An ongoing quest to serve

On the morning of Shabbat of Oct. 7, my phone was instantly flooded with messages which I could not read. At Shul, I heard the early accounts of the horrific attack on our people, but the details would become clearer over the course of the day. My wife, Michelle, and I discussed the events, and she simply asked, “When are you leaving?” Despite living in the US for over 20 years since my initial service in the IDF as a lone soldier, my wife knew that the question wasn’t if I would volunteer to help Israel in its time of need, but when and how.

My story isn’t unique when it comes to foreigners making Aliyah and serving in the IDF. My initial plan had been to study medicine in Israel, but the ebb and flow of reality intruded in the best of ways. During my service, I met my wife of 26 years. Although the idea of moving to Israel sounded appealing to her, she was in the middle of her studies and it just wasn’t realistic to make such a move at the time. After completing my service, I began my own studies which consisted of a bachelor’s degree, medical school, a seven-year residency in general surgery followed by a two-year fellowship in surgical oncology with the usual loan burden that education in America entails.

For decades, my goal of moving to Israel continued to be a dream deferred that was always a little bit out of reach.

Once I finished training, we would visit Israel to stay in touch with family and friends, and in 2019, we reconsidered Aliyah. I visited and spoke with physicians at multiple medical centers. Then the COVID-19 crisis broke out, and moving our family in the middle of the biggest healthcare crisis in recent history was not appropriate.

When the atrocities of Oct. 7th occurred, I knew I had to put all practicalities aside and do what was right — lend my expertise to help those in need in Israel. As a surgical oncologist, I knew I wasn’t exactly what Israel was looking for, but felt that given the complexities of the surgeries I perform, and my previous military experience, I could still assist.

Therefore, on the night of the 8th, following the second day of chag in Diaspora, I started to volunteer for all positions available, military and civilian. Of course, I was informed that I would be contacted if needed. Still, I didn’t take no for an answer. With the help of Nefesh B’Nefesh, The Jewish Agency for Israel, the Ministry of Health, Il-USDocAid, and my own personal connections, I was able to volunteer initially with MADA and then drafted as a surgeon into an elite reconnaissance unit serving in Gaza.

While I had many memorable experiences in my nearly four months of volunteer reserve service, I’ll never forget my first Friday night in Beit Hanoun when a large group of us sat down for Shabbat dinner in the battalion commander’s position. The army led a Kabbalat Shabbat service, and the rabbi gave a Dvar Torah connecting to the Torah portion helping to explain why all of us were in Gaza and why we must continue to fight. It brought everything together for us. From secular to religious to everyone in between, we all felt a palpable connection to each other and Am Yisrael. And when we sang the songs of our ancestors, we sang loudly and proudly as one nation.

What I saw in Gaza wasn’t the revenge of a humiliated nation, rather it was a determination that nothing like Oct. 7 would ever happen again.

Now, when I return to Atlanta, I’ll go back with a stronger sense of purpose. Just because we live in the Diaspora doesn’t mean what happens in Israel doesn’t affect us. The impact of Oct. 7 has no borders — Jews around the world were forever changed by that horrific day.

I often get asked why I came to Israel to volunteer in the IDF. The truth is, I couldn’t concentrate and couldn’t function back at home. Coming to Israel was a choice I made not only for the country, but for myself. How could I sleep at night, knowing my brothers and sisters an ocean away were fighting for their, and our, survival? Without the country of Israel there is no Am Yisrael; even in the Diaspora we recognize the impact the state of Israel has on each and every one of our communities.

My story of service is a rather ordinary example among the extraordinary Israeli people: 300,000 Israelis from outside Israel returned in the first month of the war, men and women who dropped everything to fight, those who risked their lives, and often sacrificed them, to save others, wives, like Michelle, who ran their entire household while their loved ones were on duty.

It’s these stories that give me hope in the notion of Am Yisrael Chai — the people of Israel live.

Last month, I was released from duty and this weekend I’ll be attending Nefesh B’Nefesh’s MedEx conference — an event where medical professionals can expedite the mountains of paperwork needed to practice medicine in Israel. It simply makes sense after four months of taking care of our most precious sons, our soldiers, to transition to a permanent license to be available to continue to offer my expertise as needed.

About the Author
Dr. Joshua H. Winer is a general surgeon in Atlanta, Georgia and is affiliated with multiple hospitals in the area, including Emory University Hospital Midtown and Emory St. Joseph's Hospital. He is also a former lone soldier in the IDF who recently went back and volunteered his service yet again in the wake of the Oct. 7 attacks against Israel.