Dovid M. Cohen
Rabbi, Author, Podcaster

Holding Out for a Hero: Our Boys in Green

Completion of Officers Training Course:

On the left- Amitai Granot HY"D
Third from the left- Eitan Fisch HY"D
Fifth from the left- Daniel Peretz HY"D 

חבל על דאבדין ולא מתשכחין

Picture courtesy of the Granot Family
Completion of Officers Training Course: On the left- Amitai Granot HY"D Third from the left- Eitan Fisch HY"D Fifth from the left- Daniel Peretz HY"D חבל על דאבדין ולא מתשכחין Picture courtesy of the Granot Family

On Thursday evening January 17, 1991, I was carrying an Uzi tasked with guarding the perimeter of Kibbutz Shaalvim and the Hesder Yeshiva on its grounds.

Suddenly, around midnight, I heard a massive boom.  I sped back with my weapon to my dorm room, which doubled as a sealed room, for protection from a potential chemical attack.

Saddam Hussein had begun a multiple month campaign of firing scud rockets, and my gap year of study was altered dramatically.  The repercussions meant limited freedom of movement around Israel and ensuring I had a gas mask in tow wherever I went.

Why would an 18-year-old American boy who came to learn in Yeshiva be doing guard duty?

That is the uniqueness of a Hesder Yeshiva.  These Yeshivot primarily serve young Israelis who commit to both serious Torah study as well as army service.

Part of the experience for the American program was not only learning Toras Eretz Yisroel, but also being fully enmeshed in the experience of living in Eretz Yisroel.

Guard duty wasn’t mandatory, but it was offered to ‘chutznikim,’ ‘foreigners,’ as an option, provided we underwent the requisite training to handle the Uzi weapon.  It is difficult for me to fathom that I ever shot an Uzi, but my youthful exuberance presumably got the better of me.

As a reader of various haredi publications, I’ve felt something missing in the coverage of post October 7.   Frankly, it was understandable. How could Haredi/Torah periodicals that predominantly cater to the Yeshiva world and a full time Torah learning outlook grasp the phenomenon of the Learner/Fighter in Klal Yisroel?

Today, if one enters the Beis Medrash at Har Etzion Yeshiva (the Gush), a preimement Hesder Yeshiva, one will see a fresh plaque with the names of multiple students who have died Al Kiddush Hashem in Gaza, next to names of fallen students from other previous wars.  To their credit, both Rav Shaul Alter Shlita of Ger as well as Rav Aharon Lopiansky Shlita of Yeshiva Greater Washington recently went to give chizuk by saying shiurim in the Gush.

I write as someone who lives in a predominantly yeshiva community, someone who sends his children to Haredi educational institutions, someone who spent substantial time learning in a Kollel that has origins in the Mir Yeshiva of Jerusalem and someone who currently davens in shuls with a Slonimer chassid and a graduate of Brisk at the helm.

I’m not here to compare nor to point out the maalos and chesronos of each community.  No community is perfect and each part of Klal Yisroel adds so much to the rich tapestry of who we are as a nation.  We all have our unique roles to play and contributions to make.

My efforts here are to express Hakaras Hatov, tremendous gratitude for the exposure and sensitivities gained from my youth and share with others who haven’t been exposed to a beautiful group of people within our nation that have been noticed more since October 7 but have always been a blessing in our midst.

As we read in the news about Rafah and Khan Yunis, I have a sharp memory of my one visit into what was a kibbutz that neighbored these areas in the southern part of the Gaza Strip.

Almost a decade ago, I wrote a brief blurb for a publication about a Yizkor memory for Yom Kippur.

I’d like share an excerpt from that piece:

‘On Yom Kippur, I think back to my time at Shaalvim.

Led by Rav Aryeh Hendler, these prayers were incredibly uplifting and inspirational.

Rav Hendler confided that he tries to think about people and events from his everyday life when leading the Tefillos.

When he would recite the ‘Asara Harugei Malchus’ in the Musaf, he shared it was challenging to relate to the lofty Tannaim.

For him, when he read about the Tanna Rebbi Shimon, his mind wandered to a different Rav Shimon altogether.

Rav Shimon Zvi Biran HY’D, an alumnus of Shaalvim and the community Rav of Kfar Darom in Gush Katif was murdered by an Arab while crossing the street on an early morning in May 1992.

Learning that day was nullified and the entire Yeshiva travelled to Gush Katif for the levaya of a 31-year-old Rav murdered only for being a Jew.’

