Confessions of A Reform Rabbi and an Unorthodox Soldier

(Reflections on serving in the Israeli Defense Forces-Rich Kirschen Jerusalem 2010)

For most of my life I subscribed to Groucho Marx’s philosophy that I would never join any club that would have me as a member. I’ve made three exceptions in my life: my wife, the rabbinate, and the IDF. But my story really starts at Brown University and its manicured lawns nestled in the bosom of the Ivy League.

I had landed a plum job. As director of the Brown Hillel Foundation, I had a title, a salary, and satisfaction of some vague, virtually prenatal professional ambitions. After all, what boy from Woodmere, Long Island, would not want to be at Brown? On another more intense, perhaps irrational, level I knew in my heart that this was not fulfillment. As long as I was not living in Israel something was incomplete in me as a Zionist and a Jew. I also knew that I would jump at the first chance—any chance, really—to move my family and me to Israel. Of course, that chance had appeared, even before Brown did.

While working at Hillel in Ann Arbor at the University of Michigan, I received a job offer that would have moved us to Haifa. I took it. So we packed and fully prepared to move to Israel but then the intifada canceled my trip. Actually, it eliminated my tourist-based job and the opportunity for me to move my family to Israel. That was when I learned one of the most important lessons about moving to Israel: Aliyah is Hebrew for Catch-22.

When you are in North America, it’s impossible to find a job in Israel. But when you’ve got a wife and three small children, you can’t move your family to Israel unless you’ve got a clear source of income. And you can’t really get to Israel for enough time to look for a job unless you live there. But you’ve got to get to Israel—a job—North America—Israel—a job—North America—…

Fortunately, Providence (not the small city in Rhode Island where Brown is located)  intervened. In May 2004 I received a job offer in Jerusalem. It was clear immediately what I would do. At the same time, I became completely paralyzed. Fortunately, my wife Cara was compelled equally to move to Israel, having grown up there for a number of years. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be writing this article today. So, we decided to move to Israel.

Yes, the intifada raged. Yes, I would earn half the income I earned in the States. Yes, our friends and family would look at us like we were completely mad. But we put the house on the block. We sold our cars. And we got Israeli passports. Like our ancestors leaving Egypt, we did all of this in total Hipazon (rushing without giving the bread chance to rise) as described in the Book of Exodus. We manically sold everything. After three months of emotional and relocation logistics, we finally said good bye. We were about to land in Israel where we would frantically try to get our kids into Israeli public schools, find a place to live in Jerusalem, rent a car without being ripped off (try not breathing) and try to do everything else we had to do to reroot ourselves in Israel. I say we were about to because the moment where we actually landed is as important as the continuity of the madness of getting there.

After our plane landed, we were taken to a hall designated for new immigrant arrivals. There, they asked us many, many questions and gave us even more forms to fill out. But there was one question that remains with me today. At the time, it seemed like a “no brainer.” They asked me, “Because you are married with children, we assume you would like to be exempted from military service in the Israel Defense Forces.” I remember thinking, “Of course! What schmuck decides to get drafted when he’s in his mid-forties?!” And so I signed my exemption away. The moment stuck in my soul.

Fast-forward two years: I’m living in Israel. Though constantly acclimating at different levels to that reality, I am slowly feeling like I am a part of this country. It was after the Second Lebanon War, I believe, when I realized I had shifted identities. I was no longer watching Israel from afar. For better or worse, I was here, a part of this wonderful madness. And then nafal ha asimon, something clicked for me. I should probably say that something snapped, but I realized I could not live here and not serve in the army. I had to serve. As a citizen, as a father who will have to send his children to serve, and as an educator who teaches about Israel, I suddenly realized that I was about to do something that would truly have made Catch-22’s Yossarian lose his mind. I knew in my heart that I had to go and find a way to get drafted.

That sounds easy. It ain’t. The IDF does not need people. Because of the massive influx of Russian immigrants into Israel, the IDF no longer drafts anyone over 25 years old and certainly no one over 40. I was already 43 years old. I was going to have to resort to a time-honored tradition, only in the reverse. I was going to have to use influence, protektzia, to get into the army.

