You would think that if anything would give someone a sense of Jewish identity and of the roots, structure, and meaning of the entire Zionist adventure, it would be his or her time in the Israel Defense Forces.
But it doesn’t necessarily work that way, Rabbi Shalom Hammer said.
Rabbi Hammer works for both the IDF’s Jewish Identity service — part of the office of the IDF’s official rabbinate — and Makom Meshutaf, an organization that “advocates tolerance and unity between religious and secular Jews in Israel through educational programs,” as its website tell us.
Rabbi Hammer, who lectures through the United States and Israel, will be in Teaneck and Fort Lee this week. (See box.) His subjects, he said, are “the ideology of the IDF, Zionism and the direction it’s taking, and the Jewish identity crisis, which is a very big crisis in Israel as well as outside it.”
Rabbi Hammer grew up in Monsey; in 1990, when he was 24, he and his wife “made aliyah, and we haven’t looked back since,” he said. In Israel, he’s spent his life trying to reconcile the Zionist ideal with changing realities, helping young, often secular people understand their roots and cherish them.
He works with IDF members because it’s particularly important for them to understand why they’re in the army, what they’re defending, and why the need for that defense is so urgent.
“When you live in a world that’s based more and more on instant gratification — a what’s-in-it-for-me generation — then the old Zionist chalutz ideal, the pioneer ideal, of what’s in it for my people becomes more challenging,” Rabbi Hammer said.
“Ideology and idealism have to be reworked and reinstituted and re-minded to the people who are defending our country,” he said.
“It’s particularly important to bring that out for soldiers, for people who are sacrificing themselves in Israel, not only soldiers but settlers, other pioneers. This country is challenging, and it faces many obstructions, but we see them as a means of moving closer to the vision laid out for us by our ancestors a long time ago. We have the privilege and the opportunity of making it happen.”
Makom Meshutaf, the organization he founded and fronts, “stands for United Camp,” he said. It fills in the gaps that the IDF must leave, given the realities of its budget. He travels around Israel speaking to large groups of soldiers for the IDF. Attendance at those lectures is mandatory for soldiers. “The beauty of what Makom Meshutaf does is that we are stationed in regular IDF bases, so every week we each go to three or four bases,” Rabbi Hammer said. “We go to the same bases every week, and we are able to make direct connection with the soldiers who are there.” Those relationships are entirely voluntary.
Rabbi Hammer is Orthodox; many of the young people with whom he works are not. “I personally like to have the opportunity to speak predominantly to non-observant soldiers, because for me it feels like I’m doing more of a service,” he said. “They are not as familiar with Jewish sources or expectations, or with what Judaism has to say about fundamentals. When I tell them about them, in a respectful way, without religious coercion, that is very impactful.”
Many secular people know little about Zionism or about Judaism, he said. “There are many Israelis today who do not appreciate or understand the difference between Israel and everyplace else. But when you are talking about Israel, you are not talking about any other country, but about a Jewish country, founded on Jewish principles. We are a special people; we are expected to be a light to the world. In how we behave, we are supposed to be a light unto the nations.
“It is important for them to understand that. It instills pride, and it helps them deal with various challenges. When it comes to war, God forbid, it helps them understand.”
There is no religious coercion involved in his work, he stressed. “One of the things that I think is problematic in this country is that there is a lot of religious coercion from the secular Jewish perspective For example, in Israel people are required to get married with a rabbi, a chuppah, and kiddushim. Classically, people wouldn’t have a problem with it, but because it’s done in a wrong way — a coercive way — and because it is not explained to them — and because sometimes they have to pay money and they don’t know why or where it goes — it leaves a bad taste in their mouths.
“It’s not so much the practice as the preaching, or the lack of preaching. If things were explained in a proper fashion, it would paint a different picture. But to a secular Jew…” his voice trailed off.
“As the generations go on, there is less and less connection to tradition and to understanding the tradition,” Rabbi Hammer continued. “So why would they want to do any of this? When you tell them that they have to do this or that, you are infringing on their right of choice. But if you were to explain it to them in a proper way, in a traditional Jewish way, with kid gloves, then their attitude would be different. Then they would be open to hear and to discuss, instead of feeling threatened.”
The IDF is not allowed to coerce its members religiously, Rabbi Hammer said. “They can’t say you have to go to the beit knesset” — the synagogue — “for mincha” — afternoon prayers. “And if there are nine men for a minyan, you can’t tell a tenth that he has go to. That’s forbidden. While there are certain standards of Judaism that have to exist in the Jewish army, there also are big no-nos in terms of coercion that you cannot cross.
“When we lecture, we are very clearly warned not to involve ourselves in politics, or to say anything that can be translated as religious coercion. The press in Israel is predominantly left wing, as it is in America, and they are looking for any excuse to find something wrong in what we say. As religious people, we are expected to hold ourselves to a higher standard, to be extra careful with what we say and how we say it, so that it isn’t, God forbid, mistranslated or misunderstood.”
Makom Meshutaf is necessary because “of all the priorities in the rabbinate, the rabbinate is the lowest priority — and understandably so,” Rabbi Hammer said. “The highest is to protect the country’s security. We understand that.” So Makom Meshutaf fills in by, for example, providing shofar blowers on the High Holy Days, Shabbat meals that complement the IDF’s more utilitarian fare, extra food and haggadot for Pesach seders, and extra copies of the Book of Esther to read on Purim.
Makom Meshutaf is privately funded, he added, and everything it raises goes directly to the soldiers who want their offerings. It buys them tefillin and Jewish texts; it gives young women soldiers copies of Tehillim, the psalms they are encouraged to read and chant. “We have a program that takes army officers for two days of Bible studies before they go out in the field,” Rabbi Hammer said. “We will show them in the Tanach” — the Bible — “what they are looking at. We have a Purim party for 500 soldiers every Purim.
“If God forbid there is a war, we go around with freezers of cold sodas and toiletries.” In other words, Makom Meshutaf provides the unglamorous items that make life a bit more comfortable during times of extreme discomfort and active danger.
It also works with lone soldiers — “we have a home for lone soldiers that we support,” Rabbi Hammer said — but that’s not unusual. What is unusual is “we exclusively have a chaplaincy for IDF prisons. There are kids who go AWOL — both guys and girls, men and women — and they are doing it because they have families who don’t have money, and they’re doing it to support their families.
“They come from the lower socioeconomic classes, and they need help. We go into the prisons, we teach them, we bring in psychologists and therapists, who teach them that the army will help them reach success.
“They need motivation, and we motivate them. That’s a tremendous service we give them.”