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A Denver initiative for the IDF

I was always interested in the idea that you can’t have a religion without an army,” Marshall Fogel told the Intermountain Jewish News in an interview earlier this month. “When you look back in history, when the Jewish people did well is when they had an army, like the Battle of Jericho, King David, King Solomon, the Maccabees, the ’67 war. I was always enamored with the idea that the military is the real protector of our fate.”

Marshall Fogel has founded Chaverim Connect, a Facebook group to connect Israeli soldiers with Americans.

Fogel practiced what he preached in 2009, at the age of 68, and now has come up with a program, “Chaverim Connect,” to repay the army that gave him the chance.

In 2009, Fogel joined a special basic training program for non-Israeli civilians operated by the Israel Defense Forces. It was not the same boot camp that IDF recruits are compelled to undergo, but it was far from a cakewalk.

“We had several marches; the longest one was the last day, which started at three o’clock in the morning.

They wanted to see if I could make it, so they let me be the radio man, which is another eight pounds of equipment beyond the flak jacket and all the other equipment that I had.”

To complete the march, a final hill had to be successfully scaled by the participating “recruits,” and Fogel wanted to be the first to reach the top. He managed to achieve that honor, his status as the oldest participant notwithstanding. The Israeli trainers raised Fogel on their shoulders when the challenge was completed.

Since his Israeli experience 14 years ago, Fogel has been trying to pay back the favor the IDF did for him by letting him participate and befriending him in the process. Earlier this month, he finally made it happen, when a new Facebook group went online, which he hopes will become a conduit between Israelis and Jews and non-Jews from across the world.

It’s called Chaverim Connect. Chaverim, in Hebrew, means friends, which is what this idea is all about.
Fogel, an attorney, is a man of many pursuits, among which are a collection of baseball memorabilia rare enough that museums have made exhibits out of parts of it.

Although he did not serve in the US Armed Forces, he has pursued military history as an avocation. He is author of two books based on the life of Major General Maurice Rose, the Jewish WW II hero from Denver, and played a major role in erecting a statue in Rose’s honor in Denver earlier this year.

His interest in the IDF is reflective of the same interest, Fogel says. His connection to Israelis serving in the IDF has become an important part of his personal life, based on friendships and relationships he developed through his boot camp experience.

“The first thing that I learned in Israel is that these young Israeli soldiers didn’t realize that a lot of Americans, people of all faiths, care about them and their welfare.

“Another thing I learned is how important it is that we do more than go on Birthright trips or take tours of the country. Those are important things, but I wanted a way to create long-term relationships — personal, social, business and professional.”

Fogel’s aspiration was to build personal and professional bridges between Israelis and Americans and others, among Jews and non-Jews, that would stand the test of time and become mutually beneficial.

“Whether you fall in love with an Israeli, or want to know more about water in the Negev, or want to talk about your favorite sports team, anything you want to talk about, I wanted something that creates positive long-term friendships in which people around the world who care about Israel can find a way to learn more about the people who live there.”

He hopes that the newly-launched Chaverim Connect will serve that very function.

The Facebook group has been years in the making and is now operating under the auspices of the IDF and the US-based Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF). The group is being managed by Orna Pesach, who also oversees the IDF’s post-military education and Lone Soldier programs.

In recently launching Chaverim Connect, Pesach described it as a way “to connect like-minded young Zionists from Israel and the US. Despite the distance of thousands of kilometers from each other, there is so much to consult, share ideas and information, ask questions, create personal or business connections, promote and nurture friendships and relationships or businesses and careers, such as: connection with Israel/USA based startups, recommendations for trips/places worth visiting, short/long term apartment search, partners.”

She also gave a shout-out to Fogel for inspiring the project along with co-founder, Jeffrey Markowitz of Lexington, Ky., who shared boot camp with Fogel in 2009 and who founded the boot camp program seven years earlier.

“They’ve been 100% involved in getting this going,” Fogel says of the IDF and FIDF.

The military character of the group, he stresses, is a direct result of Fogel and Markowitz’ connections with individuals in the IDF, but this is only a “starting point” for the effort. The vast majority of Israelis are either veterans of the military or still serving on active duty, which makes the IDF connection a natural one, but Chaverim Connect also aims to appeal to individuals with little or no connections to the military.

There will also be no national limitations. Initial members are about evenly split between Israelis and non-Israelis, mostly Americans for now, but French and Russian members have already signed as well.

There will, however, be limitations on membership if anti-Israel or anti-Zionist sentiments are involved.

Chaverim is currently a “closed” group, meaning that applicants for participation must be vetted and accepted to join. Fogel says this is to ensure as much as possible “that your motives for joining are positive ones.”

In less than a month, Chaverim Connect has already signed up nearly 800 members and Fogel believes the prospect is for dramatic growth.

“We feel that in the long-run it’s going to be hundreds of thousands of people,” he says. “You know, you light a match and you basically start a fire.”

What have people been talking about on Chaverim Connect so far? 
“There are a lot of people who are interested in the archaeology aspect of Israel,” Fogel says, “and all the new discoveries of the biblical period. A lot of people are interested in baseball and soccer and business relationships and how to make a company successful.”

Some of the conversations have been quite quotidian, such as advice on restaurants in Tel Aviv or hotels in Jerusalem.

He pauses. “It’s really been kind of wide open.”

One area the operators and moderators of the group would prefer be kept lowkey is the political realm which, in Israel, the US and elsewhere these days, can quickly become acerbic, not to mention antithetical to the group’s goals.

One of those, he adds, is to serve as a countermeasure to the anti-Israel commentary and misinformation so prevalent currently on many social media platforms, although “Zionism” is not a be-all end-all concept at Chaverim.

“We decided that the word Zionist is a kind of a red flag because everybody interprets the meaning of Zionism to be different,” Fogel says. “There are people that are committed to the strict definition of Zionism; there are people that are connected to a liberal definition of Zionism; there are people that support Israel but aren’t necessarily looking to the Zionist cause.

“We welcome all of those, since they all have one thing in common, and that is a willingness to combat, in a sense, anti-Israeli sentiment.”

Although the platform will not tolerate openly hostile anti-Israel commentary, it won’t seek to exclude individuals who are questioning Israel or Zionism, or even those who might be critical of Israel’s policies.

“One way we can try to do that is to create relationships with people who might have negative thinking about Israel,” Fogel says. “By having these connections, those people might rethink the importance of the relationship between Israel and the free world.”

While such dialogue responsive to negative issues can be helpful to Israel, Fogel hopes that the bulk of conversation on Chaverim will focus on Israel’s positive attributes — its accomplishments in medicine and high tech, successful business startups and innovative approaches to social issues.

“Israel,” he says, “has a lot to offer.”

“In summary, Chaverim Connect brings the world to Israel. It helps minimize anti-Semitism. It helps Jewish people have a deeper appreciation of Israel. It brings American commitment to Israel. It really is an endless opportunity for people to appreciate Israel and the people who live there, and for those who live there to have a better appreciation of our concern for them as well.”

Visit Chaverim Connect on Facebook.

Chris Leppek may be reached at [email protected].

Copyright © 2023 by the Intermountain Jewish News

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