Tuvia Book
Author, educator, Tour-Guide, artist
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The Hasid from Brooklyn who became an IDF soldier

The tale of how a young man from the Satmar sect in Brooklyn who knew no Hebrew made his way into an elite army unit

Last week I was honored, together with Deputy Minister Michael Oren, to address the crowd of Lone Soldiers, families, volunteers and supporters of the newly inaugurated Lone Soldier Center in Memory of Michael Levin in Jerusalem. At the conclusion of the opening ceremony a tall skinny soldier, wearing the beret of the elite Golani unit on his shoulder, approached me and thanked me for my motivating presentation. I noticed that his English was thickly accented. I asked where he came from, and he replied Boro Park, Brooklyn, New York. Immediately I sensed that there was a backstory, but I could never have guessed how epic, fascinating and tinged with sadness it would be. I asked Sergeant Chaim if I might interview him, and the incredible and inspirational tale that follows is based on the transcript of that interview.

Sergeant Chaim was born into an illustrious tight-knit Satmar Hasidic family in Boro Park, Brooklyn. His great-grandfather was Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum, the nephew of Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum, the Satmar rebbe. He has 10 siblings and spoke only Yiddish until he was 16. In his own words:

I was about 10 and really not happy, I didn’t connect to the praying or way of life. When I was 11, I went to Israel for the first time for my cousin’s wedding. I walked off the plane and saw the “Aleph Bais” on all the signs and religious soldiers with guns. I was here for 10 days and then I went back and only thought about Israel.”

As a teen, he went to his uncle’s yeshiva in Bnei Brak. But, according to Chaim, they watched him during the day and locked him up at night. After a year, someone gave him newspapers and started telling about the outside world. Then people at the yeshiva figured out that he wanted to connect to the outside world and sent him back to Monroe, NY, to a yeshiva there. He bought a smartphone, which, according to Chaim, “is extremely illegal.” He started looking up Israel and IDF on YouTube and Google and he started working out.

When he was 17, he decided that he wanted to get out. But he knew that most of his friends and family would never speak to him again.

Chaim M chassid
Chaim, age 18.  Photo: Chaim M, 2016

He felt that if he was going to leave, he wouldn’t be a failure. He went to a rabbi he respected in Williamsburg to explain to him that he didn’t want to be in this community. The rabbi said that the problem was that he wasn’t married. The rabbi told his father, who straightaway organized him a “shidduch” (arranged marriage). He was given 30 minutes (and then another 20) to “get to know” his future wife. He was engaged that night! He couldn’t even speak to her about his thoughts that he didn’t want to be a member of that ultra-Orthodox community. He tried to get out of the arrangement, but he was emotionally forced to the chuppah (wedding canopy). He was 18 when he got married. Then, after only six weeks, his new wife informed him that she was pregnant. In Chaim’s own words:

I was freaked out, I didn’t know my wife and we had nothing in common. If I didn’t leave her then, I would have a baby a year and be trapped forever. I started getting in touch with the organisation “Footsteps” (which helps ultra-Orthodox Jews transition to the outside world). We were separated after five months and I was banned from seeing my daughter or family.”

Meanwhile, he was reading more about the army, mainly in the local library, but his English was bad and his Hebrew didn’t exist. He just knew he wanted to be a combat soldier. Someone in the organisation Footsteps helped him find army contacts. He got himself a passport, and came to Israel by himself, and signed up to join the army. He failed the Hebrew test and went to Michvei Alon, the IDF course for new immigrants. Then, incredibly, he passed the try-out to Sayeret Egoz, one of the most elite units of the IDF.

Chaim told me that his army buddies don’t understand his story or the world he comes from. He visits the Lone Soldier Center almost every time he is on furlough.

For one who serves as a chayal boded (Lone Soldier) in a combat unit, there is a tremendous amount of psychological, physical and emotional stress in a high-pressure unit so far away from family and friends. To honor Michael Levin, an American-Israeli paratrooper originally from Pennsylvania who was killed in the Second Lebanon War in 2006, and all the Lone Soldiers, his family and many friends, together with other former lone soldiers have opened four Lone Soldier Centers. The centers operate branches in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa. They provide many critical services to lone soldiers such as, helping to finding housing, acquiring furniture, organizing Shabbat and holiday meals, counseling and, most importantly, a place to feel at home.

chaim Golani and Tuv
Sergeant Chaim and Tuvia at the Lone Soldier Centre in Memory of Michael Levin (T. Book, 2016)

Sergeant Chaim is an inspirational example of someone who utterly left his comfort zone and moved thousands of miles in order to accomplish something he deeply believed in: the honor of serving in the IDF in order to protect the homeland and the Jewish people throughout the world. He is doing exactly what he wants to be doing and he is exactly where he wants to be. He has no regrets.

Chaim strongly believes that the future of the Jewish people will be played out in Israel and he wants to be a part of it and not an outside observer. Nor are his dreams complete; he hopes to become an officer in a combat unit.

About the Author
Dr. Tuvia Book was born in London and raised in both the UK and South Africa. After making Aliya at the age of 17 and studying in Yeshiva he volunteered for the IDF, where he served in an elite combat unit. Upon his discharge he completed his BA at Bar-Ilan University, as well as certification in graphic design. He then served as the Information Officer at the Israeli Consulate of Philadelphia, while earning a graduate degree in Jewish Studies. Upon his return to Israel, Dr. Book graduated from a course of study with the Israeli Ministry of Tourism, and is a licensed tour guide. Tuvia has been working in the field of Jewish Education, both formal and informal, for many years. He has guided and taught Jewish students and educators from around the English-speaking world for some of Israel’s premier educational institutions and programs. Tuvia has been guiding groups for Birthright Israel since its inception and, in addition, has lectured throughout North America, Australia, Europe and South Africa. Tuvia served as a Shaliach (emissary) for the Jewish Agency for Israel as the Director of Israel and Zionist Education at the Board of Jewish Education of Greater New York (Jewish Education Project). He was a lecturer/educational guide at the Alexander Muss Institute for Israel Education (AMIIE) in Israel for a decade. Tuvia has lectured at both Bar Ilan University and Hebrew University. He is the author (and illustrator) of the internationally acclaimed Zionism curriculum; “For the Sake of Zion; A Curriculum of Israel Education” (fifth edition, 2017, Koren) and is at present working on his next book, a history of the Jewish people. Tuvia has a doctorate in Israel education. His dissertation title is: “Through the Soldiers’ Eyes: Exploring the Influence of a Birthright Mifgash on the Israeli Soldier Participants.”
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