I’m grateful for having been briefly exposed to such an incredible Rav who was moser nefesh in the most literal sense to settle and live in the most dangerous parts of the land of Israel.

Listening to an 1840 podcast recently, I heard a thought from Rav Reuven Taragin Shlita, the Rosh Yeshiva of HaKotel, another Hessder Yeshiva in the Old City, that strongly resonated with me.

I’ve always marveled at people who are blessed with ‘Shtei Shulchonos’ or ‘Torah UGedula Bemakom Echad.’  It’s hard to be great in multiple realms. Some people are massive Talmedi Chachamim and others are big Gvirim, wonderful businessmen.  Few are actually both.  Rabbi Taragin commented that this is a relatively new phenomenon in America where there is an aspiration to be a Lomdan and a Gvir.

I was recently telling a big Rosh Yeshiva about someone in Lakewood who I was very impressed with in this regard.  I know maybe a handful of people who are Talmedi Chachamim of the highest caliber and extremely successful in business.  I obviously don’t frequent Lakewood enough, because he shared that it’s quite a common phenomenon there.

Rabbi Taragin commented that in his segment of Israeli religious society, the model is also a balanced model.

The young men aspire to be real Talmedi Chachamim. He mentioned in passing, not as a brag or flex but for context, that one of his sons currently serving in Gaza finished Shas at the tender age of sixteen.  As much as it pained his son to leave the beis medrash, he felt a duty and calling to prepare to defend Am Yisroel and be able to defend us in a moment like we are experiencing now.

The religious Zionist definition of ‘Torah UGedula’ or ‘Shtei Shulchonos’ is balancing personal growth in Torah with service to the people of Israel by defending the nation.  That is what is idealized and aspired toward in these Hesder institutions. I’ll add that many of the current commanders and leaders of the Israeli Defense Forces, including the current Chief of Staff of the IDF, Herzi HaLevi are Torah observant and come from these institutions.

As impressed as I am by the few people I know who encompass greatness in dual realms, how much more so am I humbled to be part of a nation that has young Bnei Torah willing to make such colossal self-sacrifice to protect our people.

If there is a silver lining in our post October 7 lives, it is the closeness we all feel with one another.  Different sectors of Israeli society are coming closer together and we’ve all heard myriad stories of people being inspired to turn towards the Derech Hashem.  We recently hosted in our North Woodmere community, Roi Assaraf and his wife who miraculously survived the Nova music festival and have devoted themselves to serving Hashem, including Mrs. Assaraf sporting a sheitel at the melava malka.

What I can share from my own narrow vantage point is the intensity of commitment that I observe daily in our community.  I see and hear ‘Bnei HaYeshivos’ noseh beol in the most incredible ways.

I’ll admit that if I want an inspiring full-fledged rendition of the prayer for the soldiers on Shabbos, I need to walk past multiple shuls to experience it, which I recently did.

However, there is no denying the commitment and the depth of feeling and partnership shared by everyone for the difficult situation in Israel.  I’ve been moved by the sincerity, passion and feeling of all members of the community to do whatever they can to support all the soldiers and all the people In Israel.

Multiple missions to Israel, incredible acts of tzedakah and unlimited Tefillos for an improvement in the matzav.

I think we are experiencing a revolution in our midst.

Seeing various lines begin to blur and the understanding that our enemies don’t differentiate between us, so we can’t afford to do it either.

Hearing disparate Rabbonim from Slonim to Brisk communicating that we are all one.

That we are the Am Hashem committed to Toras Hashem and we acutely feel the pain of all our brethren no matter their religious level or hashkafa.

Ashereinu Ma Tov Chelkeinu! We are Blessed to be Part of a Special Nation!

About the Author
Rabbi Dovid M. Cohen served as a pulpit Rabbi for eighteen years in the NY/NJ area and as a scholar in residence around the world. He earned his law degree from Columbia Law School and a Masters degree in Marital Therapy from the University of North Texas. He is the author of the book “We’re Almost There: Living with Patience, Perseverance and Purpose,” presenting a pathway for confronting challenges. His more recent book "Together Again: Reimagining the Relationships that Anchor our Lives" is an exploration of our post pandemic relationships. Rabbi Cohen is the host of the Jewish Philanthropy Podcast ("The JPP") and a Senior Relationship Officer at the Orthodox Union. He is also an Adjunct Professor of Entrepreneurship & Strategy at YU's Sy Syms School of Business. He resides in N. Woodmere, NY with his wife & 6 children.
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