Gershon’s ‘war’

Gershon’s ‘war’

FIDF head lives in Tenafly, fights for hearts and minds of Jews here

Battlefields come in many disguises.

There are the obvious bloody fields and beaches and moors – Gettysburg, Waterloo, Normandy, Culloden; there are the Valley of Siddim and Jericho, and the Valley of Elah and later Ammunition Hill, and the Mitla Pass and Latrun, and Jenin and Sderot, and in a way there always is Jerusalem. These are places where death has stalked.

There are other places that do not seem to be battlefields; urban and bustling and full of shoppers and tourists and life; suburban, leafy, verdant.

Those are the places where the battles are for hearts and minds (and of course for wallets). That’s where some very important skirmishes take place.

Yitzhak Gershon is on a “mission” for the IDF.

Maj. Gen. (Res.) Yitzhak (Jerry) Gershon of the Israel Defense Forces might be retired from active duty, but he is on duty full time as the leader of the Friends of the IDF, the organization formed to support Israeli troops, particularly overseas.

Although Gershon is an Israeli to his core, he has spent the last five years living in Tenafly.

Gershon was born in 1958, in Pardes Chanah, a town between Ashkelon and Ashdod, to parents who made aliyah from Iraq. He was a career army officer; he served from 1976 to 2008. He was a top combat commander. “I was responsible for the IDF forces in Judea and Samaria 10 months after the second intifada began,” he said. “I led the most important operations during Operation Defensive Shield in Ramallah and Shechem and Nablus; I ended my service as the home front commander.”

Soon after he retired, Gershon was approached by the FIDF, which is an independent American nonprofit organization with no formal ties to the IDF. “My first answer was no,” he said.

“I don’t think that I’m the right guy to schnorr money. I don’t think I can do this, and I don’t think I know how to do it.”

He was convinced at the end of a talk he gave in Connecticut. “I gave a speech, and at the end of it an 80-year-old Holocaust survivor wanted to talk to me. I was in uniform. He hugged me, and he said, ‘You don’t know what it means to me to meet an Israeli general.’

“‘I was a kid in the middle of the street in Poland, asking God where our help would come from,’ Gershon continued the elderly survivor’s story. “‘Thank God we have today the IDF and the State of Israel.’

“It was at that moment that I realized that there is a vision behind the mission. That is to make Israel stronger by bringing every supporter – Jews and non-Jews – to stand behind the State of Israel, and to support the soldiers.”

Still, it was a hard decision, he said. Gershon has four children; the oldest, from his first marriage, remained in Israel, but his son and two daughters live here with him and his wife. The oldest is 12 ½. Gershon plans to end his work for the FIDF at the end of this year, and go back to Israel at the end of the next school year, in June 2014.

“My children came here five years ago,” he said. “They speak English with no accent, unlike me. But it’s very important that we go back to Israel once I end my position here.

“Israel is my home. I have my family, my friends, my colleagues there. Personally, I think it’s important for Jews to continue to build the country and to develop the State of Israel.”

He has learned a great deal during his stay here, he said. “I knew this before, but not like I know it today – I have experienced firsthand how important the State of Israel is to every Jew worldwide, and particularly here in the United States. It’s heartwarming. You realize what could have happened if we had Israel before World War II.

“I meet thousands and thousands of people nationwide and in Canada, and again and again I can see the appreciation and respect for the soldiers, who are standing there on the front line not just for Israel but for every Jew – and I would add for the free world, as well.”

He acknowledges that the relationship nonetheless needs constant maintenance. “Relationships are something you always have to work on,” he said. “We can’t take it for granted. The FIDF is one bridge between Jews and the State of Israel. There are other bridges, as well.

“It is important for us to hear the Jews here, but in the end of the day, those who are living there need to make the decisions. The elected government needs to make the decisions about what’s good and what’s bad for Israel.”

Balancing all these needs takes a high-level plate-spinner. Gershon constantly adjusts as he shifts from one imperative to another.

“It’s not an easy neighborhood to live in, in the Middle East, but relationships with the Jewish community here are more than important,” he said. “They have a strategic importance. In order to survive as a young developed state, it is very important to us to continue to build these relationships, and to work on them on a daily basis.”

He had a message to the Jewish community. “What I have tried to do here is not about me,” he said. “It’s about the Jewish people.

“The FIDF isn’t just an organization. It’s an idea about how to make the world a better world, and how to make Israel stronger. And it’s not all about money. The money is a byproduct. It makes an impact, but what is really important is the connection.

“In the beginning of my service here, I said to one of the donors, ‘Thank you,’ and he said, ‘No, don’t thank me. Thank the soldiers.’

“I was in shock, but then I realized that it’s really not a donation. It’s an investment in the future. And it’s not just the future of the Jewish people, but of every citizen of the free world.”

He concluded with the FIDF’s motto: “The soldiers take care of Israel, and we, the Jewish people, take care of them.”

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