As a Reform rabbi and the director of the Saltz Education Center at the World Union for Progressive Judaism, I worked closely with an army base as part of our educational program. As a result, I got to know the commander of that army base, who happens to be studying to become a Reform rabbi. The phone conservation went like this: “Shai, do you want to be a Reform rabbi?” “Yes.” “Good, because I want to serve in the army.” There was silence on the line for an uncomfortably long time, then my to my surprise, “Let’s make this happen.”

Fighting to get my aging carcass into the IDF was not easy. And there were several points on that continuum where luck and divine intervention played major roles. Yet, I still found myself waiting week after week for a letter or telegram (do telegrams still exist?) or even an email from the army. But nothing ever came. I called. I nudged my friend the commander, but I received nothing. On the day that I finally uttered aloud that this would never happen, I received official notice to report to the Liskhat Ha Gius (draft board) in Jerusalem. And I swear, my first thought on finally receiving this notice was that I had somehow betrayed Phil Ochs and his Draft-Dodger Blues that I had grown up singing. I wrote that off as panic and got ready to report.

I arrived at the draft board in the morning with my official note and one thing was very clear. I was definitely the grayest recruit from this batch. There I was with hundreds of seventeen and eighteen year old pimply-faced boys—most of whom still had their hair. Then the realization hit me. This is an amazing cross section of the Jewish people that very few people ever see. There was everything, from young hippy Jews in dreadlocks to ultra-orthodox Yeshiva boys still trying to talk their way out of service. When they called my name, the nineteen-year old department commander looked at me and said, “How old are you?” With a gray-bearded straight face I replied, “Eighteen. Why?”

Well, my line got a terrific laugh from the entire crowd of eighteen-year olds. I was a hit with my troops. But a small chill ran down my spine. I got a small hint of what life was going to be like in the army. The department commander was nineteen and he wasn’t laughing. It was then that a thought hit me. It was a thought that would be confirmed time and again throughout my experience. Apparently, eighteen and nineteen year olds run this small Jewish country. Holding positions of extraordinary responsibility, they are in charge of hundreds of soldiers and must make excruciating ethical, life-or-death decisions on a regular basis. I was stunned, shocked. And then I moved onto the rest of the draft board stations.

After a battery of tests, I was told to report back in a few weeks. So I did. Seasoned in the way of the draft board, veteran of line waiting, master of sitting in limbo for days on end, I was fully prepared when I went to see the army doctor. Fully prepared, that was, until he asked me, “And where is your son?” Though disarmed, I discovered that he spoke English. Not only that, we were lansmen. He was from Long Island. Though he still thought I was crazy, he certified me as someone who might not die during basic training. At 44 years old with my high cholesterol-fighting Lipitor by my side I was to head off to basic training, almost.

I had to take my paperwork back to the draft board. I gave them the paperwork and something else that is an anathema to every army—a square peg for round holes. They didn’t know what to do with me. I thought this was it, the final dead end. Then more luck or divine intervention entered the scene. A few months earlier, I had performed a wedding for a very sweet couple that had made aliyah from the Ukraine. Who did I see when I entered the room? Sergei the groom.

When I entered the room, his face lit up, “Rabbi Rich, what are you doing here?” Sergei, it turns out, was a high-ranking officer in charge of the entire draft board. He was the one who decided how draftees should be classified in the computer and when their army service should commence. And so I moved magically to the head of the line and received my tzav gius, my second reporting notice, for November 7th, 2007.

When the big day arrived, my family gave me their final ribbing and a collective, final are-you-sure-you-know-what-you’re-doing look and wished me well. In my social circle, some started calling me a friar. The Israeli term for sucker, it is the last thing you ever to be considered in Israeli society. But I reasoned, if being a friar means having values, I’m a committed friar. So, I had one of my best friends deliver me to the main army-processing base in Tel-Aviv.

Having lived in Israel since he was seventeen, he had already taken each of his three kids on this very trip, so I assumed he was wise in this process. At times, it was difficult for both of us not to laugh. But we eventually managed to take it seriously and he dropped me off.

As I walked through the door, I expected a chorus of, “Go home grandpa!” But none came. In fact, no one said anything. And I just got on the bus with the horde of eighteen year olds.

