Jewish Community Voice

Sons of Israel donates Torahs to Israel Defense Forces at event

Bentzi Gruber carrying Torah The visit of Israeli Brigadier General Bentzi Gruber was cause for celebration at Cong. Sons of Israel on May 15. The general’s visit to South Jersey was the sixth and final installment of a pilot project from Ohr Torah Stone’s Amiel BaKehilla, an initiative under Israel’s Ministry of Diaspora Affairs, which brought chefs, artists, musicians, rabbis, and other notable figures to the U.S. in an effort to connect the land and people of Israel with world Jewry. The theme of this installment, “Morality in the IDF,” informed talks that took place over two days to JCRC members at Adath Emanu-El, the Jewish Federation Young Adults Division, members of Cong. M’kor Shalom, and Cong. Beth El’s Shirley Mangel Minyan and Study.Speakers included Gruber, a vice commander in the reserves and founder of “Chesed in the Field,” a nonprofit that brings together reservists and chronically ill and disabled children, and Rabbi Aaron Goldscheider, author and founding director of the “In Our Hearts Project,” which is dedicated to being a resource in the Jewish community for families that have experienced the loss of a child. The OTS Amiel BaKehilla pilot, said Rabbi Goldscheider, has been “a beautiful success… as the joy of Israel comes to the world.”

The final event at Sons of Israel was not only the culmination of OTS Amiel BaKehilla’s pilot initiative, but also a joint endeavor with Friends of the Israeli Defense Forces, who were in attendance to honor Lone Soldiers, people who move to Israel to serve in the army, and their families, who give everything to the state of Israel with their children’s service. Also in attendance was Rabbi Pesach Lerner, co-chair of the American Friends of the International Young Israel, who initiated a movement in 2001 to donate Torah scrolls to IDF army bases all over Israel—and would be accepting the donation of two Torahs from Sons of Israel that evening.

The program began with a brief introduction by Rabbi Ephraim Epstein, who welcomed Rabbi Goldscheider to speak briefly about the mission and success of OTS Amiel BaKehilla. Following the rabbi was General Gruber, who shared his experiences fighting in six Israeli wars and leading 20,000 soldiers.  Among them was a story that took place during the Lebanon war, when Gruber was shot and was forced to leave five missing soldiers behind— including Zechariah Baumel, whose remains were just recently returned to Israel after 37 years. Gruber also discussed the facts of Israeli counter terrorism, and how the “asymmetrical” nature of war has changed the rules of combat in the past 20 years.

“Before, the army was on one side, the enemy was on the other side with a border in between,” he said. “Now, the border can be anywhere and the enemy can be anyone…You have to change your way of thinking when the enemy uses civilians as a shield.” He also noted that generosity is the key to winning: “When we have an agreement, we must be much more generous. Generosity is the key to finding out how they will have something to lose. In Judea and Samaria, they have something to lose. In Gaza, where 65% of people are unemployed, what is the hope? We could destroy them in 10 minutes, but then what? On the one hand, we must be generous. But when we fight, we have to do it the hard way.”

Gruber took time to explain the dire reality of Gaza for its two million residents, most of whom live in poverty. He explained some of the tactics of Hamas and of Islamic Jihad terrorists who come into Israel from Gaza, including bringing young children for cancer treatment then disappearing, abandoning the child. At the end of the day, he said, “I’m not sure someone has a solution for Gaza…To change the regime in another place, it doesn’t work… They have to change it themselves.”

The focus of Gruber’s message was the importance of conducting oneself ethically in a war, “in order to be able to look at yourself in the mirror.” One of the questions he received was about the IDF philosophy of “Tohar Haneshek,” Purity of Arms, which, the questioner said, “lets the kids get killed to spare innocent enemy lives.”

Replied Gruber, “I am proud that this is the Israeli army. I’m proud that this is what we are doing.” He noted that in the last war, over 1,000 civilians were killed. “But we are trying to make sure we are not doing massacres…To fight, to win, and to remain a human being, that’s our goal…When you come back from the field, you don’t leave anything over there; you bring it home with you. If you’ve killed a kid or a parent, you will carry it with you. We fight in a way that we are trying to avoid killing civilians. I’m very proud that that’s our army.”

After a question-and-answer period, Tzivia Wexler, executive director of the FIDF’s Pennsylvania and Southern New Jersey chapter, shared her appreciation for the Lone Soldiers who leave their families and the security of their home countries to serve in the Israel Defense Forces, as well as their parents, who “give a priceless contribution to the State of Israel by giving their kids to the IDF to protect the State of Israel.” In appreciation, Wexler, along with retired U.S. Navy Captain Jack Lieberman and his wife, Carol, called up past Lone Soldiers as well as the families of current Lone Soldiers, and presented them with a book of Shabbat Zemirot, songs to sing at the Shabbat table.

Finally, Rabbi Pesach Lerner addressed the gathering, sharing the beginnings of the initiative to bring Torah scrolls to the IDF. Since its founding, he said, well over 300 Torahs have been donated. Rabbi Lerner expressed his appreciation to the Sons of Israel community for the two Torah scrolls they donated, one of which, he said, would likely be in use for the holiday of Shavuot at an IDF army base. As the Sons of Israel Mezamrim (singers) sang “Hatikvah,” Israel’s national anthem, General Gruber and Rabbi Goldscheider each held one of the Torahs, then led a lively procession around the synagogue that enabled attendants to kiss the scrolls.

Enjoying a post-program reception sponsored by the SOI Sisterhood, many attendees expressed their appreciation for the event, particularly General Gruber’s powerful message. “It was great to listen to him,” said Sons of Israel congregant Sarah Zanger. “He made me proud of the IDF.”


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