Ben Casper made Aliyah with his family from Woodmere, NY in July 2016. He currently lives in Modiin and enjoys sharing the wonders of his family’s Aliyah adventures with his active social media network.
About a month ago, my 10-year-old son and I had the privilege of being hosted at the Israeli Defense Forces’ Tze’elim Army Base in the Negev by Brigadier General Bentzi Gruber (res).
The General founded an organization called Ethics in the Field (www.ethicsinthefield.com), which focuses on the IDF’s daily endeavor to both ensure the country’s security and uphold one of the most rigorous military codes of ethics in the world today.
The base is located in the Negev, about a 75-minute drive from our home in Modi’in. Cruising down Highway 6, splitting a sea of golden fields and green meadows, we added our voices to the buoyant tunes bursting from the car speakers.
As we approached the base, we marveled like two little boys – one in age, one in mind – at the dozens of tanks and artillery guns lined up along the vast perimeter of the base. We knew we were in for something very cool, but as with many experiences in Israel, we didn’t know the half of it.
When we arrived inside the base, we were joined by additional family members who came from Jerusalem. Then came a tour bus carrying students from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and Yale University, there to spend a day learning about the important work of General Bentzi’s organization and the uniqueness of the IDF. (The General has an ongoing relationship with West Point, lecturing there on a regular basis.)
We were treated to a live tank demonstration, the opportunity to climb on and examine every inch of a Merkava tank, got a tour of an expansive, mock city used for urban warfare training, and a short stroll through a replica terror tunnel.
Late-morning soon became afternoon, when we were to hear a presentation from the General. A few minutes before the talk, my son and I were waiting in line for the bathroom with about ten of the West Point cadets. They asked where in the U.S. we were from and why we had decided to move to Israel. And then that ordinary activity – waiting by the restrooms – gave us a chance to communicate our loyalty to, and appreciation for, the United States, especially its servicemen and women, and, more importantly, to express our very special love for Israel. Among the handful of reasons we cited for the move was the very thing that brought us together that day: seeing how General Bentzi and Ethics in the Field give form to Israel’s commitment to maintaining the high ideals of our humanity, even when we are forced into the depths of warfare.
We then gathered for the main event: the General’s discussion of the difficulty and responsibility of making ethical decisions in the field, instantaneously and under great pressure. We also heard about the wonderful chessed initiative of the organization to raise soldiers’ level of compassion, in general, by arranging for meaningful interactions with children with special needs.
My son and I had to leave a few minutes before the end of the presentation. We quietly bid farewell to the General and a few of the cadets in our immediate vicinity. On our way out, the leader of the West Point group, Lieutenant Colonel Charlie Faint, handed my son a special West Point pin and wished him great success in his future service in the Israeli Defense Forces. We were deeply touched by this kind gesture of a seasoned armed forces Lieutenant, a profound acknowledgment that this 10-year-old who would one day be called upon to serve and defend his country.
We drove toward the exit of the base. Since it was a Friday and the base was almost entirely empty, we had to wait for one of the soldiers drive to the exit to unlock the gate. After about 10 minutes, a soldier drove up and removed the lock and chains. As we slowly approached the open gate, my son rolled down his window and said three words that made me incredibly proud: תודה על השמירה: “Thank you for your protection.”
I would have been proud if he had simply thanked the soldier for interrupting whatever he was doing to come open the gate for us, but this wasn’t an ordinary ‘thank you.’ My son recognized that this was a young man who was spending a portion of his youth serving his country and protecting its citizens from those who might wish them harm. It became clear from the conversation that ensued as we pulled away from the base, that he had gained an increased understanding of why a base such as Tze’elim was not just cool, our initial response, but necessary – for training of the body, mind, and soul. He appreciated a chayal doing his job because he knows that he will one day stand guard somewhere in that same pair of army-issued boots.
Approaching our one-year Aliyah anniversary this month, seems an appropriate time as any to take stock from our new vantage point. Israel, in all its splendor, innovation, military might, and virtue, didn’t just ‘happen.’ Hard work, dedication, sacrifice, and commitment – undertaken with Hashem’s constant protection and providence – are the driving forces behind the transformation of the formidable landscape of the 1940’s to the flourishing nation we have today. In the years before we made Aliyah, my wife and I felt a growing sense of wanting to belong to the unfolding story of our People in our Land. We wanted to go beyond simply making periodic visits, enjoying the fruits of countless others’ labor, nodding and smiling at a few soldiers, and going back to our ‘real’ lives back in New York. We yearned to be a part of what continues to take place here. To be sure, there are many ways for individuals and communities to contribute to the People, the Land, and the Torah of Eretz Yisrael without physically being here, but we felt we had been given a chance to participate in the most all-embracing way, and are trying to take advantage of that opportunity every day.
To all the chayalim and chalutzim who have come before us, we say ‘Todah al Ha’shmirah’ — thank you for your protection; we hope to express our thanks not just in lip-service, but in our daily actions and the present and future actions of our children and theirs, for generations to come.