All in all, they were as obnoxious as any group of eighteen year olds, blasting music and honing their ability to annoy. But I knew what was really going on here. Every Israeli knows what goes on here on this particular bus ride. These boys were saying goodbye to their childhood. And this was no joke. It is as serious as it gets. At times, it’s even traumatic. As a student of Israeli society, I wanted to witness this and experience it as much as I could.

We arrived at the Bakkum located on the Tel-Hashomer base in the middle of Tel-Aviv. The Bakkum is an acronym for the Processing and Absorption Base. Most words in the Israeli army are acronyms. In fact, the Hebrew word for army, tzahal is an acronym for Tzavah Haganah L’Yisrael. At times, it gets to the point where the language in the army is almost completely separate from Hebrew. While our arrival was an interesting experience for a 44-year old, it was drop-dead shocking the eighteen year olds. It was even shocking for the 25-year olds who comprised the new immigrants in the group, a group I would later get to know very well.

 The Bakkum works like this. First they take our bags. Next, we see the army equivalent of an El-Al pre-flight safety video. They next measure your hair, then cut it all off. They X-ray your teeth for “identification purposes” (as frightening as it sounds for obvious reasons). Take your photograph. Then they give you your army ID and dog tags and ask you to prove you have a bank account. They interview you one more time and then they send you to get a uniform. During this entire process I was asked my age about a thousand times. But the craziest part was getting my uniform.

Imagine a Gap store in Times Square after the Gap announces that all of its clothes are free. It’s absolute pandemonium. Three hundred young men all receive the same duffle bag filled with all kinds of army gadgets (that you have no idea how to figure out or use) and three sets of uniforms with boots, belts, and hat (that you must try on). And nothing fits. So everyone tries to exchange his uniforms. After somewhat successfully navigating this room, you go through a door and come out the other side changed. Before: hair, no uniform. After: no hair, uniform.

Though we all looked very different when we came in, we all look very much alike now. The hippy kid with the nose ring and the dreadlocks? One of us. The Yeshiva bucher? One of us. Even I took out my nose ring for the sake of national uniformity (that’s a joke). In Hebrew, this process is known as Helem Bakkum—Bakkum shock. These kids have no idea what just happened to them or where they are going and their senses are way overloaded, but their path to becoming incredible people, adults, and taking on degrees of responsibility that many of us can never fathom have begun.

After Helem Bakkum, you go to the processing area, where they decide your future assignment as a soldier. It was there that I met my brothers in arms, so to speak. Upon entering, I immediately spotted a bunch of older guys in the back of the room—new immigrants like me. Of course, they were the group of 25-year olds I had spotted earlier. Though they were the “older guys”, I still had 20 years on them. Anyway, like every army around the world does, we all waited.

When it was time for my interview, I sat down with a commander who was actually close to my age. He looked at me and said, “What the hell are you doing here?” Having it down by rote, I looked at him and explained that I was a new immigrant and that as a citizen, a father with children, and someone who teaches about Israel to tourists from around the world, I wanted to serve in the army. He smiled and got up. He brought in other officers from other rooms. An argument erupted filled with considerable yelling and debate (in Israel?!). And then they decided to send me home.

So, I went home armed with my giant duffle bag, uniform, and new haircut, and I waited. The next morning, I received a call from the army, explaining that they had finally come to a decision about my status. I was ordered to report to an army base in the North of Israel. I was in.

Upon arriving at my base, I was given a Hebrew test, interviewed once more, and then thrown into Squad Seven. Squad Seven was a group of highly motivated new immigrants from France, Switzerland, Turkey, Ethiopia, Ukraine, Azerbeijan, and Staten Island. I had no idea what to make of these guys and I’m certain the feeling was mutual. But they had heard that a 44-year old Reform rabbi would be joining them and they had no choice. 

To be honest, the beginning of my service after that is a bit of a blur. I remember desperately trying to organize my stuff. I even tried to tie my shoes in the correct army way (still not easy for me). Because I had arrived late, I got stuck with the top bunk, making the fear of falling out of the top easily one of the least pleasant parts of my army service. For the eighteen years before this, I had been sharing the same queen-sized bed with a cute redhead (who fortunately happens to be my wife). That night, I found myself sleeping next to a snoring Azerbeijani on a flimsy metal bed six feet above the floor. Crushed like a sardine in the barracks with fifteen other strangers and I don’t even like sharing a room at Reform Judaism’s Biennial Conference! It was this first night at my base when I first realized that I was really in the army.

