The Southern Command relieved the Givati Brigade’s 432nd battalion, “Tsabar,” from their day-to-day duties along the border with Gaza earlier this week, sending them to Jerusalem for the day to travel “in the footsteps of the Maccabees.” They were a fraction of the 20,000 soldiers taken on tour this week as part of the IDF rabbinate’s educational program for Hanukkah.
Some toured Jerusalem — the seat of the more urban, Hellenistic Jews at the time — while others were taken around Modiin, Beit Guvrin and the Etzion Bloc, the areas where the Maccabees lived and launched their victorious guerrilla wars against the Seleucid ruler Antiochus Epiphanes and his Hellenist followers.
The Tsabar battalion has been in the thick of the action in and around Gaza. One of the battalion’s company commanders, Capt. Ziv Shilon, was crippled on October 23 by an explosive device planted along the border fence with Gaza. Two weeks later, in the region they have held since July, an explosives-packed tunnel, likely meant for use in a hostage operation, was discovered and detonated, blowing a jeep some 50 feet into the air. And during Operation Pillar of Defense, they spent several days at the staging grounds, coiled in advance of a possible ground operation into Gaza.
On Wednesday morning, arriving straight from three separate outposts along the border, they seemed pleased to be greeted with jelly donuts and cellophane-wrapped treat baggies.
“Please, help yourself,” said David Olshtein, a velvet-kippa-wearing law school graduate who serves in the IDF rabbinate unit and described himself as a “jelly donut NCO.”
Upstairs, on the fourth floor of the Heichal Shlomo building on King George Street, Rabbi Rami Glikstein waited for the soldiers to arrive. In his day job, he is an educator at the prestigious Netiv Meir yeshiva high school in Jerusalem. In the reserves, he continues to serve in a combat unit. But on Wednesday, as during Operation Pillar of Defense, he volunteered to serve under the auspices of the IDF rabbinate’s Jewish Awareness Department — the educational arm of the unit.
There was a time when the rabbinate did little to no educating in the IDF. Founded in 1949 and headed for the first 22 years by Rabbi Shlomo Goren, the IDF rabbinate at first focused on supervising Jewish dietary laws in the army’s kitchens and ensuring that soldiers had a place to pray and, if necessary, with whom to pray.
To many of the secularists who founded the state, a rabbinical authority within the army was a necessary evil — a means through which the goal of a people’s army could be attained.
Since then a sea change has occurred. Goren’s battle to enable a religious Jew to serve in the IDF has long since been won. The IDF rabbinate now provides not just physical facilities for religious observance, according to Bar Ilan University professor Stuart Cohen, “but, more insistently, spiritual guidance and comfort before, during and after battle.”
The men chosen to provide this guidance — and to educate the troops — are increasingly themselves combat veterans and “hence capable of empathizing with troops in the field,” Cohen wrote in a recent article.
This very much fits the mold of current IDF Chief Rabbi, Brig. Gen. Rafi Peretz, a father of 12 and himself a former IAF helicopter pilot — and of Glikstein, who brimmed with stories on Wednesday morning.
He started with the miracle of Maccabi Tel Aviv’s basketball star Derrick Sharp’s last-second three-pointer against the Lithuanian club Zilgiris in 2004 (“The guys on the bench had already given up, stood up to shake hands with the other team.”) and from there skipped to the late folk star Meir Ariel and his line about “passing Pharaoh,” to Ahmadinejad and his spot on a T-shirt list of dead tyrants who tried and failed to annihilate the Jews, to the tyranny of the IDF’s fitness test (“The wall is like Antiochus; you have to kick it in order to get over it.”), to a once-popular TV show featuring soldiers from Givati, and from there to Judah Maccabee (“each battle of his was a masterpiece,” his speeches “spectacularly reminiscent of William Wallace’s of Braveheart“), to the notion of resistance — the beauty of the pinprick of flame against the wall of darkness — and, without missing a beat, to a dark synagogue halfway between Krakow and Lublin, where grass sprouted up through the old floors and where he and 180 officers once lit the Hanukkah candles, demonstrating the enormity of the miracle of the State of Israel in the shadow of the Holocaust and, finally, to the scene of the staging place for a ground operation in Gaza three weeks ago (“It’s your turn now… your turn to stand and salute Judah Maccabee.”).
As an orator, he was terrific. The soldiers laughed and shouted back at the right time; none fell asleep.
Outside the hall, I spoke with a private named Maya. She wore the gray shoulder stripe of the Education Corps’ NCOs. At one point this sort of instruction might have fallen to her or one of her officers, but she was happy to leave all Hanukkah-related education to the rabbinate. “These are the two groups that get along best,” she said of the rabbinate and the educational corps, ignoring a long-simmering power struggle between the two.
A guide from the Western Wall Heritage Foundation steered the soldiers down the hill of Agron Street and up toward Zion Gate. As he spoke with them about the city’s history, a character in Maccabean costume arrived. “It’s better to die a free man than be Hellenized in a golden cage,” he proclaimed. He waved a broken sword and said that, despite the brutality of the Greek forces, “we will fight a guerrilla war and drive them out of the land.”
The guide, David Kohelet, led the soldiers to King David’s Tomb, where they got up and danced to a guitar performance, and from there past the Arab village of Silwan to Robinson’s Arch at the southwestern corner of the Western Wall.
On the way, he explained that the IDF rabbinate outsources the tours to his foundation and that the rabbinate “sets the principles and we implement them.”
He acknowledged that the Hanukkah story could be used as a backdrop for a discussion of religious and secular ideals, but said that “we focus on the national side of things. We are all Hasmoneans. Because the Greeks” — who forbade ritual circumcision and the study of Torah — “also wanted to destroy Israeli nationalism.”
Lt. Yossef Ashkenazi, a platoon commander, huddled his soldiers outside the Western Wall. “You have 10 minutes to go pray and then be back here before we get on the bus,” he said.
The soldiers were secular and religious, Sephardic and Ashkenazi, native-born, Russian and Ethiopian. Some had tattoos running along the inside of their forearms, some had velvet kippas. Later in the evening, they had a candle-lighting ceremony with the IDF chief rabbi and, yet even later, they would be back holding their posts along the Gaza border. “Ten minutes is not enough,” they said.
Ashkenazi, a native of the settlement of Dolev, a thoughtful commander who said he had been to each soldier’s home, sometimes even without a uniform when the situation at home warranted it, consulted his watch and said, “Okay, take 15.”