Israel is experiencing an unprecedented, overwhelming force of unity. What does it look like? For starters, this is not a unity of words and platitudes. This time, there is a unity of action.
Stories of unity abound.
American gap-year programs have spearheaded many different efforts. From firsthand experience at Midreshet Tehillah alone, I can attest to tzitzit-tying, knitting blankets, running a carnival for southern refugees and sending cards and cookies to soldiers.
All this is done with the limitation of operating under lockdown.
Among the various shiva houses I visited, some were religious-Zionist, some were secular. All were filled with secular, religious and haredi visitors coming to share in the families’ pain.
People are speaking each others’ language.
Wonderful bridges suddenly exist between the secular and haredi communities. Last week, my wife, an English teacher in a secular high school, assigned her students to write about one positive story they had seen or heard in the media. There was zero religious angle to the assignment. Yet multiple students wrote about videos demonstrating the investment of haredi Jews in IDF soldiers’ well being, the most memorable being Belz chasidim showcasing a receipt about 20 feet long (!) — all items bought for IDF soldiers.
In the reverse direction, secular students and staff spoke about shutting their phones down on Shabbat for the first time, not because someone asked or guilted them into doing so, but of their own accord.
Upon delivering tzitzit to soldiers, my wife was greeted with a miracle story firsthand from a secular soldier. The previous night in Gaza his vehicle ran over an IED, but a pocket-sized Psalms he had recently put in his breast pocket stopped the metal shrapnel from entering his chest. That soldier also decided to put on tefilin every day and his girlfriend kept Shabbat the previous week for the first time.
Secular, religious, haredi come together
An overwhelming theme that has become clear is that even while haredim generally do not enlist in the IDF, and historically some in the haredi community have exhibited a sense of antipathy or even antagonism toward the IDF, today much of the haredi community is filled with concern for the soldiers and are translating that into action.
The Grand Rabbi of Belz, one of the largest chasidic groups today, instructed his followers to recite the standard prayer for the IDF on Shabbat morning. Some other haredi shuls instituted an alternative prayer for the IDF composed by Rabbi Yaakov Hillel. The Grand Rabbi of Boyan oversaw a project that sent care packages to soldiers and their wives, accompanied by a note he wrote.
One of the largest projects consuming the religious world in Israel is the tzitzit-tying project.
Tzitzit are the ritual tassels worn by Jewish men. Since IDF regulations require them to be olive green or navy blue, regular pairs stocked by Judaica stores are of no use. Jewish law requires them to be hand-tied with intention to fulfill the commandment, making it a time-intensive, laborious process.
For all these reasons the IDF only gives tzitzit to soldiers who request them. In the current war, over 150,000 reservists have requested tzitzit!
A significant percentage of those requests are from otherwise religiously nonobservant soldiers. Who is tying all these tzitzit? In my synagogue, we’ve had religious-Zionist and haredi Jews tying side by side the past two weeks — and so it is throughout Jerusalem.
Zaka saw the evil in its raw form
Many Israeli members of Knesset and members of the press couldn’t stomach watching even the edited film of the Oct. 7 massacre, walking out in the middle with tears and nausea.
Yet, Zaka members — essentially all haredi — saw it all, in its raw, unedited, monstrous form.
They willingly sacrificed their emotional stability to ensure that all body parts were collected, that victims could be identified, and that families could have the comfort of their loved one receiving a Jewish burial.
The trauma was so severe that — even among a community which anecdotally carries a stigma of men going to therapy — each member is being encouraged to go to at least 10 therapy sessions, fully subsidized by a donor.
In my neighborhood, a haredi woman singlehandedly undertook to be the communal coordinator for all outpourings of goodwill from local residents.
“Shani Milgram” became a popular refrain in all the local Whatsapp/email groups.
A trustworthy address who established personal contact with every place from which she collected or clarified what was needed, or not needed.
Cooking food for families sitting shiva? Bring it to Shani Milgram.
Collecting supplies for soldiers? Have handwritten cards for soldiers? Household appliances or clothes for displaced families? Shani Milgram.
We are not talking about token gestures of empathy here, but about vast amounts of materials sorely needed by their recipients. No matter that most of her efforts were to benefit people outside of her haredi community.
Thinking I would interview her about these neighborhood efforts, I learned that what I knew is not even half of what she does.
She has stepped up to be a primary coordinator of the operations of the Dead Sea Royal Hotel housing refugees from Sderot.
What gave her the confidence and know how for this? G-d set the stage 20 years earlier; she grew up helping her parents operate their family-owned hotel in Switzerland.
It’s not just the logistics, though.
Most people know about the drives to bring food/toiletries/hygiene products to these poor souls in the immediate aftermath of the Oct. 7 massacre. It turns out that was the easy part. Many of the Sderot refugees in the Dead Sea hotel are elderly, with their kids or grandkids in the army. While hotels are nice for vacations, they’re ill-equipped for elderly refugees.
Forced to abandon their homes under fire while terrorists were still on the loose, they came with extensive trauma and without items as critical as daily medications.
So many supplies needed!
Shani Milgram saw it would be impossible without the generosity of donors from abroad. True enough, but — she is running a medical clinic, mental health clinic, homeless shelter, alternative medicine and therapies center and nursing home, all in one.
It’s not just the managing operations, though.
Milgram is a disabilities nurse. Together with her husband — also a nurse and an EMT — they became an integral part of directly managing the medical care needed for these 1,300 refugees.
Oh, and shared almost as an afterthought, it turns out they’re also hosting a family from the south in their own home.
Why put her life on hold for a month-plus to help strangers who are totally removed from her communal orbit? “We’re all one,” Milgram says.
Unity not in a foxhole
A wall still exists between the haredi and non-haredi communities, highlighted by non-haredi families having to worry whether their loved ones will come back OK from the war. But that wall, too, is disintegrating. Reports state that over 2,000 haredi young men have enlisted in the IDF since the war began. Meaning, 2,000 new families for whom the IDF is not an abstract ideological opposition — or in more extreme cases, but the face of a son, brother or nephew.
All of this is to say nothing of the unity taking hold in the Diaspora, as Jews of all stripes become targets of pro-Hamas demonstrators who don’t give a hoot about our various religious orientations or political affiliations.
Beyond the immediate challenge of supporting the war effort, it is not too early to think about our next challenge: maintaining greater unity than what existed on Oct. 6.
Barring Messiah’s arrival, we certainly won’t remain as united as we are today. Sharp disagreements will still exist. But so can greater unity.
To quote former Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, “Before fighting anti-Semitism and our enemies, first of all, our duty is to create unity between all groups of the Jewish people. I humbly suggest, it remains our duty to hold on to that unity even after our enemies are defeated.”
And maybe we’re already there.
Last week, G-d blessed us with the rescue of a kidnapped soldier, Ori Megidish.
From one side, it turns out Ori’s mother stepped out of her comfort zone the previous Friday, inviting a religious woman to her home last week to separate challah.
From the other side, in a heartwarming video, Vizhnitz chasidim in her town took to the streets along with other residents, dancing and singing in celebration of her release.
Keep in mind that haredi ideology states that females serving in the IDF is wrong, to be avoided at any price. Yet, this beautiful scene.
Beneath the disagreements, we are family, identifying with the plight and sheer joy of a sister! This is not unity in a foxhole, but in the afterglow of success!
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