Apparently, a major part of successful soldiering involves being woken up in the middle of the night. In Hebrew, this is called Hakpatza (from the word “to make one jump”). When so awakened, officers give you four minutes to get dressed in uniform and then run and run to a given point where you must stand completely still at attention. I think at this point that it is safe to say that I suffer from some form of undiagnosed attention deficit disorder as the officers paid very close attention to my standing at attention. And they took great pains to explain this in the form of insults about the quality of our soldiering. Initially, I just thought it ended there. I was wrong.

I soon discovered that after the running and attention and abuse, we got down to the serious running. And that was when I made a terrible mistake. In an attempt to increase army efficiency I decided to put my uniform over my sweatpants and sweatshirt. I also put my feet into my boots without socks. How efficient! As we were running through the cold night with our commanders giving us pointed, er, pointers throughout the night, all I kept thinking was, “What the hell was I thinking?”

Finally, after running around and around and up hills and down hills, we arrived at some type of field, where we were made to stand at attention. Sweating like crazy because of my clothes with blisters on my feet, it was then that I was told to “get down and give” twenty-five push ups. Who could be doing this?

I turned to my side and there stood a very fierce-looking commander—a nineteen-year old young woman. My instinct was to politely say, “Excuse me? I haven’t done push-ups since 1987.” But it all came back to me instantly. I was in the army! And in the army age does not matter, gender does not matter, only one thing matters—rank. In the army, rank means everything. So what else could I do? I dropped and did twenty-five push-ups. I was in the army.

After that moment, I went from Rav to Turai, (from rabbi to private). And the transformation preceded great learning. I learned to take orders, no matter how inane. I learned to run and run and stand with my canteen at my feet. I learned to eat all of my food in ten minutes, line up in formation, be on time (or do push-ups), shine my shoes, and many, many other odd-yet-utilitarian tasks. I even learned how to take apart my M16 and put it back together, and this is from a man who fears Ikea. Never being able to put their particleboard together quite correctly, for me Ikea is a form of Swedish torture.

But I would like to talk just a bit more about my M16. Though it is almost a cliché at this point, it’s a cliché for a reason, but in the army your weapon becomes part of you. If you ever forget it, you are in more than serious trouble. And I learned to take my M16 apart and put it back together completely. I also learned to shoot my M16 and everything that implies. An M16 shoots much louder than it does on TV. I had never shot a gun before (certainly not in Woodmere) and there I was running around in my gear and vest with many bullets shooting my M16 at night.

I also did my share of guard duty a number of times in the middle of the night on some hill in the Galilee. And this was a very, very humbling experience. On a very real and concrete level, the only reason we have this State of Israel is because of these young kids who give up three years of their lives to stand on our boarders with loaded M16s. At its most basic level, it comes down to that. Of course, in the best of all worlds, this is not what we want. But at the moment, this is our reality.

I would also like to point out another ironic observation I had. During my entire time in the field, all of my instructions and all of my orders were issued by commanders more than twenty years my junior. For me, a former Hillel director for close to ten years, it was absolutely fascinating to see these young people and their advanced sense of authority and responsibility. My own commander, Hamifakedet (I later found out her name was Dalit) was a remarkable and capable leader. That is no small compliment as in the Israeli army it is all about leadership. But Dalit and many like her also raised other interesting questions.

How would Dalit, this young commander in the Israeli army relate to Jewish students at Brown University where I had worked before? Are the experiences of one nation (the Jewish people) in two different places (Israel and America) so radically different that soon we won’t see the connection? Are we becoming two different peoples? As an educator, these were mental notes I kept while I huffed and puffed my way through the army. Not all lessons or observations were so existential.

