A soldier's diary of serving on the Gaza border

A former soldier reflects on life near the Gaza border.

The writer on IDF reserve duty (photo credit: Courtesy)
The writer on IDF reserve duty
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A sparkling white tablecloth lay beneath two flickering Shabbat candles; a picture of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef serenely surveyed the scene. The table was set for 12 and groaned beneath the weight of the food piled high upon it. Those assembled had labored over the menu and cuisine for several days already, as is their custom to treat the Shabbat meal as something special. The only matter that remained to be seen was for someone to make the Kiddush blessing, the centerpiece of the meal that instantly transforms it from a Friday night dinner to a Shabbat meal.
That’s where I came in. As the token religious reservist on the base adjoining the tense Gaza border, I was naturally asked to lead the Kiddush. As I looked out at the table overflowing with shellfish that someone’s mother had sent from Kibbutz Zikim, pork that Uri’s girlfriend had brought over from their Herzliya apartment, and a steaming challah loaf that surely contained butter, I wondered if Jewish law even permitted me to bless such a meal in which I was forbidden to taste a single dish displayed on the table.
I had been on the border for more than a week. When the month began, I had been a second-year university student scrambling to beat the morning traffic and make it to his first class on time. In the span of 24 hours, I had traded in my jeans and knapsack for green fatigues and an ancient M-16, scrambling across the Tze’elim training base’s sand dunes during a live fire exercise.
The overnight transition from a student trying to pass statistics class to a combat soldier in a reserve special forces unit is always jarring, but the atmosphere was different this time. Earlier that week, the IDF had bombed a Hamas terror tunnel snaking under the Israeli border near Kibbutz Kissufim. The resulting explosion turned the tunnel into an instant death trap. Five Islamic Jihad tunnel diggers had been inside the tunnel, and when a Hamas rescue force was sent in to save the trapped terrorists, they too met their deaths. At the end of the day, 12 terrorists were killed in what was considered the deadliest day of fighting since the end of 2014’s Operation Protective Edge. Unsurprisingly, Hamas was vowing revenge, and it fell on us – regular citizens with families and careers – to be the first line of defense.
For the past week, I had been stationed in a remote outpost without a kitchen, with my brothers-in-arms taking turns filling in as chef. This remote outpost was the source of my problems; had I been on a proper base, non-kosher food would never have been let into the kitchen. But here, in the middle of nowhere, there was no military-issue kashrut supervisor meting out punishment to any offenders who dared bring in outside food. Here it was, quite literally, between us and G-d.
Now I wondered what to do, as the assembled soldiers waited expectantly for me to pick up the silver goblet filled with grape juice and mouth the ancient blessing. Do I bless the food and sanctify the meal, despite the forbidden food? Or do I make up an excuse, run to the bathroom perhaps, and hand the job off to someone else?
Finally, I capitulated, and chanted the words of the Kiddush so loud that I was sure Hamas terrorists on the other side of the border would respond with a hearty amen. I’m not a rabbi; my knowledge of Jewish jurisprudence is rudimentary. What I did know was that when Jews from all over the country leave their lives behind to protect those of others, I was not about to negate their right to hold a Shabbat meal.
Ten minutes later, I heard the crunch of wheels rolling over gravel; our vehicle-mounted patrol had arrived. Our Moroccan commander Raanan dismounted from the jeep, warning only half-jokingly of the dire consequences that awaited us if we forgot to put aside a plate for him.
Raanan was about to dig in when he glanced at the cuisine that awaited him. “This isn’t kosher; my grandfather would kill me if I ate this for a Shabbat meal,” protested Raanan. He glanced at his watch. The beat-up digital face read several minutes after 11.
“Oh, he’s sleeping,” Raanan exhaled with relief. “It’s all good. Someone pass the fish… yalla, Shabbat Shalom.”
The writer moved to Israel from the United States and served in the IDF for 3 years. He is currently studying towards a bachelor's degree and works as a journalist for a variety of outlets