By: Ch, Maj Elie Estrin, USAFR
Perhaps this anecdote doesn’t quite fit in a magazine speaking to Jews in the US military, but hey—if we’re talking about Jewish Warriors, our readership should forgive us if we make the occasional mention of our IDF brothers and sisters.
This goes back to 1997. I was a young yeshiva boy, having the time of my life studying in Israel. One of the more remarkable experiences in that stint occurred in the parameters of what we Chabadniks call “Mivtza’im,” or “Mitzvah Campaigns,” created by the Lubavitcher Rebbe. We rabbinical students were frontline soldiers in the effort to ensure that every Jew in Israel had the ability to celebrate Judaism; particularly during the holidays. So about a dozen of us, a motley crew hailing from Israel, the US, Argentina, and England, piled into a battered old van and headed out to IDF bases on the Syrian and Lebanese borders.
Our first stop was guided by a hitchhiking soldier. A dirt road off the side of the highway led to a small training range, and the dozen soldiers training out on the range showed us their large outdoor menorah, its cups made out of empty mortar shells. We sang and danced with the crew, distributed the ubiquitous jelly donuts, and thus energized, got back in the van to head toward Mt. Hermon, the highest peak in the region, and besides for its small ski resort, a closed military zone.
It was well past nightfall by the time we arrived at a large sign that declared: “MILITARY AREA: KEEP OUT.” Well, that was what we were looking for, right?! Apparently the guys in the guardhouse didn’t think so, and the commander of the unit on duty came roaring out to us, telling us in endearing, flowery terms to turn around and find a civilian road to travel back from whence we had come. “But wait!” we pleaded, “We have jelly donuts to distribute to the soldiers!” Jelly donuts? Well, that’s currency on Chanukah! The soldiers manning the guardhouse did their diligent duty and called up the chain of command to request permission for us to distribute our precious cargo. Soon enough the response came from above: “Boys from Chabad with jelly donuts?! Send ‘em on in!”
The impromptu Chanukah party that ensued was something to remember: After the commander of the base lit a menorah in the underground barracks, hundreds of soldiers began singing and dancing with the dozen of us. The light, energy, and joy of the holiday was intense; the modern IDF warrior in the tradition of Judah Maccabee bobbed shoulder-to-shoulder with the spiritual descendants of Matityahu.
At some point, a soldier ran over to us and said, “Follow me!” We piled back in the van and followed his army jeep as it drove up a narrow road. It led to a small bunker. As he ushered us into the bunker, the soldier told us that from where we stood, we could wave at their Syrian counterparts some 20 meters away. Upon entering the bunker, we found six surprised soldiers, with whom we happily reenacted our Chanukah party once again—menorah, jelly donuts, and pure joy coated with confectionary sugar. And then one of the men turned to me with a serious look in his eyes, and told me something I’ve never forgotten.
“You have no idea what you are doing.”
Say what?? Was that an insult?
“No, I mean it seriously. You don’t really get it. Here, on duty, at this forlorn station, no holiday exists. No Chanukah, no Shabbat, nothing. But you brought it to us—you gave us the holiday. You can’t possibly know what this means to us.”
Fellow Jewish Warrior: No Jewish Soldier, Sailor, Airman, Marine, Guardian, or Coastie should feel that spiritual loneliness. No, this isn’t the IDF; yes, we are a minority’s minority in the US Armed Forces. But somebody’s got to stand up to bring the light of Judaism to the lone Jews on your installation; and if a clueless 17 year-old American can do it in Israel, you can do it too, on your base. Let me know how I can help you do so.
Originally published in the Chanukah 5782 Jewish-American Warrior