On Spiritual Mission to IDF, An OU Rabbi Receives a Pleasant Surprise

22 Jan 2009

An NCSYer in Gaza
By Rabbi Avi Berman
Director General, OU Israel

He noticed the OU logo on the stickers affixed to the tefillin cases we were giving out to the soldiers at the Gaza base, and approached. He wore “tzahal green” (IDF army fatigues) and spoke with an American accent. A few questions later I learned that his name was Yair Ben Yishai, that he hailed from Memphis and was an alumnus of NCSY, the international youth movement of the Orthodox Union.

Through NCSY Yair learned about Judaism and developed an intense love of Israel. Making aliyah as soon as he could, his parents have since followed. I asked him what he would recommend as the theme for the next NCSY Shabbaton. Perhaps not surprisingly, given the context in which our conversation was taking place, he suggested “What We Can Learn from War.”

“As powerful as an NCSY Shabbaton can be,” Yair stated, “it can’t compare with what happened in there.” (“In there,” of course, referred to Gaza, which was only yards away.) He told how his unit captured a house in Gaza. Each person was assigned a different location. One soldier, a friend of his, was instructed to sandbag a window. This is a standard procedure, blocking out virtually the entire window, except for a small portion through which one can look. That particular soldier was stationed by the window and would normally not move from his location.

What does an Israeli soldier do in Gaza when standing at sandbagged window? This soldier decided to say some Tehillim, some Psalms. When he was finished, he wanted to put the Tehillim back in the box. Since it was only a foot away, he reasoned that he would barely be away from his post. It was at the very moment that he was returning the Tehillim to the box that an RPG, an anti-tank missile, exploded in the very place he had been standing at the sandbagged window.

Yair, the Memphis NCSYer, who was a witness to this miracle, called it “the Hand of God.” And stories such as this are not unique. Is there any unit in Israel that has not experienced the hand of God? This, he said, is what we can learn from war. “NCSY taught me about God,” the young man said, “but three weeks in Gaza have shown me God like nothing else could.”
For many soldiers, this war has intensified the search for a spiritual connection. Looking for an outlet to express this yearning, they want to put on tefillin, don tzitzit, say a chapter of tehillim and open a siddur. The OU has long worked with the IDF in helping to provide moral support, spiritual guidance and Jewish background to the soldiers. The IDF asked OU Israel to help them in meeting the demands of these soldiers and a new Orthodox Union “Spiritual Ammunition” campaign was born.

The 177 pairs of tefillin given out that day, at a cost of $53,000, were purchased with funds raised by Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills, CA.
This former NCSYer has put on tefillin before. He has worn tzitzit and opened a prayer book. He knows how to have a relationship with God. But seeing his comrades searching, their tremendous thirst for a relationship with God, the soldiers asking him to borrow his tefillin, Yair wondered. A door was opened and he questioned how they could keep the door open once the war was over.

“God opened a relationship with them,” Yair emphasized. “I wondered how many would lose that relationship once the war was over. You and the OU gave them a way to hold on to it.”