Nativ: Helping IDF lone soldiers become halachically Jewish

The "Magazine" sat down with four young IDF soldiers who opened up about their reasons for why they chose to undergo conversion to Judaism.

 122 SOLDIERS graduating from the Nativ military conversion program celebrate at the Kotel, May 2022.  (photo credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT)
122 SOLDIERS graduating from the Nativ military conversion program celebrate at the Kotel, May 2022.
(photo credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT)

When Lone Soldiers serve in the IDF, they don’t question their Jewishness. Nobody has to convince them of the importance of Israel in their lives or the Jewish identity that shows up in their DNA, mostly in their Jewish father’s lineage, or in stories and photographs passed down that connect to their tragic family history of generations lost in the Holocaust.

But halachicly, since Judaism can only be passed down through a Jewish mother, the IDF offers them an opportunity to undergo an intensive conversion in a program called The Nativ Military Program. For four to five months, they are pulled out of their assigned units to focus on a mission of claiming their Jewish legitimacy in the State of Israel through Orthodox conversion.

The Magazine sat down with four young soldiers who opened up about their reasons why they chose to do the conversion. According to the IDF Spokesperson’s Office, last year 120 men and women graduated from the course. However, there was a higher number of women who completed the converting process for the main reason that Jewish lineage passes through the maternal side, and the women feel a greater responsibility for the next generation.

Antoni Skrzypek, 21, from Warsaw, Poland

A combat soldier in the Search and Rescue Brigade, Antoni Skrzypek puts a finger on why it’s so hard to complete what has to be the shortest, most compact conversion program in the world.

“For me, the hardest thing about becoming religious is consistency,” said Skrzypek, who feels that Judaism now influences every single moment of his life.

 (L TO R) Noa Kampeas, Ben Kilinski, and Serafima Nuzbrokh outside the Nativ classroom in Jerusalem during the conversion course. (credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT) (L TO R) Noa Kampeas, Ben Kilinski, and Serafima Nuzbrokh outside the Nativ classroom in Jerusalem during the conversion course. (credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT)

Not everyone completes the conversion course. The long hours of sitting, the radical lifetime shift from a secular to a Torah-led way of life through daily prayer, keeping kosher, Sabbath and holiday observance, are difficult under the best of civilian conditions. On the army base, where many spend most of their lives, according to Skrzypek, it’s close to impossible.

“It’s a great challenge for many soldiers who convert, especially combat soldiers. We don’t get too much rest. We also rarely leave the base. Falling out of this rhythm of Jewish life, for example skipping a prayer, disturbs the next thing you’ll need to do. I can’t think of any other solution rather than remembering that failing at some point doesn’t necessarily mean complete failure. It’s always possible to return.”

“It’s a great challenge for many soldiers who convert, especially combat soldiers. We don’t get too much rest. We also rarely leave the base. Falling out of this rhythm of Jewish life, for example skipping a prayer, disturbs the next thing you’ll need to do. I can’t think of any other solution rather than remembering that failing at some point doesn’t necessarily mean complete failure. It’s always possible to return.”

Antonni Skrzypek

Serafima Nuzbrokh, 18, from Kyiv, Ukraine

It’s not uncommon for soldiers in the Nativ program to come up with their own metaphors in undergoing the conversion process. “It’s like you have a whole puzzle and one piece is missing,” Serafima Nuzbrokh said, giving credit to the metaphor to her friend and conversion classmate Noa Kampeas. “So that’s what gets me through.”

Nuzbrokh is in training to be a field nurse. Originally from Kyiv, she came to Israel with her parents when she was 11. “All my life I knew that I was Jewish. We always celebrated Jewish holidays, like Passover, Hanukkah and the High Holidays. My mother made honey cake for Rosh Hashanah and bought matzah for Passover. When we came to Israel, the government told me that I was not Jewish. I was very surprised because in Ukraine if your dad is Jewish, then you are. But here it’s based on Halacha – if your mom’s Jewish.”

“When we came to Israel, the government told me that I was not Jewish. I was very surprised because in Ukraine if your dad is Jewish, then you are. But here it’s based on Halacha – if your mom’s Jewish.”

Serafima Nuzbrokh

Nuzbrokh became fluent in Hebrew at an Israeli boarding school. “My sister, Sofia, wanted to do the conversion program in the IDF but couldn’t because she had gone to an American high school and didn’t speak Hebrew,” Nuzbrokh explained, quickly adding: “She’ll find another way.”

