SHOWING SUPPORT FOR THE MEN AND WOMEN OF THE IDF

SPECIAL FOR THE AJT

One of the first questions asked by Rabbi Pinchos Hecht, newly appointed Head of School at Atlanta Jewish Academy, was, “How can AJA show our support for Israel?”

The newly formed Atlanta Jewish Academy, product of the merger of Greenfield Hebrew Academy and Yeshiva Atlanta, prides itself on its love for and intimate involvement with Israel. Many alumni make aliyah and serve in the IDF. Families, teachers, and staff have children in Israel, who are under threat or helping to defend the country. The B’not Sherut program at AJA— which brings in young women who make Israel a joyous part of daily life — has ensured that every single Atlanta Jewish Academy student knows someone living in Israel right now who is under the threat of missile attack.

Fortunately, alumnus and current AJA parent George Birnbaum had some ideas. As former Chief of Staff for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Mr. Birnbaum is intimately aware of what’s going on in Israel as the government fights to defend its citizens. With his assistance, the Consul General of Israel in the Southeast and the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF) came together with AJA for an event supporting Israel and the 22 local families who currently have lone soldiers in the IDF.

“I couldn’t think of a better program to be the first official event of Atlanta Jewish Academy,” said Mr. Birnbaum. “We wanted to bring the community together to recognize our soldiers. We wanted to express our joy in Israel and in Jewish life, but also to recognize and show respect for the young people who are putting their lives on the line to protect our country.”

AJA students had no doubts about why they were there. David Lebowitz said, “I came because Israel is going through a hard time.” Ben Cohen added, “We have to do what we can to help.”

Consul General Opher Aviran addressed the crowd. “This war was not of Israel’s choosing,” he began. “We left Gaza in 1995, hoping never to return, but Israel must act to defend its citizens.” The Consul General repeatedly stressed, “Both Israelis and Palestinians deserve peace and security.”

Mr. Birnbaum took the stage to offer his special perspective on Prime Minister Netanyahu. He described an experience he had while serving as Prime Minister Netanyahu’s chief of staff, in the context of a military operation.

“The Prime Minister was with his advisors, going through the scenarios. I kept thinking that he was looking at me throughout the meeting, and I didn’t know why. Later, I realized that I had been sitting in front of a picture of his brother, Yoni Netanyahu, killed in the Entebbe operation. I asked what he had been thinking as he looked over at his brother’s picture. He told me, ‘Every time I make the decision to send soldiers in harm’s way, I think about how my family felt when we found out about Yoni. And I think, is it worth what the families of these soldiers will have to suffer for me to make that decision?’ Our leader doesn’t just understand the chess game aspect of military action; he understands the personal risk and suffering that comes from these decisions. He thinks about it every single day.”

The Chairman of the Board for the FIDF’s Southeast Region, Garry Sobel, spoke of their important work. “We are there when they need us most,” Mr. Sobel told the crowd. “We make sure that our lone soldiers never feel alone. Their job is to look after Israel. Our job is to look after them.”The FIDF offers support to lone soldiers, assists the families of soldiers killed in action, and arranges R&R weekends for fighting men in need of some respite.

The final speaker was a blurry image on a video screen, greeted by an excited crowd. Jonathan Friedlander, an AJA alumnus and soldier currently serving on the northern border, appeared via Skype to say, “Thanks for the support — your thoughts and prayers mean a lot to us.” He said that the soldiers appreciate the toiletries and snacks supplied by the Southeast Chapter of the FIDF, who support his Combat Intelligence Brigade through the Adopt-a-Brigade program. “I’m on the Lebanon border, which isn’t as rowdy as it is down south, but we hold our position. It feels good to be part of the Combat Intelligence Brigade, and to know that Atlanta’s got my back.”

Rabbi Hecht closed the program with a Misheberach blessing for the soldiers of the IDF, and AJA parent Hillel Glazer led the audience in singing Hatikvah, followed by Am Yisroel Chai.

“I knew that we’re close to what’s going on in Israel, but I didn’t know how close,” said AJA student Zoe Sokol. She had just learned that one of the soldiers in an FIDF video is the daughter of Hebrew teacher Yaira Auz, and that Jonathan Friedlander is the son of former staffer Cheryl Friedlander.

Marci Joel and her family had returned that very day from a trip to Israel, where they had delivered letters to IDF soldiers. Marci’s son Jordan had just received an answer to his letter, and is proud to have a pen pal in the IDF.

Editor’s note: Leah Braunstein Levy is the author of The Waiting Wall, a Sydney Taylor Notable Book for 2010, and a contributing author to Kaddish, Women’s Voices, winner of a 2013 National Jewish Book Award in the category of Contemporary Jewish Life and Practice. Her work has also appeared in Highlights for Children.