Jewish News of Greater Phoenix
It is a hot summer afternoon, and I am in the back seat of a taxi speeding on Route 443 from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. Suddenly, the driver brakes, then pulls to a stop at the Ofer checkpoint for a routine inspection. I glance out the window for a closer look and find myself staring down the barrel of an M-16, slung over the shoulder of a soldier, no more than a boy in rumpled khakis that hang loosely on his lanky frame. He peers steadily at me, his weapon ready, then waves us on.
Life in Israel, literally in my face.
The issues of might – and concomitant issues of right – converge at the low-slung structure that looks like nothing more than any nondescript toll booth along any highway, but is one of several security stops strung along the road that cuts through the West Bank, and the soldier, just one of countless young men and women assigned to patrol it to ensure its safety. An immense responsibility rests on his thin shoulders, and an even heavier responsibility rests on those of the tiny nation of Israel as it struggles to secure its land and protect its people without compromising its soul.
These concerns weigh heavily on the Israeli military, so much so that in 2006 it reached out to the Shalom Hartman Institute, renowned for its educational programs for lay and rabbinic leaders, for help in crafting a similar program for its military officers. The ensuing Lev Aharon
program – named after SHI founder Rabbi David Hartman
‘s son-in-law who died in battle – was conceived to provide Jewish identity education to senior Israel Defense Forces officers. Deepening the officers’ understanding of the Jewish values behind the battle for national existence would invest their service with renewed meaning and purpose while infusing it with moral imperative. Too, the program would instill stronger national identity among its forces, allaying the troubling alienation that has led to declining enlistment and retention rates.
Retired IDF Col. Ya’akov Castel
directs the program. He explains one morning from his office at SHI that Lev Aharon seeks to develop officers as teachers and their troops not just as soldiers but also as people.
"Our aim is to win the battle and stay human beings," he says.
And so, more than 1,500 officers each year come to Jerusalem for a week or two of intensive study, recovering Judaism’s history, heritage and thought and engaging with texts that delve into its moral tradition on the ethics of war. Lectures, field trips and intimate discussions among the officers, facilitated by both SHI faculty and retired officers, provide pluralistic perspectives that inspire deep reflection.
"We want (this) to become theirs," says Castel, the knowledge informing their identity and their actions.
"We have the power," he says, "the question is how we use it."
Past participants say the program has improved morale, solidarity and sense of pride. It also has enhanced moral responsibility.
Like the young soldier at the Ofer checkpoint gripping his rifle, another who recently completed the program understands, "I know it is in my hands."