IDF choppers roared overhead as tanks rolled out of the Kerem Shalom border crossing where Gilad Shalit was kidnapped. Against this backdrop, some 400 soldiers of the IDF’s elite Golani Brigade of the Northern Gaza Unit, breaking from a 48 hour shift in claustrophobic tanks on anti-terrorist missions in Gaza, were laying tefillin.
Then they covered their eyes and uttered the Shema‘"Hear O Israel, the prayer of Jewish affirmation. Soon they’d be heading back to the battlefield, and Chabad’s Rabbi Menachem Ofen wanted to fortify them. So he brought a live band that spurred the soldiers to spontaneous dancing, and had savory meats grilling on a barbeque, giving soldiers a spiritual lift and a lively opportunity to recharge.
For soldiers in uniform, the scorching summer days under the merciless Mediterranean sun are brutal. Long shifts that leave little time for sleep, are physically exhausting. The stress on Israel’s defense forces is compounded in their fight against lethal terror under the constant scrutiny of worldwide media.
From a distance, they are either vilified or glorified. But ‘it’s only when you get to see them up close, that you appreciate how much these soldiers endure,’ says Menachem.
Menachem sees the soldiers up close. He’s been visiting with them regularly at their bases ever since surviving a terrorist attack in 2000 when he and his brother, returning from a Purim celebration with the soldiers, were targeted while driving in their car. After surgeons successfully removed a bullet lodged in his neck, Menachem vowed to devote his life to reaching out to Israel’s Defense Forces.
That was almost seven years ago, and since then, he has expanded his services and has developed a personal rapport with many high ranking IDF generals. Utilizing his access to bolster those serving in defense of the Jewish people, he’s become a popular address for many who want to help Israel’s soldiers.
Menachem spent three days at the Rafah Crossing in Gaza last week with Golani soldiers in the throes of difficult missions. He inspired them with messages about historic triumphs of the Jewish people, and held out the inspiration of courage and faith as he spoke of Divine Providence that protects the Jewish people and the Land of Israel.
‘The sacrifice that our soldiers make for the Jewish people and for Israel,’ he says, ‘is probably not fully appreciated.’ But he remembers reading what the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of blessed memory, said about Israel’s soldiers. ‘He said that they’"in their devotion and sacrifice’"bring the greatest merit to the Jewish people.’
Though they are Jewish, many of Israel’s soldiers did not have the benefit of a Jewish education. But at a time when they lay their lives on the line, they yearn for some kind of affirmation of the transcendent and the eternal. So Menachem teaches them a chapter of Tanya that explores the Jewish soul and its bond with G-d; he conveys messages from the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s writings, about the Divine protection to be found in mitzvot, specifically those of mezuzah, tefillin, tzedaka and Shabbat candle lighting. Many don tefillin here for the very first time.
At a recent event for 500 female soldiers serving in the IDF Menachem was welcomed with gratitude. He gave each soldier a gift of a Shabbat candle, and many have pledged to commit to lighting Shabbat candles regularly. ‘The soldiers are deeply appreciative,’ he says. "There’s no question that they draw strength from these events and the mitzvot they fulfil."
After each event Menachem receives calls from other units asking for him to come and do the same for them.
Next week, he’ll join defense forces up north. Devoted entirely to this cause, he has undertaken a wide range of activities including visiting with grieving parents, providing prayer books to soldiers as they leave their army bases, and frequent, costly celebrations. "Our soldiers deserve the best," he says.
For now, Menachem will go wherever the IDF needs him. "There’s no planning during a war. Wherever the soldiers go, I’ll be there," he promises.
"There are so many ways that we can do things to give our soldiers support and gratitude," he says. ‘But funds are needed.’ Contributions earmarked to this cause can be made by clicking here.