Rabbi Shalom Myers devotes his life to those who need him. He was an accountant in South Africa before eventually becoming a congregational leader, teaching Torah, making aliyah, and then starting an organization helping religious soldiers in Israel.
“I didn’t intend on being a rabbi,” quips Rabbi Myers, who was recruited by community members in Rondebosch, Cape Town to serve as their spiritual leader. “I think I always had the desire to teach and do good. Accountancy was just something to have as a profession.”
As he was getting more involved in rabbinics, he worked during the day leading his flock, and at night running his accounting firm.
In 1985, his soul beckoned. He made aliyah to Israel and eventually sold the business to his brother. In Israel, he taught at Ohr Somayach, a yeshiva for the newly religious. A fellow South African asked him to help start a synagogue and learning center in the German colony, and he agreed. While there, one of the directors of the Michael Levin Lone Soldier Center came and really liked the shul. “It was a warm, homey feeling,” he says.
The director asked Myers to host Friday night Shabbat meals for the soldiers there. At the time, he was busy running a learning center and synagogue – called Emek, after the name of the street. But he agreed to host the young men each week and says he was exposed to many diverse people, hearing their stories, listening, and helping whenever he could. It was during those meals that a light bulb went off for Rabbi Myers.
“Religious soldiers said to me they felt challenged,” recalls Myers. Many were new to religious Judaism, from the United States, and wanted an environment that would allow them to serve in the IDF without the distractions that may pull them from their commitment to Torah observance. Others came from haredi (ultra-Orthodox) families in Israel who didn’t accept their decision to serve in the IDF.
Lone religious and haredi soldiers
Rabbi Myers realized this was a broader issue and that many of these young men needed help. It started slowly – providing basic outreach, support, and events for the soldiers through his synagogue. But he quickly realized how in demand this program was. So he set up a separate organization – Emek Lone Soldier Program – and started to raise money to help support the cause that had chosen him.
Four out of six of his own sons, all raised haredi, joined the IDF. So he saw it could work – serving without abandoning Torah – if done the right way. “I know both sides; kids who went through the haredi system, then the army.” He now runs the only organization supporting English-speaking religious soldiers, and he works with a subcommittee of the Knesset dealing with lone soldiers.
The Emek organization has various parts, including integration of haredi soldiers into employment and Israeli society after they finish their IDF service. He and his volunteers offer classes, guide the soldiers during their service, and then during their post-army education and career program.
They offer three intakes per year, 120 soldiers in each. At any one time, there are close to 400 soldiers being cared for by Emek. Rabbi Myers visits bases, gives classes, and has meals with them, thereby getting to know them and their needs.
“Drafting to the paratroopers straight out of university at age 23, I leaned heavily on the Emek Lone Soldier program for a sense of groundedness and Yiddishkeit,” says Max. “Rabbi Myers was an active part of my experience both on base and off. A favorite sight was seeing his car pull up to our base’s front gate for a surprise night of singing, Torah-learning and just schmoozing.”
Indeed, wherever the soldiers are, Rabbi Myers makes his way to them.
“It didn’t matter where we were stationed – in the Negev, Nablus, or the Lebanon border – he always showed up and never came empty-handed, bearing snacks, much-needed toiletries, and a smiling energy,” Max says.
While lone soldiers in Israel without their families need support, so do many of the haredi soldiers, even if their families are in Israel. “The Israeli soldiers, for the most part, are at odds with their families,” says Rabbi Myers.
Many haredi youth who join the IDF cannot return home, since the family feels that they may influence other siblings to join them doing military service. “Some are accepted back once their families see what’s happening with them,” he adds.
On any given day, Rabbi Myers can be speaking to dozens of paratroopers, counseling a struggling soldier, advising on next steps after completing the IDF, or preparing for a Shabbat meal on a base. “My time is fully taken up,” he says.
After the IDF
He said there is a “major problem after the army,” especially for haredi soldiers who are often ill-equipped for life. “Anybody who went in the army, and wasn’t in a first-tier yeshiva, is regarded as a failure,” he says. “The army was the first safe place, where they’re doing good work, and they have camaraderie.”
One soldier, Avinoam, said, “I have had an absolutely amazing experience with the Emek Soldier Program. The people who run the program are all wonderful and very supportive.” He added that the “get-togethers are always fun. We get good food, learn Torah, and have a good time in general.”
The rabbis often surprise the soldiers at their various posts around the country.
“This is awesome,” says Avinoam. “They come with good food and music, and divrei [words of] Torah. It really does uplift the spirits of the combat soldiers.”
All transitions are hard. This is true with the regular soldiers, but especially with paratroopers, who are often even more tight-knit and need help navigating what comes next.
“They have a great two years in the army, then need a jump start into civilian life after,” Rabbi Myers says.
He adds that many should be going on to university but they’re not because they lack the confidence, direction, and support to help them navigate this path.
In-depth testing and guidance
Rabbi Myers organizes professional psychoanalytical testing for all soldiers that are finishing their two years. He also sets up the soldier with a mentor who can accompany them on their academic journey.
He has them tested using a unique model that goes beyond what a typical psycho-educational test would be able to share. This is significant because many of the soldiers didn’t receive a standard education, only yeshiva, so language and math are lacking.
The testing model utilized by the specialists he partners with, can sort of peer into the minds of the soldiers and discover their abilities and strengths. Avinoam, for example, says he plans on studying psychology and business after the IDF. “For sure, after the psychoanalytical testing, I realized that I would be good in these fields,” he says.
They are also matched with a mentor or coach to help guide them into their desired field. “For many of them, it’s only in the army they showed perseverance,” he said. So they utilize that and use it as a foundation.
The program is literally changing lives, one soldier at a time. “I am much indebted to the kindness of the Emek Lone Soldier program and Rabbi Myers, whose generosity, time and time again, helped restore a sense of joy and meaning in my service,” Max says.
The writer has worked as a professional journalist and columnist since 1998. She specializes in writing about the land and people of Israel. Originally from Florida, she made aliyah last year. You can read more about her and other inspiring stories at www.IsraelMindy.com.