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26 November. Dateline: Susiah Army Base

Another rainy day in the Ashkelon region. This time, the rain is so heavy that parts of the road are flooded over, but our minivan pushes on. The verdant rolling hills remind Rabbi Robinson of his native Scotland. We pass Erik Sharon's ranch (one of the very few private ranches in Israel) and his grave. Our driver, Aaron, finds his way to Tzvika's ranch in the Negev where he raises sheep. Tzvika, like other ranchers in the Negev and the Galil, used to have a problem. Bedouin neighbors used to steel their sheep, goats and cows at night under the cover of darkness. It got to the point that Tzvika would refer to the stolen animals as “giving ma’aser” (tithing) and was ready to sell half of his ranch to the Bedouins. 

Enter Ariel and his army buddies. A couple of years earlier, they had responded to similar problems of other ranchers by pooling the money they got upon finishing their army service to purchase a trailer. They drove their trailer to the middle of the ranch, and lit a bonfire to show that someone was awake in the middle of the night and watching – every once in a while, they would ride around the perimeter of the ranch. No guns, no shots, just showing a presence. End of rustling on that ranch and the beginning of a program called Hashomer HaChadash.

By the time Tzvika was desperate enough to call HaShomer HaChadash, there was a whole network in place, connected through social media. Volunteers come from all walks of life – religious, non-religious, students, youth in between their high school years and the beginning of their army service. They go where needed and typically stand guard one or two nights a month. Ranchers like Tzvika call when they need help and HaShomer HaChadash provides the volunteers.

During the recent war in Gaza (when some ranchers and farmers were mobilized) the volunteers (5,000 strong) stepped in to do the necessary farm tasks and to stand watch. Ariel feels that the swell in the number of volunteers reflects a new zionism which represents a thirst to be connected to the land of Israel.  

Frankly, Tzvika doesn't care what drives the volunteers. What he cares about is that he can sleep well at night knowing that when he gets up in the morning, all his sheep will still be there. As for giving ma’aser, he will have to find a different way.

From Tzvika's ranch we drive into the West Bank to an army base in the ancient village of Susyah. The ancient synagogue that is mentioned in the Talmud and its mosaic are in the process of being renovated, but that is not why we are here. We are here to visit an army base. The soldiers' main task is to protect the safety of the Jewish settlements while also keeping peace between the two sides. Oddly, the most difficult time is Shabbat morning when members of some of the more right wing Jewish groups come out to claim areas that Palestinians feel is theirs, and vice versa. The soldiers often are caught between the two sides.

Joining us today are two members of Beit Morasha, an organization described in the Israel Corner section of the Echod a couple of weeks ago. Beit Morasha is here today to run an exercise with the soldiers that centers on their core values. Think you know what IDF soldiers are like? Here are some of the terms they used to describe their core values, what they feel drives them: Honesty, camaraderie, empathy for both Jews and Arabs, honesty (this time from an officer) because otherwise they would not follow me in battle.

The facilitators then asked the soldiers to describe situations where they felt that daily tasks required by the army caused a conflict with their core values. True to their honesty values, the soldiers spoke up. We heard of the conflict that one soldier (raised in a leftist household) feels when trying to break up a fight between a right wing protester and a Palestinian during one of the regular Shabbat morning clashes. One officer described being torn between issuing a well-deserved punishment to a soldier who violated a rule, a punishment that would require the soldier to have to stay on the ... while knowing full well that the soldier comes from a difficult home situation and he is needed at home. What do you do when you don't really support the government's policy and your sympathy is more with the Palestinians than with the settlers?

The soldiers came across as very sincere, very eager to do the right thing, and much more mature than their 18 years of age.

Following the exercise we davened mincha with the soldiers. The image of the soldiers rocking back and forth during the tefilah, their guns at their feet, will stay with us always.

A quick stop to see the Iron Dome (mercifully, not in action) completed another busy, exciting, meaningful day.

Hard to believe, but the mission ends tomorrow. Last on the itinerary is a visit to the Gush and to Yerushalaim.


Sun, January 23 2022 21 Shevat 5782