Rosh Hashanah Jew
My spiritual journey from the night clubs in Prague to serving as a lone Israeli soldier on the Gaza border.
A few years ago I made a life changing decision. I moved to Israel and joined the Golani 13 Brigade. I was what you'd call a Rosh Hashanah Jew – my Judaism consisted of going to shul once a year on Rosh Hashanah (and in college I managed to miss that a couple of times). I just didn't connect to my Jewish heritage. I grew up with Snoop Dog, Eminem and Trance.
Then something sparked inside when I was clubbing in Europe, I felt alone, like I had no meaning. I just slammed a shot of absinth after blowing out the fire.
Waking up the next day something was calling me to take advantage of the time away from Arizona and connect to something Jewish. I was in Prague and decided to visit the Jewish community. I hadn't been in a synagogue in a long time. I had my bar mitzvah and I thought I was done. But something was telling me that I needed to know more about who I was.
I discovered the Holocaust museum in the center of Prague. Entering into this small room the size of most luxury home living rooms, I saw thousands of names written on the wall. My heart skipped a beat, my eyes opened, and my stomach started to sink. Then the tears flowed as I entered the synagogue situated next to the museum.
Wearing a paper skullcap, I poured out my heart. Memories flashed before me. The parties, the girls, the drinks, and regret. This was a turning point. I was in a place where my own people suffered the worst suffering imaginable. Last night I was partying, and only half a century ago the Holocaust was raging. Something was off. The tears wouldn't stop flowing as I listened to my favorite songs on my mp3.
Not really remembering how to read Hebrew from the siddur, I prayed from my heart. What's my purpose? Why am I here? I was an amateur model and DJ who was going from party to party. Something suddenly opened inside of me and I left Prague promising myself to pay more attention to my Jewish identity and be open to learning more about my Jewish heritage.
Coming back to the US, I connected to my campus rabbi at Arizona State Rabbi Jordan Brumer to ask questions like “Are we really the chosen people?” and “Why is there anti-Semitism in the world?” Week after week we’d meet at Starbucks and I'd drill him with my latest nagging question. That’s when I told him that I had signed up for a trip to Israel through Taglit-Birthright. He made some arrangements and said that if I wanted, I could go to the Aish Essentials program after the tour.
I was grateful for the opportunity to learn about my heritage in the heart of Jerusalem facing the Western Wall. My observance began to slowly grow. I ordered a pair of Tefillin from the Internet, not knowing the importance of having them certified by a scribe. I later found out they weren't kosher.
My trip to Israel was so uplifting. It helped me foster a love for the Land of Israel and its people. After my 10-day birthright trip, I made my way to Aish HaTorah where I immersed in the treasures of Judaism at my own pace. My time there was short since I needed to finish college, but I found a way to get credit while staying in the Holy Land.
I interned at the Jaffa Gate Tourism office for a few months helping tourists from all over the world discover the beauty of Israel. I was living a dream, living in Jerusalem, helping people and getting school credit.
That's when I read the Jerusalem Post article about Michael Levin, a lone soldier who was killed in combat.
Michael had been on leave in America when the Second Lebanon War broke out. Instead of staying safe at his home in Pennsylvania, he got on a plane to join his paratrooper unit in battle, and he fell sacrificing his life for his nation. His story struck me to the core. Inspiration and imagination overcame me; I wanted to follow his path.
I graduated and then needed to figure out my next step. After failing to make headway in the real estate boom of Arizona in 2006, I decided to push myself in the direction I knew my soul was calling out for. I called my grandpa one morning when things weren't really working out, "Grandpa, I think I want to make aliyah and join the Israeli army."
From that moment it was a focused effort to find myself in Israel and make my dream a reality. I merited moving to Israel and joining the IDF, like my hero Michael, who today my son is named after.
Explosion on Gaza Border
Something amazing took place while I was serving on the Gaza border. It was the eve of Rosh Hashanah. We were stationed at our post which housed a 120mm GPS Cannon. We couldn't leave our position to go to shul but luckily some of our buddies replaced us. We had only four religious guys in our unit and another two decided to join our prayer quorum of ten men. But we lacked another four guys. Over the last month while serving in Gaza, tons of soldiers had been getting interested in their Judaism and a bunch decided to join us for the prayer service.
On the Gaza border
We gave them kippahs, and we temporarily laid our guns down. The shul was no bigger than a garage but our joy was overwhelming. We were singing at the top of our lungs, totally rejoicing with each other, brothers in arms on the border of Gaza. All because of these non-religious guys who joined us.
We finished the prayer service, hugging each other. The love and brotherhood that permeated the synagogue was something beyond what many of us had ever experienced. We entered the cafeteria glowing, charged by the unforgettable prayer service. My Ethiopian friend made kiddush. There was delicious gourmet food (food during the holidays is better than usual since soldiers aren't at home with their families). At this moment I knew I was fulfilling my dream.
Just as we were about to shout "L'Chaim!" together, a huge explosion ripped through the air.
During my service in the army I always kept in mind what Rav Noah Weinberg ob"m would say during his 48 Ways series: pleasure requires pain. We had endured plenty of pain. Basic and advanced training were far behind us. We had finished a few months guarding the Lebanon border. Now we were on the Gaza border where I'd listen to mp3s of Rabbi Weinberg's classes, which helped me be a strong soldier.
At that moment during kiddush, just as we were about to shout "L'Chaim!" together, a huge explosion ripped through the air.
Sirens blasted and red lights spun in circles. Our emergency units ran out to their stations and the rest of us ran to the bomb shelter. Some of us began reciting psalms, not knowing what would happen next. This was a similar feeling that we had when one of our leading commanders was killed on the Lebanon border. Would we be going in? After all, we were about 100 yards from Hamas on the other side of the border. Our minds and hearts were racing.
The situation calmed down a bit and we got the clearance to go out of the shelter. The first thing we wanted to know was where did the rocket hit? We found the spot and were shocked to the core. It was right next to the hangout bench where everyone chills after meals. Since more people wanted to join the Rosh Hashanah prayer service, the meal was postponed for half an hour. If there was no prayer service, we would have all been hanging out at that exact location when the rocket hit.
Every Jew has the power to step up and do more for his people. Whether it's learning, praying or donating, everyone plays a part, and we need to grab our opportunities and step up and do what we can to help the Jewish people this new year.
With the increase in anti-Semitism around the world, let's unite and rejoice in who we are. We are one and no one will stop our love.