In a corridor in Me’arat HaMachpelah this past March, a few soldiers, their heads bare and hair closely cropped, step away from a larger group and approach a man. The soldiers take turns as the man secures a tefillin box on their left biceps, and then wraps the leather straps along their arms. The soldiers repeat a blessing, then a second blessing as another box is placed atop their heads, the straps cascading down the front of their army uniforms.
“Putting on tefillin in the morning gets your soul started right for the day,” says an Ethiopian soldier whose family now lives in Ramla.
The soldiers, some of whom have never put on tefillin before, are participants in an Orthodox Union program known as Mashiv Haruach.
Connecting soldiers’ souls to revered places in the country and to the entire Land of Israel is the core mission of Mashiv Haruach. Now in its twelfth year, Mashiv Haruach, a joint project of OU Israel and the Educational Corp of the IDF, takes IDF soldiers on educational excursions to historical sites (for many soldiers it’s their first visit to such places) and to communities beyond the Green Line, the arbitrary border marking the cease-fire points following the Six-Day War. The program aims at giving soldiers experiences that will deepen their appreciation for Judaism and the Jewish Land. The goal, according to Rabbi Avi Berman, OU Israel’s executive director, is to “make these soldiers better Jews and better soldiers.”
“If you’re an American citizen, you have to know your history—who George Washington was,” says Rabbi Berman. “To be a motivated Israeli citizen, to want to vote, to want to go into the army, you need to know your past, to love your present and to take Israel’s future into your hands.”
“The IDF speaks about binyan hakoach, the building of strength,” says Rafael Even Danan, Mashiv Haruach’s project director. “In Mashiv Haruach, we believe that a soldier needs the building of the spirit, binyan haruach, to go with binyan hakoach. One without the other won’t work.”
Even Danan calls the program “vital” to cultivating soldiers’ spiritual and physical ties to Israel and to deepening their commitment to defending the country. That, he and Rabbi Berman believe, is a crucial element in addressing a dangerous trend. According to an IDF 2011 personnel report, just 59 percent of Israeli Jewish males fulfill their mandatory military training.
“If you ask an Israeli kid in Tel Aviv, ‘What happened in Gush Etzion?’ he will probably ask, ‘Where is Gush Etzion?’ The majority of non-religious Jewish teens in Israel have never been to Jerusalem.”
Rabbi Berman sees the 59-percent figure as representing a “major crisis” facing Israel.
“We can’t automatically assume that those who do serve want to be in the army. Some of them might ask: ‘Why, when 41 percent do not serve, am I here?’” he says.
Today’s participants are members of an IDF tank brigade based in the Negev. They have already visited the Gush Etzion bloc of settlements south of Jerusalem. There, they attended lecturers and a sound-and-light experience that brought home the history of the area’s kibbutzim and Gush Etzion residents’ valiant stand against Arab advances in Israel’s War of Independence. Facing defeat, the 124 Etzion combatants surrendered just a day before David Ben-Gurion proclaimed Israel’s independence; all but four of those who surrendered were slaughtered.
The Mashiv Haruach soldiers also had been to the site where thirty-five Haganah fighters in another 1948 battle were massacred after releasing an Arab civilian who had spotted them—a tragic episode that became immortalized as the Netiv Halamed-Hey (Path of the Thirty-Five).
“We decided that we have to leverage the history and the Zionist approach of Gush Etzion and give it to soldiers in a beautiful package,” says Rabbi Berman. “When you take soldiers to walk part of the Path of the Lamed-Hey, they feel it.”
“If we want an Israel that’s safe, we look to God,” says Rabbi Berman. “God is the center of the world. We have had to fight for Israel, going back to the days of the Torah, when the Jews had to fight Amalek and all the other nations in the desert and for seven of the first fourteen years after entering the Land of Israel,” he says. “Today, the majority of the 59 percent who serve need the chizuk [strengthening] for why they’re in the army. Israel’s educational system is very successful in teaching about Ben-Gurion’s proclaiming the State of Israel, but struggles when it comes to teaching the history of Gush Etzion. Everything in the State of Israel is so political that if you ask a kid in Tel Aviv, Givatayim or Ramat Hasharon, ‘What happened in Gush Etzion?’ he will probably ask, ‘Where is Gush Etzion?’ The majority of non-religious Jewish teens in Israel have never been to Jerusalem.”
Rabbi Berman and Even Danan underscore that the program refrains from discussing Israel’s presence over the Green Line. Staying clear of such issues complies with IDF guidelines and avoids generating counterproductive arguments about the future of Judea and Samaria and Israel’s now-frozen peace negotiations with the Palestinians.
“We don’t get into the political aspects of things with soldiers,” Rabbi Berman says.
Mashiv Haruach also works with the IDF on programs to reduce the lure of higher private-sector salaries. “Ultimately, you want to keep the best and the brightest in the military,” Rabbi Berman says. “You can’t blame the IT companies, but increasing IT specialists’ motivation to stay [in the army] is for the sake of the country.”
Many of the soldiers put on tefillin for the first time at the OU’s Mashiv Haruach program. Photos: Abba Richman
Last year, Mashiv Haruach reached 16,000 soldiers, a drop from 20,000 in 2010—a function, Rabbi Berman explains, of funding challenges. Each busload of soldiers costs $1,800 for a day’s outing. Demand for buses has increased, with IDF officers asking to bring more soldiers along and inviting Mashiv Haruach staff to run Shabbat and holiday programs on the base.
Some soldiers visiting Me’arat HaMachpelah choose to daven Minchah; afterward, they march in formation to a lecture given at the neighboring visitors center. With dusk falling upon Hebron, the nearly ninety soldiers return to their buses for the journey back to the base. David T., a twenty-year-old sergeant, says, “I don’t observe every Shabbat. But I’m a believer. I make a blessing before I eat and drink. In this group, on this tiyul [outing], I can ask a colleague who knows more than I do. That way, little by little, I can understand more.”
“The trip strengthened my Jewish knowledge, because I didn’t know anything about Me’arat HaMachpelah or Gush Etzion,” he continues. “Me’arat HaMachpelah is a holy site, and it’s the first time I’ve been here. It’s the place of our forefathers. I felt the holiness. It’s good for soldiers to know where we come from. We’re defending our country. That’s how we’ll preserve the Jewish nation and the State of Israel.”
To sponsor a day’s excursion or to donate to Mashiv Haruach, contact Rabbi Avi Berman at email@example.com.
The writer is a Baltimore journalist-consultant and a member of the OU-affiliated Ner Tamid Greenspring Valley Synagogue.