By Michele Justic
Israeli soldiers—they’re just like us. Buying a soda, walking with friends on the street, visiting their parents. Many media outlets paint a darker picture, tinged with anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, of armed agents seeking to harm. This distorted view shapes the way people view the Israeli Defense Forces. So how did one 22-year-old Chabadnik armed with a Sony a7iii camera set out to change the tide?
Born to parents Meir and Hadassah Geisinsky, youth directors at Chabad of the Five Towns for over two decades, Mendel learned to engage and welcome people before he learned to walk and talk. The Geisinskys lead programs of all shapes and sizes to youth of all ages, from intimate bar and bat mitzvah talks, lively Bagel Baby sessions, Lag B’Omer celebrations with trampoline acrobats to entertain thousands, weekly public school gatherings, and more. Rabbi Meir, Hadassah, and each of their 13 children, bli ayin ha’ra, form meaningful bonds with onetime strangers.
Mendel went to Israel for the traditional years of study, and beyond the leaders we learn about in Gemara and other texts, he found modern-day heroes walking the streets at each turn. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, ob’m, emphasized the importance of each Yid. Mendel asked each camo-clad, gun-carrying figure he passed to “smile” and they happily obliged. By now he estimates he has photographed upwards of 15,000 people. [Follow Instagram @OfficialMGPhotos.]
Personalities are revealed in these pictures, and taken as a collective they reflect the humanity and strong moral character in the IDF. A few shidduchim have resulted as well.
The project was partially born from tragedy, when Mendel learned of the tragic killing of 25-year-old immigrant from South Africa Eliyahu David Kay in a terror attack near the Western Wall in Jerusalem in 2021. Eliyahu was known for his smile, and Mendel wanted to keep that smile alive. Mendel had developed an interest in photography during the COVID lockdowns and learned a great deal on his own to capture the best light, form, and expressions to bring the project to life.
Mendel reflects on his Smiling Soldiers Project: “It’s because we all really want to smile, and seeing someone happy makes us want to be happy as well. A genuine, pure smile also adds a level of humanity that you simply cannot ignore. You have to acknowledge the person and cannot simply judge them on stereotypes; you must judge them on who they are actually in real life, as an individual.”
We learn in Pirkei Avot (1:15), Shammai used to say: ‘Make Torah study a fixed practice; speak little, but do more, and greet every person with a cheerful face.”
“The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) are too often presented in the media completely out of context and portrayed as cold, heartless machines. When I first arrived in Israel, the soldiers I saw in the Shuk were not the soldiers I saw online. These soldiers were smiling. They were happy. I was deeply inspired to show the world the human side of these soldiers and improve the image of the IDF. So many of these soldiers are the nicest people. We talk, we connect. Each one has a story,” Geisinsky says.
Unfortunately, even this project that comes from a place of positivity and kindness elicits many anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist comments on his page, but thankfully Geisinsky is strong enough to handle the hurtful comments in a productive way.
What began as a hobby has now become a mission, but Mendel needs the community support to fund his project as well as a potential coffee-table book of the portfolio of images. Help support the project at gofundme.com/f/SmilingSoldiers?utm_campaign=m_pd+share-sheet&utm_medium=copy_link_all&utm_source=customer.