On Thursday, November 9, Rabbi Ari Zahtz, associate rabbi of Teaneck’s Congregation Bnai Yeshurun, was on his way to a barbecue that his 600-family-member shul was sponsoring for soldiers stationed near Ma’aleh Levona in the West Bank.
He was driving there with Rav Yosef Zvi Rimon, who is chief rabbi of the Gush Etzion Regional Council, a master educator and internationally recognized expert in Jewish law and leader of many initiatives benefiting Israelis in difficult times like these.
“As we were driving, Rav Rimon got a call and he put it on speaker,” Rabbi Zahtz related.
The caller was a religious officer with an IDF unit fighting in Gaza. He told Rav Rimon that the men were getting a 24-hour break starting Friday at noon. They would be taken to an army center in Ashkelon where they could shower, wash their clothes, and receive family visitors before heading back to the front on Shabbat. Troop movement is permitted on Shabbat because of its lifesaving urgency.
His question for the rabbi was how their Sabbath-observant wives and children could have some precious time with them. On a short Friday, they would not be able to go to Ashkelon and make it back home before candle-lighting time.
He asked Rav Rimon: May they drive on Shabbat in this situation? Rav Rimon said that, unfortunately, this did not constitute a life-threatening circumstance that would override the prohibition of driving on Shabbat.
The caller persisted. The soldiers, he said, hadn’t seen their loved ones for four weeks, and didn’t know when — or, God forbid, if — they’d see them again. If they could not work out the problem somehow, the soldiers would be frustrated and depressed, as would their families. And everyone knows that troop morale is a serious factor in their confidence and safety behind enemy lines.
Rav Rimon then suggested finding a hotel where the army could put up the 40 families on Friday night, and to find out how much it would cost.
Although Ashkelon’s hotels are closed because the city is close to Gaza, and thus to Gazan rocket attacks, the officer found a guest house whose owner was willing to open it for the soldiers’ families the next night. However, the tab for their room and board was going to be prohibitively expensive, more than these young families could afford.
When Rabbi Zahtz heard this, he jumped into the overheard conversation. “Me and my big mouth blurted out, ‘No problem, we’ll take care of it!’” he said.
“I had a WhatsApp group from Bnai Yeshurun that I’d put together for the trip, and I had already twice earlier in the day sent the group appeals for donations, including for the barbecue. So I was a little nervous about approaching them a third time, but I felt we had to do this.
“Within about 30 minutes, we had pledges to cover the cost,” which was estimated at about $20,000. “A few people who pledged said, ‘If you need more, ask us.’”
With the financial side of the equation taken care of, Rav Rimon then coordinated volunteers from his own community to bring everything needed for Shabbat – food, toys, toiletries – for the 180 women and children staying in the hotel.
“It’s amazing to see how much strength it gave the soldiers, women and children,” Rav Rimon told Israel National News. “I was happy to see the mobilization of the people of Israel in Israel and in New Jersey, and the heroes, the wives of the fighters, and the unity with which we will win.”
Rabbi Zahtz was in Israel for only two and a half days, yet he accomplished more during that time than he’d imagined possible.
His overall purpose was to act an emissary from his community to deliver the message to Israelis that “we are with them, even if we are physically distant.”
One of his other priorities was to visit some of the approximately 50 gap-year students from Bnai Yeshurun families. “I did not get to all of them, but I met with about 20 of them and took pictures for their moms,” he said.
He also wanted to spend some time with his daughter, Adina, a second-year seminary student in Jerusalem.
“As I was putting my schedule together, I heard from other rabbis that Rav Rimon is a particularly inspiring person in the way that he interacts with soldiers and bereaved families,” Rabbi Zahtz said.
“He’s spoken in our shul before and I’ve introduced him, but I’ve never spent one-on-one time with him. I got in touch with his assistant to see if I could go around with him.”
At first it didn’t seem that this would work out, so on that Thursday morning Rabbi Zahtz headed south with a group of Israelis to Kfar Aza, the scene of one of the October 7 massacres. Then they visited an army staging area where they distributed food to soldiers and prayed with them.
“They were so upbeat and inspiring,” Rabbi Zahtz said. “They were so shocked that a rabbi from New Jersey would bother coming all the way there just to give them a hug. I said, ‘It’s a small thing. You guys are doing the hard work.’ And they said, ‘No, you came all the way from New Jersey!’ It was really unbelievable.”
Unexpectedly, Rav Rimon’s assistant called Rabbi Zahtz about an opportunity to sponsor and attend a barbecue that Rav Rimon was organizing for soldiers that night.
“At 7 that evening, they picked me up with my daughter. It was great to have her along because most of the time it’s men who are making visits to army bases, but 10 percent of the troops there were female soldiers and she got to hug them and talk to them. It was good for her and for them.”
After the barbecue, they visited a family in Shilo sitting shiva for a fallen soldier.
The next day, Rabbi Zahtz took part in running a children’s entertainment program at Cramim Hotel outside Jerusalem for 300 children evacuated from the village of Shlomit in the south, who had recently moved there from their first temporary shelter in Gush Etzion.
“That was also sponsored by Bnai Yeshurun donors,” he said. “It’s been hard keeping the kids happy and occupied, so we hired a balloon artist and gave out sweets. It was very special.”
His itinerary included a visit with his daughter to soldiers in the rehabilitation unit at Sheba Medical Center. “We’d heard about a soldier in treatment there who’d had his phone destroyed on October 7, and one of our congregants gave me an iPhone to bring him at the hospital,” Rabbi Zahtz said. “He was very appreciative.”
Finally, Rabbi Zahtz brought Shabbat meals to 200 soldiers on an army base south of Tel Aviv. “Someone in our shul is related to a brigadier general there who told us they hadn’t had proper Shabbos meals since the war started, so we sponsored that for them,” he said.
His trip concluded with Shabbat at his brother’s home in Kerem B’Yavneh before heading home.
How did he manage to pack in all those activities in such a short trip? “There was not a lot of sleep involved,” he admitted with a laugh.