A Shabbat Salute

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21 May 2008
I knocked on the door of the “caravan” and was bade to enter. Nechemiah and Rafi were sitting in the kitchen. Nechemiah was reading a paper and Rafi was learning.

They come in assorted shapes, sizes, and colors. Male and female. Jews and non-Jews. Young and middle-age. Quiet and talkative. Religious and non-religious. The common denominator is that they all come in military uniform and they are guests at our Shabbat table. Some of them wear their rifles on their shoulders during the meal; some place the rifles under their feet; and others place their weapons in our front coat closet.

When we left the city life (Jerusalem) and moved out to the country we knew that we would enjoy the quiet, the awe-inspiring views, and the slower pace of life. A great benefit, which we were unaware of before we moved, turned out to be the wonderful opportunity to host the soldiers stationed in Rosh Tzurim, for Shabbat and Yom Tov (holiday) meals. Their stint usually runs for one week, but there are times when the soldiers are stationed for three weeks.

The soldiers in the “budka”, the guard house

The soldiers’ accommodations, a small structure called a caravan in Hebrew, is situated on the western side of Rosh Tzurim. They have a stunning view of the sunset as well as a view, on a clear night, from Aza in the south to Holon in the north. On a clear day they can see the Mediterranean Sea and ships. Depending on the direction of the wind, they get more than just a whiff of the nearby turkey coops. You have to be brave to stay downwind from the turkey coops for a week.

The head of security, Shlomo, sees to it that “his boys” and “girls” are well-fed and given some good ‘ol home hospitality. He arranges that those soldiers who would like to eat a Shabbat night meal with a local family can do so.

Our children know to set a place at our Shabbat table in case we get a chayal, a soldier. Sometimes we even get two, a double share like the Shabbat manna. Every so often we don’t get a chayal because either they all want to eat together in their own quarters or because other families get them. We are very disappointed!

The majority of our guests in uniform are not yet religious. By hosting them for a Shabbat meal they see a religious family in action. We have golden opportunities to teach Jewish values, mitzvot, etc. My husband Abe and I underwent the process of becoming religious when we were young. We have a tremendous appreciation of Judaism and an understanding of some of what goes on in a non-religious head. We relish the opportunity to bring our brethren closer to G-d.

Out of the several hundred or so chayalim we have hosted, some stand out in my mind and in my heart. Many of the soldiers are originally from the former USSR. Sasha, an outgoing, smiley, pretty soldier made aliyah at the age of four from Tashkent. She and her family lived on a non-religious kibbutz until they decided to relocate to Luxemburg. When it was time for military duty Sasha decided to return to Israel to serve in the army. She left behind her parents and a sister who is twelve years her junior. When Sasha spoke I felt like I was listening to a smiley Ms. Israel who loves her land and its people. With her outgoing personality and intelligence, it’s no wonder that she works as a liaison officer with guests from abroad. Sasha expressed her appreciation of the hot chocolate and other “goodies” given to the soldiers at the gate by people in our community.

Daniella, a pretty sabra soldier came to us a year ago on Shabbat Zachor (the Shabbat before Purim). She is studying chemical engineering at the Technion in Haifa. She plans to work in chemical defense warfare. She is from a traditional religious home. Her parents are divorced and her father remarried. About five years ago her father became religious. As she spoke about her family and her new siblings, there were tears in her eyes. Apparently the divorce and all the changes that followed are still painful for her. It is during times like these that my social work skills come in handy.

Biana made aliyah from the Ukraine when she was three. Unlike most of the soldiers from the former USSR, Biana sounds totally Israeli. Although her parents are not religious they sent Biana to a religious girl’s school from seventh through twelfth grade. Her parents did not like the values of the non-religious crowd and wanted Biana to get a generous helping of Judaism’s values.

She, like Sasha totes a great smile, which is so refreshing. She is studying medicine at the University of Ben Gurion. I told Biana that I have a cousin studying at Ben Gurion University and if she is interested I could introduce them to each other. She expressed interest and so a few weeks later I reached my cousin, a young religious woman. She agreed to call Biana and invite her over for a Shabbat meal at her dormitory. I called Biana a few times to invite her for Shabbat in our home, but she hasn’t come yet.

