Learning on the front lines

Book publisher sends thousands of sacred texts to IDF soldiers

Koren Jerusalem creates special wartime compact edition of the Book of Genesis, with foreword written from the frontlines

Gavriel Fiske is a reporter at The Times of Israel

IDF soldiers with Koren Jerusalem's special wartime edition of the Book of Genesis, in an undated photo. (courtesy)
IDF soldiers with Koren Jerusalem's special wartime edition of the Book of Genesis, in an undated photo. (courtesy)

Immediately after the Israel-Hamas war began on October 7, the staff at Koren Jerusalem, one of Israel’s major publishers of Jewish holy texts, began receiving numerous requests from soldiers called up to duty who were looking for prayer books, among other materials.

“Initially in those first few days, it became clear… in the same way many soldiers weren’t finding themselves equipped with many practical items they needed, gloves, etc.… it was also clear that soldiers had run out of their houses, rushed out during Simchat Torah, and they didn’t have siddurim and chumashim,” explained Aryeh Grossman, Koren’s director of development, using the Hebrew terms for a Jewish prayer book and book of the Five Books of Moses.

October 7 saw some 3,000 Hamas terrorists enter Israeli territory from Gaza in a shock assault. Some 1,200 Israelis, mostly civilians, were brutally killed, and around 240 were taken hostage, including women, children and the elderly.

October 7, which was both Shabbat and the Jewish holiday of Simchat Torah, saw an initial call-up of IDF reserve forces to combat the Hamas invasion.

Shortly thereafter, Israel declared war on Hamas and mobilized some 360,000 reservists for an air and later a ground offensive, with the aim of toppling Hamas from power in Gaza and freeing the hostages.

More than 50 days after the war began, Israel is currently in a multi-day truce with Hamas, which has seen the release of dozens of Israeli hostages in exchange for Palestinian security prisoners held in Israeli jails, at a ratio of three security prisoners per hostage.

An IDF soldier learns from the Koren Jerusalem special wartime edition of the Book of Genesis, in an undated photo. (courtesy)

“In the special army we have, even on the front lines they still want to have a siddur and continue learning [Torah] in some way,” Grossman told The Times of Israel. In response to this demand, Koren launched a fundraising effort and was able to quickly donate more than 8,000 books – prayer books, books of Psalms, and special prayer books for Shabbat – to IDF soldiers.

The company soon realized it was uniquely situated to help the spiritual needs of IDF soldiers in another way: The Simchat Torah holiday, when Hamas started the war, marks the end of the annual Torah portion reading cycle in which one portion of the Five Books of Moses is read each week on Shabbat.

This meant that the following Shabbat, the first of the war, was “Shabbat Bereishit” (Genesis), where the very beginning of the Bible is read.

Many soldiers wanted to start reading Genesis after the holiday so they could start the yearly cycle of weekly portions, Grossman explained. “It’s a shame to immediately fall behind. We didn’t have anything at hand… but we reached out to generous sponsors abroad,” he added.

The result was a special wartime compact edition of the Book of Genesis, including the commentaries of Rashi and Onkelos, in a light paperback format designed to fit in the pockets of IDF uniforms. It only took a week from receiving the initial funding, through several “very late nights” of work, to publish and distribute 15,000 copies of the new edition to soldiers, Grossman said.

This wartime edition, he added, even features a foreword by Koren Jerusalem CEO in Israel Yehoshua Miller, sent via voicemail from the frontlines where Miller himself was serving as a reservist.

“The best of our people were recruited during Simchat Torah, the holiday in which we celebrate this Torah of Life, including many employees of Koren Jerusalem. Although it is quite clear that these soldiers are busy with the sacred task of protecting our people and our country, again and again we received requests from them to use the time between activities to be connected to the Torah cycle with the rest of Am Yisrael [the Jewish people] together,” Miller wrote in part.

“It is both inspiring and admirable. Despite the sweat, despite the blood, and the dust, and the mud, they can remind themselves, through this connection to the Torah, that when they are soldiers, everything is holy.”

As it seems like the war could continue on into the next book of the Torah cycle, “Shemot” (Exodus), the staff is already planning another similar compact edition. It would be a shame, Grossman noted, if they had to publish the full Chumash in real time for the soldiers, as that would mean they would be in the field for a full year.

Around 25% of the Koren staff are serving in the reserves, impacting production, and the company is taking steps to maintain its solvency during the general economic downturn caused by the war. With these wartime book donations, the company has just covered production costs and not made any profit.

“As a company, we want to give, and we have to keep our heads above water, and for our staff of soldiers, we need to have a business for them to come back to,” Grossman said.

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