Uri Pilichowski
Author, Educator and Father - Brother to All

Trading a Chabad Fedora for a Paratrooper’s Beret

Photo Credit: Rabbi Yehudah Goldberg

As he stood at the Western Wall immediately after Israeli paratroopers recaptured the Old City of Jerusalem in June 1967, General Rabbi Shlomo Goren, Chaplain of the Israeli Defense Forces, offered the following inspirational message, “I am speaking to you from the plaza of the Western Wall, the remnant of our Holy Temple. ‘Comfort my people, comfort them, says the Lord your God.’ This is the day we have hoped for, let us rejoice and be glad in His salvation. The vision of all generations is being realized before our eyes: The city of God, the site of the Temple, the Temple Mount and the Western Wall, the symbol of the nation’s redemption, have been redeemed today by you, heroes of the Israel Defense Forces. By doing so you have fulfilled the oath of generations, ‘If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its cunning.’ Indeed, we have not forgotten you, Jerusalem, our holy city, our glory. In the name of the entire Jewish people in Israel and the Diaspora, I hereby recite with supreme joy, Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who has kept us in life, who has preserved us, and enabled us to reach this day. This year in Jerusalem – rebuilt! “

The moment of Jerusalem’s recapture and the image of Rabbi Goren blowing shofar at the Western Wall surrounded by Israel’s famed paratroopers has been seared in the minds of Zionists, never to be forgotten. With their signature red boots and red beret, Israel’s paratroopers are easily recognizable and have earned an honored place in Israeli society. The paratroopers aren’t an easy unit to join, and their soldiers are admired simply for being accepted into the unit.

Chabad Hassidut is a branch of the Hassidic movement started in the 18th Century. Hassidut was a movement started in response to the harsh challenges of Ukrainian, Polish, and Eastern European Jewish life. The traditional approach of Judaism, demanding complete dedication and hours of study, wasn’t easy for Jews dealing with poverty and antisemitism, and the new movement of Hassidut’s focus on mysticism and joy appealed to millions of European Jews. All branches of Hassidut feature a “Rebbe” at the helm of the movement. The “Rebbe” is frequently associated with working miracles and plays the role of a guru to their followers. Hassidim can also be easily identified by their 18th century clothing, including black fedoras.

Chabad Hassidut differentiated itself from other branches of Hassidut by an eagerness to engage non-observant Jews. Chabad became the most popular branch of Hassidut. It has earned a warm spot in the Jewish and non-Jewish communities due to its warm hospitality and acts of kindness. It currently doesn’t have a leader, after its seventh and last “Rebbe,” Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson passed in the 1990’s.

At a recent wedding I attended outside of Jerusalem, Yosef the groom wore a traditional Chabad black fedora under the wedding canopy. The bride, Shuli, wore the thick veil that Chabad brides traditionally wear at their weddings. The groom was a member of a well-known Chabad family and keeps their Chabad traditions. The groom’s grandfather is a popular Chabad Rabbi who served in the American military as a chaplain. Keeping to Chabad customs, a letter from the last Chabad Rebbe was read as part of the wedding ceremony. The officiating Rabbi, Shlomo Chayen, the Rosh Hayeshiva of Torah Tech in Tel Aviv was the groom’s personal Rabbi. Towards the end of the wedding ceremony Rabbi Chayen had the groom’s younger brother recite Psalms and the prayer for Israeli soldiers.

Before the traditional recital of the verse of forgetting Jerusalem and breaking the glass, Rabbi Chayen paused the ceremony and explained to the bride, groom and the wedding crowd, that the groom came from two distinct lineages, Chabad, whose customs we had experienced throughout the wedding.

Rabbi Chayen explained the groom’s second lineage came from the heroes that had united Jerusalem 57 years ago this month the Paratroopers Brigade of the Israel Defense Forces. Yosef the groom had served with valor in the paratroopers unit. He had fought with grit and determination in this war in Gaza. The Rabbi made a suggestion that I imagine was the first of its kind ever made – that Yosef remove his Chabad black fedora and for the recital of the verse reminding everyone that without a rebuilt Temple our joy is never complete- and the accompanying breaking of the glass – the groom wear the hat of his second illustrious lineage – the red paratroopers beret.

I’ve never felt a moment like that at a wedding ceremony- not at my wedding and not at my daughter’s wedding. In one moment, I felt Rabbi Chayen has transported the wedding party through hundreds of years of Jewish history. Rabbi Chayen transformed all of us from the years of exile, where Hassidim focused on comforting the Jews through their periods of trials and tribulations, to the rejuvenation of the Jewish people in our days. The changing of the groom’s headgear was more than just a fashion modification, it represented hundreds of years of Jewish Aliyah (elevation).

Zionism is a movement that stands for several important Jewish values. One of them is the responsibility and right of the Jewish people to defend themselves against the many enemies that seek to harm, and even annihilate, the Jewish people. At the founding of the State of Israel, the Zionist leaders who led the new state formed the Israel Defense Forces to ensure the Jewish people would be defended against those who sought its destruction. The soldiers of the IDF are Jewish heroes and are rightfully proud of their service.

The Jewish people’s exile hasn’t ended, but today the Jewish people defend themselves and refuse to be the target of non-Jewish violent attacks. The groom’s red paratroopers beret demonstrated newfound Jewish strength of the State and people of Israel.

About the Author
Rabbi Uri Pilichowski is an educator. As a teacher, author and speaker, he teaches Torah and Politics, where he specifically emphasizes rational thought and conceptual analysis.
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