In Israel there is a strong recognition that the soldiers who faithfully serve us are our boys and our girls. We watch over them as if they are our own daughters and our sons. Because in a very real sense, they are.
Since the escalation of violence erupted in September, many more soldiers have been stationed in our area, and the local residents haven’t stopped bringing them food, warm clothing, and smiles. It is our tradition to show them our gratitude – our thanks to them for putting their lives on the line in service to our country.
So when we recently celebrated my son’s bar mitzvah, we wanted to add another element to the celebration aside from the focus on Bible study and prayer. We took our extended family, many of whom were visiting from the United States, to a nearby area where soldiers are stationed and threw a pizza party.
The place where we had the celebration is in and of itself, a lesson in Israeli resilience to evil and commitment to good. We went to the Oz V’Gaon forest about fifteen minutes south of Jerusalem. Oz means “strength” and Gaon is an acronym for the three Jewish teens who were kidnapped and murdered in the summer of 2014 — Gilad, Ayal, and Naftali.
As a response to the horrific killings, local Jews decided to cultivate and dedicate this forest to the boys’ memory to be used for good things. It already has been furnished with donated picnic tables and swing sets for children. There is a synagogue which has hosted many prayer services and joyful life events.
Work is constantly being done to beautify and enhance the area, mostly by volunteers and with the support of local donations. Moreover, the forest is on a hill, the highest point in this area, making it a strategic point for our soldiers as they can more easily spot and stop would-be terrorists – and they have.
In addition, the forest is located right off the “Gush Junction,” a place my friend has dubbed “the junction of good and evil” because so many terrorist attacks have sadly taken place there, and yet so much goodness abounds. At that same junction is the pina chama, meaning “cozy corner,” a space created after the murder of two local residents during the second intifada, which started in 2000 and lasted until 2005.
It is a place where civilians volunteer to make and serve our soldiers cakes, soups, and hot drinks at no cost to the soldiers. This junction has also seen prayer services and even a makeshift Bible study center in memory of those who have perished. It is also the place where American teenager Ezra Schwartz, whose mother grew up around the corner from me, was killed a few months ago as he was on his way to volunteer in the Oz V’Gaon forest.
Yet, when we entered Oz V’Gaon that day all I felt was serenity. The soft breeze seemed to welcome us among the lines of Israeli flags waving proudly at us. The children immediately headed to the swing sets, and the adults spoke with the soldiers, thanking them, listening to their stories, and connecting with the young men stationed there, whom we often forget are sons, brothers, and husbands.
The Israeli army provides the very basic necessities for our soldiers. It’s up to us to provide them with the often little things that will make them more comfortable and their service more bearable — a pair of gloves or a hat for the winter and treats like pizza. I know from friends who have sons or husbands serving in the army that the conditions are tough. They worry for their loved ones and pray that they are ok.
I think of Leviticus 18:19 which instructs us to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Wouldn’t I want someone to take care of my relatives? My son? My husband? Wouldn’t I want someone to care about and show kindness to me? This is why we brought pizza to people we had never met and celebrated our family milestone with soldiers we didn’t know.
We are all family here in Israel. If one of us is suffering, we all suffer. If one of us is hungry, we feel the need to feed him. And if some of our men and women are risking their lives to protect us, it goes without saying that we will do whatever we can to support them.
As we watched the soldiers on that evening in the Oz V’Gaon forest gratefully enjoy our humble gift of pizza and fries, we felt blessed to be able to bless this great group – which in just a few short years, my own son will be joining, too. I pray that someone will extend the same kindness to him as we did to those soldiers on that day – and I have not a single doubt in my mind that more than one person will.
- Yonit Rothchild