One of my favorite experiences happened regularly when I would travel home for Shabbat. It was then that I learned about who and what the Dodot (aunties) were and what they did. Dodot are older women (even older than me) who open stands with all kinds of delicious foods for soldiers to eat for free while they travel back and forth through the country. All volunteer, these women do this out of the goodness of their hearts and out of a sense of giving back to the country while taking care of its young people. It is truly inspiring to see them there, on the side of the road, on Friday mornings around 6AM when soldiers begin their treks home. At the Dodot stands, soldiers receive coffee, shakshuka, chumus, and whatever else they want for free. It is an amazing connection between generations that engenders a feeling of camaraderie—we are all in this together and everyone has a part to play. But army life was not all stunning revelations, ironic humor, and discomfort punctuated by profound admiration. There were also moments that made me keenly conscious of my uniform and not in the best way.

As you have probably surmised, I am talking about the Palestinian conflict. Wearing an army uniform, I was no longer watching this conflict from the sidelines whether I liked it or not. One Friday morning, I went to my office to get some papers and ran into some Palestinian employees who work at my education center. As they had never been before in my eyes, suddenly they lines were drawn very clearly.

Previously, we always had very friendly interactions, but now I was in uniform. I was an Israeli soldier and the awkwardness between us was now palpable. It wasn’t an isolated incident. Ahmad, a nice guy from Tzur Bacha (a Palestinian town on the edge of Jerusalem) was doing renovations on our house. He was a friend of a friend, so I had some protektzia for not getting ripped off. And if there is one thing where Palestinians and Israelis unite it is ripping off clients.

In any event, as Ahmad and I spoke about the project over tea, it suddenly felt absolutely mad. Here is this really nice Palestinian, we have a common business venture, and we are both getting along fine. And the entire conflict is like an unspoken background to our conversation, an unspeaking guest at the table who exerts great influence over our interaction.

Apparently in Israel, personal, professional, and national relationships often contradict each other. Do we really want the other person (or people) to just disappear on a broad, impersonal, national level, while we get along just fine on a personal and professional level? On paper, it should not work. But it does. And there I was speaking with Ahmad (in Hebrew) and thinking that the last sentence in Arabic I learned was from guard duty in the Galilee, “Wakif! Walla ana betuhak!” That translates directly to, “Halt! I am armed!” And so it goes…

In the end, I learned to be a soldier. But I also learned much, much more on a profound level. I learned to be a Jewish soldier. I was a soldier in the army where the food was kosher, where we had time for the prayer of my people, and where Shabbat and holidays were values. This was an army where the Ethics Code of the IDF (Ruach Tzahal) makes you proud as it is based on Jewish values. That does not mean that both the IDF and the State of Israel do not make incredibly painful mistakes. But then again, that is the lesson of power and powerlessness.

It is easy to be ethical when you do not have power. For much of our heritage, we haven’t had power. Now we do. And that is the test that the Jewish people face today. How do we actually use that power? How do we navigate the tension between power, mitzvoth (commandments), and ethics? As I saw first hand, the gap between soldier and civilian is immense on many levels, but especially when it comes to righteous indignation and ethical judgment. The army did not teach me to be less concerned about ethics. Actually the exact opposite is true. But my experience in the army did teach me exactly how easy it is to pass judgment on Israel and the IDF over coffee and the morning paper.

Finally, throughout this entire experience, an odd thing occurred. I could not stop thinking about the morning prayer, ahava rabba, and the verse in the Amidah prayer that asks God to take us from the four corners of the earth (kabetz otanu mei arbah kanfot haaretz) and bring us back to the land of Israel—a prayer said for two thousand years. It is a prayer that simply asks God to bring us back home. And after being surrounded by new immigrants like myself—Jews who came to Israel from around the world—the meaning of that prayer for the Jewish people became even clearer to me: getting back to Israel was not and is not about waiting, it is about taking action.

In essence, this was my army experience, this prayer turned into reality. My specific unit started out as fifteen guys who did not know each other, guys from Addis Ababa to Paris to Istanbul. But now we were Tzevet Shevah of Plugat Alon—Squad Seven of the Alon Platoon. We were Jews from all over the world and we were now bound to each other as Israeli soldiers. And when we stood for our swearing in ceremony and shouted, “Ani Nishbah!” or “I swear!”, to declare our allegiance to the IDF, we then sang Hatikvah  and nothing could have felt more meaningful.


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