Spiritual armor for the IDF

Spiritual armor for the IDF

Troops clamor for tzitzis supplied by creative volunteers

Yeshiva students tie the tzitzit strings.
Yeshiva students tie the tzitzit strings.

Elanah is from Rockaway Township in Morris County, the daughter of Pam and Rich Chassen. Her husband, Yaakov, comes from California. Over the last seven years, they have been raising their family in an Orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem.

Orthodox boys and men wear a tallit katan under their shirt — it’s a four-cornered ritual garment with knotted strings hanging from holes on each corner.

This garment, which women are exempt from wearing, usually is referred to by the Hebrew word for the strings: tzitzit, or in European Ashkenazi pronunciation, tzitzis.

The Torah, in Numbers 15:37-41, says that this mandated garment is a visual aid to be “reminded to observe all My commandments and to be holy to
your God.”

Outside of religious communities, you won’t often see these strings peeking out from the bottom of a shirt. Many secular Israelis don’t even know what they are.

At least until now. Until the war that has galvanized Israelis like nothing before.

Something is changing in a big and perhaps cosmic way, and here is where Elanah and Yaakov, who prefer not to publicize their last name, are playing an unexpected role.

On October 8, the day after the brutal Simchat Torah terror attacks in the Gaza border communities, a resident of their neighborhood whom we’ll call Rivki — she also prefers to remain anonymous — gathered 40 women to cook homemade meals for IDF soldiers.

With the sudden and massive callup of hundreds of thousands of reserve troops, the supply line of food was stretched thin. Israelis of all backgrounds rushed to show their love and support through meal preparation.

The commander of one of the IDF units to which Rivki’s crew delivered food requested something additional and inedible: 30 pairs of tzitzit. And because of army regulations, the garments had to be green instead of the usual white and made of moisture-wicking material instead of the usual cotton.

“Rivki made some phone calls and couldn’t find them anywhere,” Yaakov said.

Undaunted, Rivki got the name of the tzitzit supplier to the army’s Orthodox battalion. With $2,000 donated by a man from Beit Shemesh, she bought 300. That left her with 270 to distribute. On October 10, she posted a message on WhatsApp seeking takers.

Volunteers preparing tzitzit for soldiers are adding biblical verses and drawings to the garments.

“She was inundated with phone calls from across Israel,” Yaakov said. “She got three seminary girls to help her, one on her computer and two on her cell phones answering WhatsApp requests. She created a Google form to process the requests.”

What’s behind the sudden demand?

“We have so many anecdotes of soldiers wanting them,” he said. “Some believe they have protective powers as spiritual armor. But besides that, soldiers are getting courage from wearing tzitzis, a certain confidence as they go into battle.

“It has a psychological and emotional impact on them.”

Because there were no more ready-made military-style tzitzit to be found in Israel, Rivki located a supplier of green, moisture-wicking T-shirts — as well as blue ones, which can be worn by navy and air force personnel — and ordered 2,000. She soon realized this would not meet demand and ordered 20,000.

She’d need lots of helpers to alter the shirts. The side seams would have to be cut open, and reinforced holes made in each corner to anchor the strings. This task alone required recruiting students from about 75 yeshiva high schools, women’s seminaries, and men’s yeshivot across Israel.

Rivki’s tzitzit-making volunteer operation is one of three main popup operations that are fulfilling soldiers’ requests, Yaakov said. There are smaller ones, too. “Each of the three groups has finished close to 20,000. The numbers are a little staggering.”

Yaakov’s involvement began when he called Rivki in the first few days asking how he might help her with the tzitzit project.

“She needed some drivers, and I coordinated the first few deliveries,” he said. “I thought it was a one-time project. But then she told me she’d ordered another 12,500 green shirts and another 8,000 blue shirts.”

He jumped into the project with both feet, helping Rivki scrape together 400,000 shekels from various sources to cover the cost of the shirts.

During the first week of the war, he said, when it was assumed the IDF would enter Gaza quickly, there was tremendous pressure to get the fringed religious garments to soldiers as soon as possible.

“We got requests from commanders who told us that every soldier wants two things: a ceramic plate for his bulletproof vest, and tzitzit. All of us working on this project are religious, but we weren’t producing them to hand out and say, ‘You should wear this.’ We are all businesspeople who have day jobs. We did this to answer a demand.”

These bags, full of finished tzitzit, are ready to go to army bases.

The team set up a makeshift warehouse in an underground parking garage.

“We contacted 15 local seminaries and sent them the shirts to do the cutting and the holing with a special tool; it must be done in a very particular way, and these seminary girls had a lot to learn,” Yakov said. “There’s a certain precision to it.

“Then we had to prepare the strings, which come in packets of 500 or 180. Each garment has 16 strings, four on each corner. We had people separate the strings into four, make a slipknot on those four, then put together four batches of four strings and put them into baggies to send with the shirt. We shipped them to yeshivas, community centers, and shuls where people did the tying.”

Even now that the initial rush is over, with 16,500 pairs of tzitzit distributed to soldiers in less than two weeks, “we are still getting hundreds of requests daily,” not only from IDF commanders but also from families of soldiers.

Elanah recruited other women to help in the warehouse.

“It’s something people can do on their own time, and in a way it’s even therapeutic,” she said. Among the volunteers who responded are senior citizens, young moms, and a newlywed whose husband was called up to the reserves.

“One day, a family came to our warehouse from Kibbutz Be’eri,” she said. Kibbutz Be’eri was the hardest hit of the attacked communities, suffering the loss of about 10 percent of its population of 1,100.

“A chasidic donor had sent a shipment of army duffle bags to our warehouse, and this family had come to get duffle bags for their two soldier sons,” she continued. “But then they came over to our area to see what we were doing. They’d never heard of tzitzis before.

“We offered them some for their sons and they said, ‘No, we don’t need that. We don’t even know what it is.’ One of our team members said, “Call your son and see if he wants it.’ After some persuasion they finally did, and the son said, ‘Of course I want them!’

“It’s almost like a whole movement within the army.”

Another story: Elanah went with a friend to deliver tzitzit to a soldier who was home for 24 hours’ leave in Petach Tikvah, having just narrowly escaped death the day before. He had requested about two dozen of the garments for himself and his unit.

“I drive to Petach Tikvah with my downstairs neighbor, and he walks out to meet us in sandals and shorts, and we’re chatting — two religious married women and this secular guy,” she said.

“I ask him, ‘Why do you care to have this?’ He says, ‘We feel it makes a difference. We feel we’re going to be okay if we are wearing this.’

“He told us that he hadn’t touched his tefillin in years and now he’s putting them on every day, and other guys on his base are lining up to put them on, too. He said, ‘We’re going into Gaza, and we need them before we go.’ There are tons of stories like that.”

For Elanah, this personal connection represents, as the Israeli expression goes, the closing of a circle.

“When I was in high school, my family used to host a lot of Israeli teens who were in the States for a year of national service, and that was my first real connection to Israel,” she said.

“My first time in Israel was on a one-month program with Israelis, run through the IDF. I didn’t know I’d live here; it wasn’t my dream. But my first real connection was through the people. I felt a deep-rooted love. I felt part of something.”

“It has been incredible to see ‘klal Yisrael’ — all the people of Israel — come together,” Yakov added.

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