The British Jewish community is immensely loyal to and proud of Israel. It is no accident that among Western democracies, until recent times — when France has taken centre stage — the UK has been the biggest source of aliyah. But showing support for Israel and the IDF has become more complex.
Israel’s increasing prosperity and leadership in technology makes general financial support, through organisations such as the UJIA, less popular. The tendency is to support individual institutions such as Hadassah and the Technicon and, I hope, UK Friends of the Abraham Fund (which I chair).
Showing support for the soldiers in the IDF who put their lives on the line for the safety and security of Israel and the Jewish people every minute, hour and day has been made tougher by the lack of progress on peace. The continued controversy over the West Bank and economic access to Gaza adds to the dissonance.
But one should never underestimate the pressures the IDF is under. Whether recruits work in high-tech monitoring centres watching flight movements, guard the holy places in Jerusalem or have to main security crossings they are always under enormous stress. Recruits stationed on Israel’s Northern borders with Syria and Lebanon live with the constant prospect of combat. The pressure on the IDF is constant and unwavering and something which most of us, brought up, educated in the comfort of Britain find it hard to comprehend.
One way British Jewry identifies with the pressures on IDF soldiers is through the ‘Peace of Mind’ Combat Veterans programme. Every year, groups of elite Israeli troops, many of them highly secular, come to Britain for respite. They travel with officers and therapists and the objective is to clear their minds and give them a different experience. It is also, in the words of Rabbi Lionel Rosenfeld, at the Western Marble Arch (WMA) synagogue, a chance to sojourn with and better understand diaspora Jewry and the little-understood support and admiration for everything that they do.
During these visits the IDF soldiers, in twos, are billeted with local families (in the case of WMA) in central London given them insight into our lives. Their days are spent on therapy and respite programmes. At WMA, their presence will be celebrated with a joyous Shabbaton dinner with uplifting singing from the Shabbaton choir. Some of combatants choose to join the community for Sabbath services although there is no such requirement.
Rabbi Rosenfeld tells a touching story from a previous visit. A secular combat veteran, who was never barmitzvah, is called to the law for the first time in his life. He is brought gingerly to the Bimah by a practising Jewish veteran, where he is shown how to kiss the place in the Torah and recite the blessings. It is an emotional high connecting the soldier to generations of Jews.
For most of us, exposure to the IDF is a fleeting experience. Even if like me, there have been four generations of family members (Shoah survivors, their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren) who have served, we know little about all that they have had to deal with, including the way that their education and lives have been disrupted.
Most diaspora encounters with the military have been semi-official, if on a factfinding tour. Alternatively there is the casual experiences on the fast train from Tel Aviv to Haifa and beyond on Erev Shabbat as kids clutching combat weapons, with kitbags in the aisle, head home to be with their families for a few valuable days.
Sharing quality time with the modern-day heroes of the Jewish people in London should be a privilege and mitzvah never a chore.
Details can be found on eventbrite: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/idf-peace-of-mind-dinner-with-the-shabbaton-choir-tickets-41273989614