They are all so young.
That’s the inevitable reaction of any Diaspora Jew confronted by a group of Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers.
For Rabbi Steven Garten and me, our recent hitch with the Sar-El program – which sends volunteers to serve on IDF supply and logistics bases – was a little bit like spending a couple of weeks with our own kids.
Along with a few other Americans and Canadians, Rabbi Garten and I were assigned to a communications and electronics base in the Lower Galilee. We slept in barracks, wore IDF uniforms and ate army food. And, while we may not have cut a particularly soldierly appearance, the work we did – reconditioning tank helmets and communications headsets; cleaning and repairing antenna mounts for tanks and fighting vehicles – directly supported troops in the field.
If anybody can actually look good in olive drab, it’s a kid in the IDF. And the IDF is truly an army of kids. Kids who, in their sheer variety, represent the tremendous diversity of contemporary Israel: an impossibly tall Ethiopian exchanges good-natured insults with a couple of blonde, blue-eyed Russians; an olah from Winnipeg works beside a Yemenite boy; a bunch of Orthodox guys with payot head over to the base shul for Mincha.
At every break, the soldiers lean into their iPhones, lost to Snapchat and Instagram. They chatter constantly and flirt with each other like crazy. They collapse into giggling heaps. The boys wrestle and chase each other around the electronics lab. The girls apply and reapply their makeup throughout the day, currently favouring a look somewhere between Amy Winehouse and Nefertiti.
Yet, somehow, it all seems to work. Whatever we hear about the divisions in Israeli society, all of these young people get along with each other.
Rabbi Garten and I end up in a workshop with Chasidic kids doing their IDF service. They are welcoming and genuinely curious about who we are, where we come from and what we do in Canada. One of them teases Rabbi Garten about his prophetic turn of phrase and renames him “Moshe.” The rabbi responds in kind and, for the rest of the week, we have to put up with the comedy duo of Moshe and Yehoshua, and their inexhaustible supply of lame jokes.
Meanwhile, Chaim, the guy I share a workbench with, chats happily with me about his family, about his rabbi, and about how much he would like to have a dog. One afternoon, he puts his arms around me and asks someone to take a picture of the two of us – just a couple of Jews, hanging out.
Watching these young people and the way they take care of each other, it is easy to see the absolutely critical role the IDF plays in building Israeli society. By putting young people together and ensuring they bond through shared experiences and shared challenges the IDF reinforces a uniquely Israeli identity. Counter to what much of the world seems to believe, IDF service creates not a nation of warriors, but a nation of citizens – Israeli citizens.
But, with all the high spirits and horseplay, it’s easy to forget that every one of these young Israelis is, in fact, a warrior – and that all of them live in a very bad neighbourhood. At any moment, they can be called upon to put their lives on the line in defence of the State of Israel. This is not an empty platitude. On the last night of our hitch, Hadar Cohen, a 19-year-old border guard on duty at the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem, was shot and killed by three Palestinians armed with automatic weapons and pipe bombs.
Israel is a country that places tremendous trust in its children. And it is a country that understands all too well that some of its children will pay the ultimate price for that trust. One of our fellow Sar-El volunteers said it best: “I know that every one of these helmets will be worn by some mother’s son. So each helmet that I fix is a prayer for the son who will wear it.”