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IDF Colonel Geva Rapp and soldiers  come to give hizuk to our students

This past month, our community was treated to a special visit by 13 heroes – officers of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) who served in Gaza last summer as part of Operation Protective Edge. They came to share their stories, and to inspire us all.

During the officers’ stay in New York from December 1-14, they visited many differentsynagogues, schools and organizations to speak about their experiences during the war and about the challenges soldiers face on the battlefield. They also addressed Israel’s perceived “hasbara” problems; that is, how the State needs to do a better job explaining its point of view to the world.

Geva Rapp, IDF Reserve Colonel and director of the Panim el Panim organization, which arranged the trip, says that the trip’s intent was “to inspire the Jewish nation currently in Diaspora.”

The soldiers toured high schools in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, including Ramaz, Hebrew Academy of Long Beach, Yeshiva University and Ezra Academy. In Brooklyn, they visited Magen David High School, Shaarei Zion, Ahaba Ve Ahava, Kol Israel Barkai and Shaarei Shalom. They also paid visits to the Young Israel of Staten Island, among other institutions. In between their visits, they were hosted in parlor meetings and home visits.

“They are Just Like Us”

Dr. Chagit Hadar, who oversees the Israel-related programmingat Magen David High School, acted as the liaison and coordinator for the delegation, setting up events and programming for the soldiers. Hadar says she grew up in a “very Zionistic family” in Israel.

“It’s a journey, that I, as Israeli, felt the need to assist,” she said, adding that a chance meeting with a Panim el Panim staff member led her to kickstart the campaign to bring the soldiers to the US. “We found a lot in common, and the vision of Panim el Panim, Jewish identity, is a value that I stronglybelieve in.”

This extraordinary delegation hailed from numerous different divisions of the Israeli military, including infantry, paratroopers, the air force and the navy, all decorated by the IDF for their valor.

Many of the soldiers spoke of how their faith was a source of strength during combat, and how Jewish and ethics guide the Israeli Defense Forces, be it in war or during peacetime. Their stories had a profound effect on many students.

“My connection to Israel became even stronger after hearing them speak,” remarked Marilyn Terzi, an 11th grade student at Magen David Yeshiva. “They told us how they are just like us, and it really inspired me. I could relate to them. They were inspired by us, too! The fact that so many people supported them, ithelped them to do what they wanted to do.”

Lori Louzia, a 12th grader, added: “It was amazing to see that they took the time to visit our school. There were inspiring stories we never heard before. One of the soldiers who came was in a wheelchair, visiting us during our kumzitz (gathering around a bonfire). He never complained. He told us he lived his life normally, and told us his life was normal.”

Declaring War on Ignorance

Col. Rapp, who has nearly 30 years of IDF service under his belt, created Panim el Panim 10 years ago to address the problem of ignorance among Israel about their Jewish heritage.

“Unfortunately, [their education’s] still not in an ideal place, but improving,” Col. Rapp told Community Magazine. In one Tel Aviv school he visited, he noted that more than three-quarters of the students could not even recite the complete Shema.

“We are talking about a secular system that may sometimes neglect the termkiddush Hashemfor 12 years of school, and then, these young men and women are called to go after they graduate high school to put their lives on the line for their nation and country… Need I say more? Thank Gd, today we act largely with the chief IDF rabbinate to bring this amazing revolution in the Jewish identity area.”

A baal teshuvahimself, Col. Rapp felt it his mission to reach out to his fellow Jews, and fellow soldiers, to defend our heritage, while defending our land.

“As a Colonel in the IDF, I came to realize that even though our army is one of the most sophisticated, the thing we need the most is to strengthen the Jewish spirit and Jewish identity. We see that the soldiers and commanders are demanding and craving these classes and activities we run in this field.”

In September 2011, Panim el Panim became the official provider of Torah education for the Israel Defense Forces, connecting tens of thousands of secular Israelis to their Jewish identity. It operates social and educational programs in more than 60 secular high schools, nearly 50 IDF bases and installations, and more than 80 kibbutzim throughout Israel. There are also programs geared towards secular university students, that include hevrutot, lectures by scholars and special classes in Jewish identity, heritage and values.

“When Israelis know where they come from, who they are and what their future is, they become much more committed to the Jewish nation, and Israel,” explained Rapp, who was also one of the coordinators of Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in 2008-9.

Getting Our Message Out

Alfred and Esther Harary of New York hosted several Israeli soldiers at their home, and were both inspired by the men’s courageousness, honor – and path to Hashem.

“This project connected us to the army, and the pride of these individuals,” said Alfred. “We realized the importance of getting our message out to the world.”

One particular story that resonated with Alfred was when the soldiers were walking into a sniper nest in Gaza and being shot at by anti-tank missiles.

Alfred added that he was especially shocked when he heard that “the soldiers, going into Gaza homes, saw children wearing Hamas bandanas, and brandishing guns of their own, and yet they were living with material wealth, like televisions and
nice furniture.”

In one incident, a house that the IDF had to enter was hit with a tank missile, collapsed, trapping three soldiers with debris. Thankfully, they were rescued, and immediately resumed the mission.

The soldiers related that the Hamas terrorists in Gaza used
Al-Shifa Hospital as a command and control center, and the area outside the hospital was being used as a rocket launch pad. “The Israelis hadto attack,” Alfred explains. “The Palestinians stored and shot munitions from that platform. And sadly, the world couldn’t give a hoot,” as Israel was roundly condemned for its counteroffensive against Hamas.

“I felt sorry for the heavy loss of life that they had,” Alfred reflects. “They were young guys. The bravery of these young men was extraordinary. They’d giveup their lives for their country. We really bonded with them and became very close. We should all be proud of them.”

Some of the soldiers that Alfred and Esther had the opportunity to meet described their growth in Judaism. “We met men who found a spark,a light that has taken them closer to Gd, and now they’re becoming more spiritual and observant.”

Dov Goldman, founder of American Friends of Panim el Panim, expressed his pride over the organization’s accomplishments, and how it has succeeded in conveying “an emotionally rich Torah message to secular Israelis where they live, learn and fight.” He touts the fact that more than 80 percent of the students are reporting that before Panim el Panim, they had either feared or hated the term “Judaism,” but now, due to their exposure to Judaism through Panim el Panim, they have warm feelings towards it.

More than four thousand 11th and 12th grade students each year attend a special workshop devoted to the topic of “kiddush Hashem”– a term with which the vast majority of the students were previously unfamiliar with.

The Faces Behind the Packages

Raphael Wein, one of the IDF soldiers who took part in the delegation, was just as inspired by the warm welcome as the hosts were by his bravery.

“It’s a privilege to finally meet the communities and the actual faces behind the huge packages and support we received over the past summer,” he said, adding that he and his group spoke between three and four times daily in many different communities over the course of their two-week stay.

Drafted in March 2008 to the Givati Brigade, Wein was sent to Gaza later that year to join Operation Cast Lead. After being released from compulsory military service, he joined the Northern Gaza Brigade reserves unit. In November 2012, he joined the troops in Pillar of Defense, and again this past summer in Operation Protective Edge.

“It was incredible to feel the support first hand, and meet the children, the communities and the synagogues,” he said.

For Col. Geva Rapp, it was a mission accomplished: “Indeed, we have been met with a lot of love for Israel, as well as unity and admiration for the soldiers of the IDF.”

For more information about Panim el Panim, send an email to dgoldman@panimelpanim.org or call 646-450-5991.