On Simchat Torah, I found myself in a quandary. As the head of the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Berditchev community in Beitar and a soldier in the IDF reserves, I was torn. We heard sirens during the morning services, and rumors were spreading about something larger than “just” missiles being shot into Israel. We saw cars filled with reservists and soldiers departing for their army bases. I told my wife that I thought I should turn on my cellphone to see if I had also received a call-up. She encouraged me not to turn on the phone. “You are on ‘reserve duty’ of a different kind,” she said, “in the synagogue.”
Saturday evening, after the holiday ended, I turned on my phone and found my call-up order. I put on my uniform and reported to the Home Front Command, ready for whatever duty was required of me.
The Haredi community is known for unlimited chesed (kindness). Over the last week, it exceeded all expectations. We have been collecting and distributing food to soldiers all over the country. Some say that we are trying to deal with our embarrassment that we are not serving in uniform. Someone even approached me with the idea of hanging a huge sign in Bnei Brak saying: “Your brother has gone to war – what are you doing?” I told him no, we need to support each other and not spread discord. So our community is doing whatever it can to help, in whatever ways it can.
In our Netzach Network schools, we have opened our doors to evacuees from the south of Israel, providing recreational activities for their children in Beit Shemesh. Girls in our high schools are staffing an online control room, organizing accommodation for families who have been evacuated. Students at our Midrasha in Beitar have been collecting and distributing groceries to families whose fathers are serving on the front line.
ZAKA volunteers are working around the clock to collect and identify bodies — many of which are burned and mutilated, including babies and children — a horrific and challenging task — which is considered a “chesed shel emet” — the ultimate act of altruistic kindness, because the recipient cannot express gratitude. Many young Haredi men have also volunteered to dig graves, since the staff of the burial societies cannot possibly keep up with the demand. Rabbi Meir Nachman Elhadad, who lost two sons in the tragedy at Mount Meron, dispatched himself to the Lahav 433 bereavement center, where he has been comforting families who have come to identify the bodies of their family members.
Perhaps the most surprising development of all is that there are currently dozens of initiatives in the Haredi community to join the IDF. Rabbi Raphael Kroizer, head of the Lemaan Daat Beit Midrash, has publicly called for thousands of yeshiva students to join the military, saying “Our people are in danger… It is incumbent upon us to be there in practice, with true devotion, and to put our lives on the line.” At the time of this writing, more than 1,000 Haredi men have asked to join in the defense of the country. The IDF is responding positively to their requests — even in the middle of the war — and is planning fast-track training programs to integrate Haredim into the army.
The Belzer Rebbe has called on his community to say the Misheberach prayer for the soldiers of the IDF in their synagogues. This may seem trivial, but it is a real game-changer in a community that has historically shunned the IDF in dramatic ways, at a time of incredible transformations taking place across Israeli society.
It is clear that we are experiencing a national trauma that will leave deep scars on the souls of every one of us, and it will have a huge impact on the nation as a whole. The disagreements between us have evaporated and we are suddenly able to demonstrate our love for one another — in hospitals, in blood donation stations, in equipment distribution centers, and in cemeteries.
This past Shabbat, we began a new cycle of Torah reading, starting from Genesis. The story of creation reminds us that the world began in chaos and darkness, but humankind was given the responsibility to build a world of morality. There are those who sabotage morality and behave like predatory beasts, showing the lowest form of human behavior. It has now fallen to us within the Haredi community to counter that depravity with a moral stance and to say to our compatriots: “This is our opportunity! We should stand shoulder to shoulder with our brethren in this national emergency.”