Heroism Leadership and Kinship
Musings about the 8 day “skirmish”
Rabbi Ari Kahn
As our “mini-war” is winding down, I would like to recap some of what has happened in the past 8 days. This is not a report of what happened in the war, but some things which we had the privilege to witness and participate in.
The soldiers - young and old, married and single, busy and unemployed -received the same annoying automated phone message. Our phone starting ringing to deliver a semi-coherent message at 4am Friday morning; our second son Hillel, who completed his mandatory army service 14 months ago, was being called. This was not a surprise: Hillel is in Handasa Kravit – combat engineering. They check for mines, build bridges, and are generally the first ones in – to clear the path and make it safe for all the others who follow- on foot, or in tanks. For us the message was clear – we were at war, or something very close to it, and they were preparing – in case the decision was taken to enter Gaza.
After an incessant stream of automated calls for two hours at fifteen minute intervals, the calls stopped– until, that is, they started again half an hour later, this time for our oldest son, Matityahu. His unit is paratroopers, and although he was married eleven months ago, the army still had our number listed for him. We called him – woke him and his wife, and let them know about his “appointment” with the army…and its immediacy.
Some thirty thousand soldiers received these calls that morning, over the next few days the number was doubled. The percentage of those who reported for duty was off the charts, meaning more than 100%. How is this possible? Even those who were not called made their way down south to “volunteer.” Such is the attitude of these reserve soldiers: The welfare and safety of the State of Israel takes precedence over personal comfort. For them, the task of protecting the Jewish People is not abstract, it's personal – and it is the greatest possible job in the world. These men and women put their lives on hold, kissed their spouses, children and parents goodbye, and put their lives in danger for the greater good are all heroes. Nowadays, the word hero is used far too casually, but this is the real thing.
The morning my sons made their way to their respective units, I sent out an email, alerting friends and family that whoever is not in the front can still be part of the war effort by adding their prayers on behalf of the soldiers and civilians southern Israel. One dear friend called me immediately. It was evening in the West Coast of the United States; he was concerned, wanted to know what was going on, and asked, “How can I help?” The phone conversation was followed by an email: “What do the soldiers need? Can we get them any supplies?” Though connection by phone was sporadic, I managed to ask both sons, “Do you need anything?” As usual, they both said no – they had everything they needed. I said, "Please approach your commanding officers and let us know if you need anything." Much to their surprise, the officers actually immediately pinpointed some very specific needs. At first we were approached by the officer of the paratroopers: “We need thermal underwear, and – we know this will be impossible –we need a shipping container to hold our supplies." My wife then got involved. She started “shopping,” checking stores, importers and manufacturers. It seems there was a run on thermal goods – apparently there was a war down south and a whole bunch of soldiers needed supplies. We located a warehouse that had one hundred sets of thermal clothing, which we asked them to hold for us, but in order to complete the purchase, we still had a problem: In order for the donor to transfer the funds to Israel, we had to find an organization that could issue a tax receipt and then make the purchase in Israeli funds.
My first thought was of my dear friend, Rabbi Avi Berman, Director of the OU – Orthodox Union in Israel. I called him, but not only was he unavailable – he was in transit from abroad, on a plane on the way back to Israel. If we did not produce the money very soon – the thermal suits would be unavailable.
Somehow I convinced the OU's C.F.O. (David Katz) that it was a good idea to spend thousands of shekels that he did not have, that I could guarantee that the money would come in, and that his boss would not only not be furious with him, he will thank him. David still had some (well-founded) reservations, so I said “David , worse comes to worst, they fire you. I will help you find a new job.” What I did not say, he also heard: We are at war, and we have an opportunity to keep our soldiers warm. We have a moral obligation to take care of those who take care of us, and being warmer may help them get some sleep, may help them concentrate on their complicated mission, and in some way may help save lives. David made the purchase.
Naomi, my wife, drove to the warehouse in Beit Shemesh and picked up the cartons, although she was not sure exactly how the next stage would play out. How to get the material from Jerusalem down south to the paratroopers unit? The next stage soon solved itself: a logistics officer was in Jerusalem and was heading down to the base in the afternoon. The transfer was made, and within six hours from the moment the commander put in the request, they had what they asked for.
