When we were in Israel several years ago, our good friends Esther and Tzvi invited my wife, Sharon, and me to a swearing-in ceremony of Israeli soldiers following the end of basic training.
While it sounded interesting, we were puzzled because we knew our friends didn’t have any children completing basic training, and it was being held in the North, which meant a long trek from Jerusalem, where they lived and we were staying.
Esther explained. Decades before, when Rafael “Raful” Eitan was chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, he instituted a new program that became known as Na’arei Raful (Raful Youth), through which some youngsters from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds were integrated into the IDF. These inductees had social problems and extremely difficult and sad home/family lives. They were school drop-outs, illiterate and alienated street kids, drug addicts, teenagers who were without parents and were the sole support of younger siblings, and more, and they did not meet usual IDF induction standards. Yet the IDF gave them a last chance to serve; indeed, we were told that they and their guardians, if any, had to sign a document acknowledging there would be no more chances.
Their basic training is different than others. There a higher ratio of officers, who are the teachers, to recruits. In addition to the normal army training (guns, tactics etc.), there is a tremendous amount of essential remedial education and social work. Thus, the army educates and trains these young people for productive service as both soldiers and Israeli citizens. Without access to army service their futures were bleak; once they complete their service, though, their job and career opportunities are vastly improved.
This program met strong resistance within the IDF. The opponents’ argument was simple: we’re the Israeli Defense Forces — emphasis on defense — and our mission is to defend Israel against its many surrounding enemies. While helping these young people is certainly an admirable goal, that’s not the army’s function, and should be left to social workers and teachers rather than military officers.
But General Eitan prevailed, and the fact that he did is indicative of one aspect of the ethos of Israel and the IDF. “Defense” means more than simply military defense against external enemies. It also means defending against internal social problems that attack its citizens and threaten its cohesiveness. Thus, enabling these youngsters to integrate successfully into the army, and thereafter into Israeli society — building citizens — is defense of the nation.
Since the IDF is particularly well suited to that task, the argument that it falls within its bailiwick won.
So what was Esther and Tzvi’s connection to Na’arei Raful? None of their children were in that program. Except that’s not exactly accurate, since their daughter Na’ama had devoted her army service to being a Na’arei Raful educator. After several additional tours of duty she signed on for because of the importance of her job, Na’ama, by then in a senior position, was being mustered out, and this would be the last swearing-in ceremony for soldiers she taught before she reentered civilian life.
It was a deeply moving tekes (ceremony). The stands were filled with friends, neighbors, and relatives, often grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins rather than parents. Tears streamed down many faces — including Esther’s and Sharon’s, although they didn’t know a soul other than Na’ama. But that’s not exactly accurate either since we all felt an almost familial connection to those tender young men and women who, with the help of the IDF, had pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and were now ready to serve their country.
So we listened, with a lump in our throats, as the recruits recited their oath — “to maintain allegiance to the State of Israel, its laws, and its authorities … and to devote all my energies, and even sacrifice my life, for the protection of the homeland and the liberty of Israel” — in strong, ringing voices. And we clapped and cheered and whooped as one by one they filed up to the table where their commanding officers gave each their own gun and Bible, and holding their Tanach, they proclaimed “ani nishba,” I swear.
And we cried (no, not me, but most) when the best soldiers’ names were called and their family members joined them to remove the training stripes from the now-soldiers’ epaulets, symbolically similar to moving a tassel from one side of the cap to the other at graduation.
And, as Steve Jobs would say, one more thing.
Most of the Na’arei Raful recruits serve the nation in important and necessary, though non-combat, roles; they’re likely to be drivers, mechanics, and cooks. Each year, however, a few are admitted into select combat units, and this year was no exception. Two of them were inducted into the highly decorated Golani Brigade. And we roared our appreciation and support for the one exceptional young man who was accepted — a first! — by the elite Tzanchanim — the Paratroopers Brigade.
Since it was Na’ama’s last swearing-in ceremony, there was a small party afterward for her colleagues, family, and friends. Even though I still was in my year of mourning for my father, I decided that this party was low-key enough for me to attend, and so, after a quick stop for mincha (not planned, we just gathered an ad hoc minyan — it was Israel after all), we joined Esther and Tzvi to hear Na’ama’s co-workers sing her praises and bid her farewell.
Esther also introduced us to the commander of the base. She (yes, she!) spoke in glowing terms about the Na’arei Raful program and Na’ama’s significant contribution to it.
But I also had a story to tell.
Sharon and I began our day, I told the commander, by ascending Har HaBayit (the Temple Mount), where we immersed ourselves in the history of that precious site and powerfully sensed its deep sanctity and importance. It was no doubt a profoundly spiritual experience that helped us understand how the past informs, influences, and shapes the present. And later that same afternoon we had another spiritual encounter — watching young men and women in the process of overcoming the immense difficulties they had been dealt in life so that, with the help of people like Na’ama and her teammates, they were prepared to serve their homeland to the full extent of their abilities.
Two moving confrontations with spirituality. But, I added, if I was forced to choose which spiritual experience spoke to me most personally — a truly difficult choice — I would choose the latter.
Joseph C. Kaplan, a regular columnist, is a long-time resident of Teaneck. His work also has appeared in various publications including Sh’ma magazine, the New York Jewish Week, the Baltimore Jewish Times, and, as letters to the editor, the New York Times.