(March 26, 2018 / JNS) Despite its many round-the-clock security missions, the Israel Defense Forces believes that bringing the holiday spirit to its personnel is an imperative.
As Passover comes up, those serving in combat and combat-support roles in the military, as well as a brigade rabbi, told JNS about how they celebrate while in service.
Sgt. Shir Zandberg, an Operations Sergeant in the Binyamin Brigade Ops and Observations Room, moved to Israel from Brussels, Belgium, six years ago and today resides in the settlement of Eli, in southern Samaria.
“I am protecting my own sector,” she said, in reference to the fact that the Binyamin Brigade defends her home community. “This has advantages and disadvantages. The advantage is that I know the area well; I live here. But suddenly, I am also aware of what is going on, which raises concerns,” Zandberg said, describing the process of becoming intimately familiar with the ongoing security alerts and incidents.
On routine days, Zandberg works the phones and computers, acting as a bridge between those reporting incidents on the ground and the military forces that respond to them. “I put together the full picture from all of the data, whether it comes from civilians or the military,” she said. “I collect all of the details about an incident and pass it on.”
Zandberg’s routine of 12-hour shifts will be briefly interrupted this Passover, when she will spend a week at home and celebrate the Seder meal with her family. She is scheduled to be back at base during Chol Hamoed, the intermediate holiday days.
The security-threat level changes from one holiday to the next, according to Zandberg. “Before every holiday, we prepare for what will happen, in line with the latest security evaluations,” she said.
Last year, she attended the Passover Seder (there is only one in Israel, held on the first night) at the base—the first time she did not celebrate Passover at home. “The brigade rabbi really tried to bring the spirit of the holiday to the base so that everyone would feel it,” she said. “Also, the base, which is located in a community, lets civilians in, and they bring matzos for soldiers. That really connects us to the holiday.”
Dozens of soldiers and officers who remained on base sat at tables as the rabbi read from the Hagadah.
It is an experience that Maj. Assaf Diler, Deputy Commander of the Ram Battalion, which operates under the Binyamin Brigade’s command, said feels like an expanded family celebration.
Diler, a father of three, is the deputy commander of a battalion that conducts daily security missions in the territories.
His unit is also a part of the Homefront Command’s Search and Rescue Brigade, meaning that its soldiers are trained in extracting the injured from rubble, and in how to deal with unconventional-weapons attacks. Diler provides a supporting environment to his commander and ensures that all orders are implemented.
“Our soldiers can be doing routine activity in Israel or Judea and Samaria one minute, and in the next minute, change their green vest and helmet for yellow ones, and go on rescue missions anywhere in Israel,” he explained.
‘Everyone is getting into the spirit’
Diler noted that “we are now in the final approach before the Passover holiday. Some soldiers are excited because they are going home, and some are a little more excited because they will be celebrating on base.”
“Our battalion motto is ‘fighting family,’ and it’s not just a slogan. A soldier who comes to protect the state and its citizens has to get in touch a little with the spirit. This effect—of feeling like a family—is part of that. The soldier will do everything for family. It really helps,” he continued. “When a soldier sits with friends and commanders, at a meal that we spent two weeks preparing, the goal is to create a family atmosphere.”
The soldiers will have the added satisfaction of knowing that they enabled many civilians to hold their own holiday meals a few hours earlier.
Like many combat units, the battalion will hold its Passover Seder later than most civilians, who they will be defending.
“We’re protecting the civilians who are sitting around their Passover table, safeguarding the city of Modi’in, of Maccabim-Reut. Tel Aviv is 30 minutes away. We are really protecting entire families who sit down for the meal,” said he officer. “Suddenly, this gives the soldiers real significance.”
In the lead-up to the preparations, “everyone is getting into the spirit, offering to bring cups and plates. In addition to dealing with our ongoing missions, we are organizing a Seder that is truly significant,” the deputy commander said. “My wife and children will celebrate the Seder with me on base. I have a nuclear family, but they are an inseparable family of the Ram Battalion family.”
Asked about prior security alerts in the lead-up to Passover, Diler said “the battalion is ready. We know our challenges and our missions. We are truly prepared. If you ask the soldiers, they understand the threat and believe it will arrive. We are not surprised. When you’re prepared, you win.”
Making the bases kosher for Passover
Rabbi Yehuda Mantel, who serves in the Binyamin Brigade, spoke about a “very complex logistical” operation to make the entire military kosher for Passover. “This coming Wednesday, within a few hours, we will do this. It’s something that everyone—from the chief of staff down to the last soldier, from north to south—is going to do.”
The operation will include bringing new dishes to bases across the country. Reserve soldiers have volunteered to assist in this mammoth task.
“The IDF can’t take time off to do this, like restaurants and hotels. Everyone must work as normal. It must defend Israel as normal,” affirmed the rabbi.
Even units stationed at lookout towers in far-flung locations will take part, he said. “We have to get there and ensure it is kosher for Passover. Everyone will be taking part,” he stated.
Holding a Passover meal on an IDF base is “very special,” said Mantel. “We start a few hours later than most, based on the understanding that units need to be outside and defending all of the people in their homes. Here, we will start late, at 10:30 p.m.”
The holiday represents a “real opportunity to sit together, all of the people, from big to small, from senior commanders to the last soldier, around the same table. We talk about liberation. This is the IDF’s holiday. We have won the privilege to be a Jewish military in a Jewish state that we can safeguard. Nothing suits the holiday more than that,” said the rabbi.
He also sent a message to the Jewish community of the United States, saying, “I want to thank our brothers and sisters in America and abroad this Passover. We feel united with them, and we are happy about their appreciation and solidarity with us.”