memory of Michael Levin aims to build a community and be a family to these soldiers when they are in Israel.
In 2003, Michael Levin, Josh Flaster, and Ari Kalker sat around a table in Tel Aviv and shared fond memories of celebrating Shabbat at their Jewish summer camp in the U.S. They enjoyed telling about the delicious Shabbat dinners, and the special feeling that came over the camp as everyone sat around the table singing Shabbat songs.

They imagined that their life in Israel as IDF soldiers would be a lot like that. Instead, as foreign volunteers, they found themselves very isolated. Israel is a very family-oriented society, and Levin, Flaster and Kalker did not have their families with them. As a result, when they were on a leave, they found themselves eating cold pitas with humus in an empty apartment for Shabbat dinner.

Michael Levin was killed in action in 2006. The Center was founded in 2009. Through the Center’s work, Levin’s service and sacrifice are honored and memorialized, and his dream for lone soldiers to “never be alone” is realized.

The Lone Soldier Center has identified several needs that need to be met for lone soldiers to thrive in Israel. The Center is empowering civilians who were lone soldiers themselves to guide the future lone soldiers to success in Israel. These are the ways the Lone Soldier Center is reaching out to these soldiers:

Community:
The most important mission of the center is to provide all lone soldiers with a welcoming community, which will care for them, guide them, and support them. The center has several offices, a website, and a Facebook page that serve as resources for lone soldiers.
Meals:
Shabbat dinners and holiday meals become festive occasions when hosted by the Center. Meals are held by in Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv. The Center has partnered with The Jerusalem Great Synagogue and The Tel Aviv International Synagogue to provide spaces for these meals. Volunteers lovingly organize these meals in order to create the celebratory occasions envisioned by Levin, Flaster and Kalker.
Shelter:
Most lone soldiers arrive in Israel with few clothes and very little money. If they are not placed on a closed military base, they need to find an apartment with roommates. The Center helps match them up with other lone soldiers, and makes sure that they are signing a fair lease.Landlords in Israel are only required to provide a working cooking range, but not a refrigerator in an otherwise unfurnished apartment. The Center has a warehouse full of donated furniture and refrigerators that these soldiers may borrow. Volunteers drive the furniture to the apartments, and help carry the furniture inside.
Basic Needs Package:
Every drafting lone soldier receives a donated package of clothing, food, and equipment that they will need to start their new life in Israel.
Advocacy:
Volunteers make sure that the army complies with all of its own rules and respects all of the lone soldiers’ special rights. Amharic-speaking Ethiopian-Israeli soldiers assist other Ethiopian recruits with navigating the army. An attorney volunteers to help soldiers who are finishing their military service understand their rights as new immigrants.
Tutoring:
Not all lone soldiers come from abroad. Young people who choose to leave Haredi families to enlist in the IDF are also classified as lone soldiers. These young adults grew up immersed in a Yiddish environment, as part of an orthodox Jewish community that rejects the modern secular culture, receiving no preparation to succeed in modern Israel. The Center tutors them in Hebrew, and prepares them for their high school equivalency test, .
Special Ceremonies and Social Events:
When a lone soldier is drafted or graduates from a course, all of the other soldiers have their families there to celebrate with them. The Center sends a person to every significant celebration to rejoice over every accomplishment with every lone soldier.The Center also organizes special social events for lone soldiers to enjoy during their free time. This helps lone soldiers make friends and connect with other volunteers from around the world.
Friends Chapters in North America:
The Center is run by a small professional staff and 300 volunteers. This month, it will launch chaverim, “friends” chapters in 13 locations in North America:

  • California: San Diego.
  • Florida: Coco Beach, Jacksonville and Tampa Bay.
  • Illinois: Highland Park.
  • New York: Brooklyn, Long Island, Manhattan, Queens, Scarsdale and Westchester.
  • New Jersey: Highland Park.

Through this exciting initiative, individuals in cities across the continent will have the opportunity to raise awareness of lone soldier needs and support for the Center’s programming in their communities, schools and synagogues.

The Center is a registered Israeli non-profit with 501(c) status. All money donated goes directly to benefit lone soldiers.

For more information, or to inquire about establishing a chapter in your area, please contact the Center’s director, Josh Flaster.

Knesset Speaker Lights Chanukah Candles with IDF Lone Soldiers

— by Rebecca Modell

Speaker of the Knesset Yuli Edelstein participated in a special Hanukkah candle-lighting ceremony for the sixth night of Hanukkah, together with several Cabinet Ministers and Members of Knesset. The ceremony was also attended by 60 Lone Soldiers, arranged by Nefesh B’Nefesh, Friends of the IDF (FIDF), Tzofim Garin Tzabar, and Ha’aguda Lema’an Hachayal (The Association for the Welfare of Soldiers).

Photo Credit: Peter Halmagyi.

More after the jump.
Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein said:

I’m happy and thrilled to be here to continue the tradition of lighting Chanukah candles in the Knesset. The lighting of the candles symbolizes the freedom of the people of Israel, and is especially relevant here in the Knesset because we have our own parliament, and despite all the disagreements that take place in it, we have the freedom to govern ourselves.

Five Lone Soldiers joined Edelstein as he lit the Chanukah candles. The soldiers, who are originally from Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, France, Japan, and Uruguay made Aliyah to Israel to join the IDF with the support of Nefesh B’Nefesh and the FIDF.

Rabbi Yehoshua Fass, Co-Founder and Executive Director of Nefesh B’Nefesh, said at the ceremony,

We are honored to have the Knesset Speaker light the Chanukah candles with these Lone Soldiers, in this symbolic salute to all those who left their families and homes in order to make Aliyah and serve the Jewish State through the Nefesh B’Nefesh/FIDF Lone Soldiers program.