SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — Awareness and understanding were the focal points of the day as the StandWithUs Israeli Soldiers’ Stories tour, which highlights the challenges faced by and misconceptions about the Israeli Defense Force, was brought to the South Orange community in a program hosted April 10 by Oheb Shalom Congregation.
The Israeli Soldiers’ Stories tour is one of the initiatives of StandWithUs, an international pro-Israel nonprofit advocacy group that works to educate the public on inaccuracies about Israel and to combat terrorism and anti-Semitism.
The Israeli Soldiers’ Stories tour is a program featuring reserve-duty Israeli college students who talk about the Israeli-Arab conflict, giving a human face to the IDF uniform. In addition to IDF service, they are graduates of the StandWithUs Israel Fellowship, a public diplomacy program that each year selects and trains 150 student leaders from six Israeli universities. The soldiers speak in a number of cities across North America, in venues such as university campuses, schools, synagogues and churches.
The tour came to South Orange due to the efforts of Kim Robins, a local high school student who is passionate about spreading the message that knowledge is powerful, not only the Jewish community, but for everyone.
Robins, a junior at Golda Och Academy in West Orange, is a high school intern with the organization, and as such has been tasked with the responsibility of bringing meaningful programming to her community that promotes awareness and education about Israel.
“I organized this Israeli Soldiers Stories tour because I wanted to bring a more personalized face to the Israeli army. It’s hard to know what’s going on in the mind of a soldier and this program gives civilians a glimpse into the things that they face on a daily basis,” she said in a recent phone interview with the News-Record. “I know that Oheb Shalom is very pro-Israel, but I also know that a lot of people aren’t always aware of what the soldiers face and how they overcome those challenges. I hope that people will learn in a very meaningful way and have an opportunity to get some answers and take what they learn and share it with others.”
The event featured a husband and wife, Itai and Ilana, who both served in the Israeli Defense Force and spoke candidly about their time in the military. Their last names are being withheld for security reasons.
“I entered when I was drafted at 18, and I came from a tough neighborhood in Jerusalem that faced many challenges,” Itai told the audience. “It made me want to train harder, because I saw it as more than community service. I saw it as an opportunity to protect and serve my country.
“Warfare in Israel is different than a country like the United States, where the conflict sometimes can take place thousands of miles from home,” he continued. “In Israel, the front line can be close to home, and there were times during my service that I would be near the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, only two hours from where I grew up.”
Itai spoke not only of the realities of warfare in Israel, but also of the high standards that the Israeli military sets for its soldiers, which is not always highlighted in news coverage about Middle Eastern conflict.
“The spirit of Israeli Defense Force is the moral code guideline used by the army, and in following that, we are supposed to use the minimum force possible to achieve our goals,” he said. “Terrorism will always exist unless there is cooperation and dialog.”
Echoing her husband’s sentiments about the more holistic aspects of the Israeli Defense Force, Ilana educated the audience about other facets of the IDF.
“Three-fourths of the Israeli army is not combat; there’s education, logistics, communications, medical, culinary, everything that you can think of,” she said to the audience. “The Israeli army is like a mirror into Israeli society. There are Jewish people, Bedouins, Jewish Ethiopians, Christians. When I was in the military, I realized just how significant 15 seconds is when there is a bomb threat. Young, old, it doesn’t matter who you are, every second counts when retreating to safety.”
The program also allowed an opportunity for attendees to ask some questions. The soldiers were asked what thoughtful but accurate ways could describe what the IDF is and why it exists.
“Explain the context of Middle Eastern conflict and the fact that this military is necessary,” Ilana said. “We’re more than just a compulsory military; we provide education and community service. The IDF is not perfect, but we are working to be perfect.”
Rabbi Mark Cooper of Oheb Shalom Congregation was also hopeful that those in attendance walked away with a better understanding of the IDF.
“I think that it’s always good to learn about the people who comprise the IDF and I think it’s good for us to meet the people who fight for the state of Israel, to put a personal human face on the army that defends the state of Israel,” he said in a recent phone interview with the News-Record. “I think, to meet a soldier is to learn about IDF and understand that Israel’s fighting force is defensive in nature and its job is to protect its residents and, frankly, Jews around the world.
“I’m glad that Kim organized it and gave our congregants the opportunity to learn more about the IDF,” Cooper continued. “Being a Zionist and caring about the state of Israel is not a guarantee that someone will understand what the IDF is all about. Just belonging to a synagogue or caring about Israel is not always enough, and being able to hear their stories firsthand is a worthwhile experience.”