By Larry Gordon
We have heard it time and again over the years: There is no army in the world like the Israel Defense Forces. The question is if we believe that because we love Israel and everything about the Jewish state is important to us, or because there is, in fact, no other military force like the IDF anywhere in the world.
Last week I had a long talk with Friends of the IDF Chief Executive Officer Rabbi Steven Weil. We have talked previously, and over the years I have interviewed and spoken with other leaders of FIDF, but the other day, in just a half-hour, I received the equivalent of a crash course in everything we need to know about why we feel the way we do and why it is so imperative that we support the FIDF’s efforts.
To say that we support the IDF because the men and women who serve in it defend the state of Israel is both accurate and an oversimplification of the reason behind our support for an army 5,600 miles from New York. Of course, it is mostly a Jewish army, and as a community we have a responsibility (and even a Biblical commandment) to look out for other Jews wherever they may be located around the world.
Israel’s defense is our defense, as a Jewish community here in New York and around the globe. But you might submit that military defense is the responsibility of government, no matter the country or where it’s located, and under conventional circumstances you would be right on the mark.
But Israel is a completely different and unique story, Rabbi Weil points out. The average country spends between 2 and 3% of their gross domestic product on military defense of the country. In Israel, 14.9% of the GDP is spent on the military.
And it is no mystery why Israel is burdened with this reality. Israel is surrounded by several countries that consider themselves to be at war with the Jewish state. Between Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza, and terrorists in Judea and Samaria as well as in Arab parts of Jerusalem, Israel is dealing with a situation that is unlike what any other country in the world needs to put up with.
So if you are concluding that by supporting FIDF you are assisting Israel’s military efforts, the answer is yes and no. And that is because FIDF does so much more for Israel’s youth and the young people who travel to Israel from disparate parts of the world to serve in the IDF.
“FIDF is also an educational and chesed organization for many of these young men and women,” Rabbi Weil says. He adds that the focus of the group is to provide educational and other opportunities post military for those who put themselves in harm’s way in order to protect the Jewish state.
Rabbi Weil says that the generals in the IDF tell him all the time that the next war or future wars can be won or lost on the cyber battlefield and not necessarily by infantry in a conventional theater of war. To that end, there is an emphasis on training future career military personnel in the field of cybersecurity.
“Last year we spent $62 million educationally transforming what it means to fight for Israel,” he says. He says that in the coming year the goal is to expend $75–$100 million creating these opportunities for personnel. The adage that he who controls the skies controls the war has been transformed and redefined to whoever controls cyberspace controls the war. So opportunities to train these young men and women on this level have never been more vital to the future of the country.
Just as important is the fact that the flipside of this necessity has changed a generation of young people whose post military life may have not afforded them enough opportunities to impact in a positive way on the next generation in Israel.
Then there is the important as well as intriguing matter of lone soldiers. These are young men and women from countries from around the world who want to join the IDF for a multiplicity of reasons. First and foremost, of course, is the idea of contributing what they can of themselves to the defense of Israel, a country that is consistently under siege whether militarily or diplomatically.
Lone soldiers can also be Israelis without family, disconnected from their family, or, for whatever reason, living on their own. Today, Rabbi Weil says, there are 6,800 lone soldiers; of that number 3,400 are from other countries, with a fair number of them from the U.S. Aside from overseeing the educational aspects of those in post military service, caring for the well-being of the lone soldiers might be the FIDF’s most important mission. And by the way, over the years there have been more lone soldiers who were born, raised, and educated in the Five Towns than from any other one community around the world.
In the past it was a function of the FIDF to see to it that when these soldiers had some time off they had a place to go or spend a Shabbat. Now FIDF, with the assistance of supporters around the world, is building a housing complex in Rishon L’Tzion at a cost of $17 million, just another important reason why FIDF needs your help.
Also, when soldiers have some downtime and are away from their unit they very often need some spending money so that they feel like upstanding citizens living a conventional lifestyle. In the past they had to go to an office and pick up food vouchers or some pocket money. FIDF has redefined that system, considering the feelings of the soldiers about requiring this kind of financial assistance. Today, over 8,000 IDF members receive these types of stipends directly deposited into their bank accounts, so their dignity is intact.
In addition to Jewish youth from around the world serving in the IDF there are also soldiers who are Muslim, Christian, and Druze, along with Israelis, many of whom were born in places like Ethiopia, Morocco, and the Ukraine, amongst other locations on the globe. “There are kids from 82 countries in all who serve in the IDF,” Rabbi Weil says. “It is truly the ingathering of the exiles in microcosm,” he adds.
Then there are the Nachal Chareidi units that have grown exponentially over the last few years, with likeminded young men from very religious homes serving in their own units. Today, the rabbi says, there are chareidi soldiers in the infantry as well as in the paratrooper units.
I asked Rabbi Weil how he deals with the extreme diversity in American Jewry and their attitudes and positions on the support for Israel, and especially Israel’s military. He breaks it down for me this way. As far as support for Israel in the U.S., 30% are very supportive; 10% of the population can be classified as being anti-Israel; and 60% is mostly not sure or undecided about where they stand on any number of issues related to support for Israel.
As I listen to Steven Weil speak it becomes increasingly clear that supporting the Friends of the IDF is not about buying bombs or doing mechanical repairs on fighter jets. It is about transforming young lives and extracting thousands of kids from the cycle of poverty, giving them an education, a skill, and a future way of life.
This fall, FIDF will hopefully once again be able to host an in-person New York gala which is their flagship annual fundraiser. There will also be a Long Island gala here in the Five Towns this November.
We also talked about the great philanthropic competition that exists in many communities, but particularly in the Orthodox Jewish areas, where we are compelled to support our shuls and yeshivas in addition to a plethora of other causes. “Orthodox Jews are passionate Zionists who care deeply about Israel,” Rabbi Weil said.
The fact is that regardless of how you feel about one issue or another as it pertains to Israel, support of the IDF deserves to be at the top of the list.
Read more of Larry Gordon’s articles at 5TJT.com. Follow 5 Towns Jewish Times on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for updates and live videos. Comments, questions, and suggestions are welcome at 5TJT.com and on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.