Nechemia, with my son, Yisrael Meir.

Idan is a young communication’s officer. I was impressed by his listening skills, his openness to hearing about other outlooks and by how he is a deep thinker. Although he grew up in a non-religious environment, he wants to learn more about Judaism. I described several yeshivot and he felt that Machon Meir, a religious Zionistic yeshiva in Jerusalem, would be suitable for him. Later that week I brought him the Machon Meir website address.

We were surprised when fair-complexioned commander Uri told us that he is Yemenite on his father’s side. Uri is from a very small moshav in the Arava. There is no synagogue, but Uri’s father tries to introduce some aspects of Shabbat into their home. Uri said that he is not interested and on Shabbat he usually goes on trips with his army friends. Also present at our Shabbat table was another non-religious soldier. Uri asked him why he was willing to come to a family that he doesn’t know. “Why not?” the soldier responded. “It’s nice to be with families and have a Shabbat meal. It reminds me of home.”

One Shabbat night my husband came home with twenty-one year old Eliron. But the other guests, one of the new families, were nowhere in sight. We waited for them, but they didn’t come. I still had some preparations to do in the kitchen, and I was going to suggest to Abe that he speak to the soldier. For some reason I went into the living room to speak to Eliron instead. Thank G-d that the guests were late. Eliron and I had a long talk about why he is not religious. He is the youngest of four children. His family is religious, but he is not, although he has a connection with a rabbi every two weeks. He also attends a tikkun prayer service once a week with his family. He told me that his parents had spent less time teaching him about commandments than they had with his siblings. He was very open with me about how his yetzer harah, his evil inclination, keeps him within a non-religious social group. He said that when he marries, he will only marry a girl who keeps Shabbat and kashrut. I suggested that he speak with Rabbi Amnon Yitzchak, a rabbi who is very involved in bringing Jews back to religious observance. Eliron said, “I’m afraid to go to him. He speaks the truth.” Admitting this is one step in the right direction. During the week I took his phone number. The following week I called to invite him for Shabbat, but he had to be on his base. He said that he would come for the following Shabbat, but he didn’t return my calls when I called to confirm. I was disappointed.

Most of the time the soldiers need to return to duty at a specific time, such as in an hour or two. Twenty-one year old Yuval had no such limitation. During the meal our youngest child, Yisrael Meir, asked Yuval to play cards with him. Of all the choices of card games our son chose a card game on the topic of Shabbat! During the game Yuval needed to ask Yisrael Meir questions such as, “Do you have the card with a havdalah candle?” and “Do you have the card with the aron kodesh (Holy Ark)?”

After the meal was over, Yuval stayed and played cards with Eliyahu Yeshaya. They were later joined by others. We never had a soldier stay for so long after a Shabbat meal!

That Monday evening I brought some hot soup over to the soldiers. I gave the thermos to the soldier on duty and asked him to send regards to Yuval. The soldier said, “Yuval doesn’t stop talking about Shabbat in your home.”

It is rare that a soldier comes for more than one Shabbat or Yom Tov meal because of their schedule. Dovid was an exception. A dark, Sephardic Jew from a poor southern development town, Dovid is divorced with a young daughter. He told us that he was becoming more interested in Judaism. He loved to give blessings after which he would kiss his hands and stretch them out Heavenward. The children said that when he left the synagogue he walked backwards so as not to turn his back to the ark. He was stationed in our community for three weeks and he kept coming back to our Shabbat table.

Our most recent soldier guest was Elad, a young soldier from Tivon near Haifa. It was interesting to watch him. He seemed to take in every detail of the people present as well as of the room and the Shabbat table. Perhaps one day he will put his observations into practice.

I pray that every soldier who comes through our door for a Shabbat or Yom Tov meal will leave with a positive taste in his mouth. I am grateful to G-d for the wonderful opportunities to touch so many souls.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.