Kippas are an all too common sight in my unit. The presence of so many religious soldiers even led a former commander of my unit to prepare the first report on what is in fact a phenomenon throughout the Israeli army. According to the report, published this week in the military journal Ma'arachot, the percentage of religious Israeli combat officers in the IDF has leaped from two to thirty percent over the last two decades. A similar story is evident in the dramatic increase in religious soldiers in most elite units. These trends reflect the ideological strength of religious Zionism in a post-modern society that has largely turned away from traditional Zionist values.
For all the attention such findings provoke (some pundits worry that the Israeli military is falling under the influence of the religious right), my own squad remains an antiquated bastion of proud secular Zionists. Perhaps this explains why we ended up spending a recent shabbat on a secular kibbutz.
The other religious guys (dosim, singular dose, is the common Israeli slang) and I were rightly concerned about what we would eat over shabbat. Our prayers were another matter. Recognizing that we lacked a minyan, the secular guys in the squad joined us for Friday night prayers. Together we sang the tunes of Kabbalat Shabbat facing the dark hillsides we would be navigating in subsequent nights. Never did the words of Psalm 92, "It is good to thank G, to sing praises...to share Your faith in the nights," seem so appropriate.
My commander inadvertently echoed another line from Psalm 92 ("a boor cannot know, nor a fool understand") in the words he shared with us following the prayers. Drawing on his past as a trainee in our unit, the boss recalled coming to terms with how little he knew of religious traditions. "As a secular Israeli, I was simply a boor. My own people's heritage a blank." By asking questions of the religious guys in his squad, my commander began to educate himself. Education brought appreciation, not conversion. Learn from each other, my commander concluded. Religious and secular. Native Sabras and immigrants from Ethiopia and America. We all have many questions to ask and answer.
I appreciate my commander's words. Yet the prayers we occasionally share only tap the surface of what it means to be religious in the IDF. For all the religious guys in my unit, the mainstream culture remains very secular. Religious observance is respected yet often must battle for time and attention amid military pressure. So while a few minutes can always be found every morning to don tefillin, the morning ritual comes at the expense of regular activities.
Loving God in green also means that observant soldiers have extra restraints during down-time. Shabbat in the IDF is uniformly the day off; training is absent and guys are given twenty-five hours to do as they wish. In my unit, where the frenetic work week includes bans on cellphone usage, Shabbat is the time to take a breather, to meet with family and friends during Saturday afternoon visiting hours and to call up a buddy on the phone. Visits and calls, of course, that dosim like myself cannot share.
Of course, Shabbat provides the faithful few with its own delight. We welcome the seventh day with prayers and songs that remind us of the sacred covenant that directs our lives. Shabbat, in short, provides us with a spiritual faith that our secular peers cannot fully appreciate. The challenge, as ever, is to ensure that faith grows ever stronger come what may.
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