The lead me to think about the many conversation my friend, the donor of the funds, had had in the past about leadership: what it is, how to teach it. On that particular day, he was not trying to lead, only to act as an individual. Little did he realize at the time how many would indeed follow his lead. Indeed, this was true leadership: he took action – decisive, clear action – and others followed. Sometimes, it's that simple.
In purchasing the thermal suits, we had spent most of the money that had been donated, and then the phone rang. The officer of our other son's Handasa Kravit (combat engineering) unit was calling. He asked, hesitantly, almost skeptically, if it was true that we had offered to help. We answered, “absolutely!” He told us what he needed – his “wish list”. He explained that no one had ever made such an offer with this unit and he was in shock. Here, I should add a word or two about Handasa Kravit. These guys are more of a “blue collar,” “no frills” type of unit, without the aura that accompanies other units of the IDF, such as the paratroopers, the air force, and some others. These are tough guys, with no expectations. They do their jobs, which are among the most dangerous of all, and let the other units get the glory. Our son Hillel is perhaps a typical example: when his finger was shattered during his army service up north, he convinced the doctors to sign him out for a "second opinion", then put himself on a bus to Jerusalem for a four and a half hour ride while bleeding profusely. It never occurred to him, or to his comrades who had accompanied him to the hospital, that an ambulance may be in order. After undergoing surgery to fuse together and reconstruct 7 or 8 pieces of what was left of the bones of his finger, he got sick of sitting around at home, so he simply rejoined his unit to complete his service. No big deal; nothing special. Tough guys, no frills.
They needed headlamp flashlights, and other basic tools. We said, “no problem” even though we knew we did not have enough money left. I sent an email describing the situation and posted it on Facebook: We can help these soldiers; if people just let me know that the money is on the way, we will make the purchases…
People responded. Good people. Good Jews. They knew these boys were really their own flesh and blood, their own brothers, their own children. They knew that they were protecting their own People and their own Land. My friend – the one whose leadership had started all this - immediately raised his donation. And then money started pouring in. Not just from wealthy people: When a student on limited budget sends $36 he/she knows they will need to skip lunch one or two days this week – but what choice do they have? This is their People, this is their family, and this is what we do for family. When a young couple send $100 or $250 – they will need to explain to their kids that they really did purchase the most valuable Chanukah present this year – even if it is down south in Israel right outside of Gaza.
More special friends stepped forward and some substantial gifts were given; again – an amazing outpouring of leadership, responsibility, and love.
Within a few hours, $26,000 was raised! I could not help but see the deeper significance of this sum: The number 26 is the numeric value of the name of God that indicates hesed, loving-kindness, and I prayed that the merit of the hesed of each and every person who contributed would help protect our boys, and our People.
After shopping around for the best prices, we made the purchases and again -within hours of the request the items were delivered directly to the unit down south. Our son Hillel called that evening. He said, “you've never seen anything like it.” All these tough guys – blue collar , no frills, just received their “care packages” and the officer told them that Jews all over the world care about them and are looking out for them. Some of them got choked up. Yeah, I know tough guys don’t cry. The hated enemy, the fact that have been sleeping out on the ground, wearing the same clothes for a week, with no shelter from the hail of rockets falling in their area, could not make these guys cry, but the love of other Jews - good Jews, their brothers and sisters, could.
There is a positive commandment to support those fighting during war, to give them strength; all who participated in this project performed acts of hesed – which transcend any monetary price tag, you showed you care, you showed you understand, you showed your love. It was felt far away by those who went to fight because they love us.
Today, as the ceasefire goes into effect, we were finally able to purchase the shipping container in which the paratroopers unit will store all their materiel - until the next time it is needed; let’s hope it is only needed for practice. We look forward to the day when there will be no more war and no more bloodshed, but until that day we will be ready - supporting our soldiers with love.
I want to thank all of the heroes, and all of the leaders, and all of those who got involved. We are indeed family.
Am Yisrael Chai!
PS – Both of our sons' units have been told that if they need anything else they should let us know. Our support is not limited to times of crisis, and we will not forget their tremendous heroism and readiness to sacrifice, even if the ceasefire holds up.