He would explain that beyond that wall once stood Solomon’s temple. He would tell of all the festivities that took place there and how all the nations of the world would come together in Jerusalem to praise G-d* at Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles).
After finishing his service in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), my father moved to America to become a doctor. He knew about 500 words in English and went with US $250 in his pocket. He met my mother, and they got married and moved to Atlanta, where I was born. During the Gulf War in 1991, my two older brothers heard that Saddam Hussein was bombing Israel. They left everything and moved to Israel. During the war, I also made aliyah (immigrated to Israel) when I was 13, the year of my bar mitzvah (religious coming-of-age).
The two comings of my family to Israel are so very different. My grandfather was running away from hatred, fear, and anti-Semitism—trying to find new hope. But my family was running to Israel—to support, defend, and love.
After I finished my high school studies, I spent two years outside the ancient city of Hebron, studying Torah (the Hebrew Scriptures) and developing my relationship with G-d. I would wake up each morning, look over the hills of Hebron, and say, “I am standing on the same hills Abraham, Isaac and Jacob stood on.” That’s when I understood that the G-d of Israel, the people of Israel, and the Land of Israel are inextricably intertwined. Here, the Jewish people are able to express themselves as a nation, have an army, and defend themselves. When the people of Israel are in the Land of Israel, the Land blossoms.
The Happiest Time in My Life
With that mind-set, I enrolled in an elite infantry unit. I had one goal—to become a commander. After finishing my officer’s training course, I finally felt that my service had begun, because my service now wasn’t only about defending Israel, but also about inspiring, teaching, and enlightening.
So many times, my soldiers would say, “Jeremy, what are you doing here? Why would you risk your life here? You’re American. Go back to America.” I explained to them, “Although this army service is mandatory, this is the greatest privilege of our lives. We haven’t had an army since the times of King David. How could you not want to be part of the greatest revolution of all times? Have you lost your minds?”
I believe that when I spoke to my soldiers, I spoke the truth and I spoke to their hearts. My unit was ranked the number-one unit in the Israeli army. It wasn’t because we ran the fastest and shot the most accurately. It was because we had an ideal that we were fighting for.
Those times as a commander were the happiest times of my life. I woke up every day so proud of what I was doing, with such passion for Israel and her people—and then, a tragedy happened. A soldier was killed in my sister unit. Because of my high ranking, it was my task to carry his coffin to his final resting place. I had never been to a funeral before; it was traumatic. They said you have to try not to display any emotion: Don’t sob, yell, or cry. It’s your job to show respect. I did the best I could, but I could not stop the tears from falling. I finished my duty, and we all went back to our base. All of our soldiers were in total silence on the way home.
I took out my notepad and wrote a letter to American Jews. I said: “How can you live with yourselves? We’re here in Israel, fighting for G-d’s given gift for us. We’re fighting for the redemption of the Jewish people and the world, and you are sitting in your armchairs. How can you live with yourselves? How can you pray for redemption and not lift a finger? How can you pray for the rebuilding of Jerusalem and not lift up a stone?”
I received a few responses from Jews, saying they were very sorry. But the unbelievably shocking thing was that I received thousands of letters from Christians. I had no idea that Christians loved Israel, supported Israel, and loved Israeli soldiers and the Jewish people. I tried to answer every e-mail, but I was overwhelmed. I didn’t even know that Christians read Jewish publications. Those letters helped carry me through and gave me strength. They said, “Jeremy, we’re behind you. We support you, we love you, we pray for you. You are doing G-d’s mission in the world. We are there with you 100% of the way.” Those letters brought me to where I am today. Now I know that we are all brothers in arms, fighting the same battle.
By Jeremiah Gimpel
* Editor’s note: Orthodox Jews do not spell out the Lord’s name in order to show reverence to Him.
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