Nuzbrokh continued: “The feeling inside of me is that I’m more happy now, and even my mom said she started to see it’s like two different people. When we’re all in synagogue for Shabbat, that’s my favorite time of the week. It’s not that they’re my songs, but they’re the songs that I can sing with all my people. I never prayed before. Now when I do Shaharit or Maariv/Arvit prayers, I take a minute to avir (rest) – to give my brain a nap, and it has been very good.”

Noa Kampeas, 23, from New Jersey, USA

When Noa Kampeas entered Tzofim Garin Tzabar, the official name for the Lone Soldier program, she had already finished a degree in government affairs and counter-terrorism from Reichman University. She entered Matpash – the IDF unit related to what she studied – coordinating government affairs, humanitarian aid and communication in the territories with the Palestinian Authority.

The Nativ conversion program was the logical next step, which she describes as retrieving “this one piece – being Jewish – the part missing from me. It’s something I’m ready to do, and I think it’s going to change my life and my children’s lives for generations. I’m starting a new generation of Jews, and that’s really meaningful to me, to be the root of it.”

Kampeas grew up in a Zionist household, speaking Hebrew from a young age while attending the largest Zionist youth group in America, NJCOS, The National Jewish Committee on Scouting. “I just think that I’ve always known that Israel was where I wanted to be. I didn’t have culture shock, but I was still surprised how much I connected with Israel when I moved here and how important it was to complete this path.

“Nothing is easy when you’re with only Israelis,” Kampeas laughed, adding “obviously I miss home. It’s not easy to be by myself, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Ben Kilinski, 26, from Sao Paolo, Brazil

Ben Kilinski serves as a combat soldier in the elite Nahal Brigade. He tells a story of divine providence that began 70 years ago. Kilinski dropped out of the elite Sao Paolo Law School to join his brother Nathan in Nahal.

“My father wasn’t religious. But sitting in the car in Sao Paolo, our conversation was about Israeli history and Jewish identity. Like everyone in Brazil, we were driving with Waze, Israeli technology.” Although Kilinski identified with Israeli music, culture, and books by Amos Oz, he never thought about aliyah until he took part in a trip to Israel through the Taglit-Birthright Israel program.

“I saw when we visited Mount Herzl cemetery that we have a lot of lone soldiers who came by themselves and died in action. They were like 21 and 22, and I thought I can do the same. It’s kind of creepy, but it was the feeling of belonging. They were Jews from America, and they felt like they belonged to Israel, and also I had the same feeling of belonging to this nation.”

Kilinski’s father, Itzhak, had served in a combat unit. His grandfather was a Holocaust survivor who lost all of his family after they were rounded up by the Nazis from the Jewish ghetto in Budapest. He had vaguely heard about his grandfather’s cousin, Eliezer Kilinski, who had come to Israel when he was just 16 and died in the 1957 Sinai War two years later.

“The Brigade’s tradition is to hold a ceremony near Netanya, where the Andarta Tower stands as a memorial to all the fallen soldiers from Nahal. I was surprised to find the name Kilinski there. Then it hit me. In Hebrew, there’s this expression called sigirat magal, closing the circle, and now everything makes sense to me. It was Eliezer Kilinski serving in the same unit that I was in.”

When Kilinski stands before the beit din (court), he will be the second in his family to do so. His younger brother Nathan, 23, completed his conversion two years ago.

 DANIEL MADMON teaches a class in Jewish history to Nativ conversion students. (credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT) DANIEL MADMON teaches a class in Jewish history to Nativ conversion students. (credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT)

A brief history of the Nativ program

After the Berlin Wall came down, almost a million people made aliyah over a 10-year period,” explained Devra Kossowsky, the commander in charge of the Nativ military conversion program in the IDF. “By this point, there were already many undocumented Jews from the Soviet Union – Russians believing they were Jews. The Israeli government said they could live here no problem, but they really wanted a document as proof that they were Jewish.

“They had lost their papers due to communism and World War II, and so it wasn’t clear who could be counted as Jews. To deal with the problem, the rabbis and government got together and agreed upon creating a conversion course that was acceptable to Reform, Conservative and Orthodox rabbis. They agreed that Nativ would offer preparation for Orthodox conversions because that pretty much covered all the bases.”

In 2004 Elazar Stern, an Israeli politician and military general, who had also served as commander of the IDF Officers Training School, recognized that a number of soldiers didn’t feel “enough like Jews” because they were missing that stamp. These soldiers didn’t have that documentation that proved they were Jewish, yet the country they were fighting for was part of the Jewish people, part of the Jewish land.

“They were giving a lot to their country, putting their life on the line, so to have a feeling that the country was giving back to them was a big deal,” explained Kossowsky.

The Nativ course for Lone Soldiers is divided into three parts. First comes the basic history of Israel, the wars, and learning about the Jewish people who lived here before the establishment of the State of Israel. Student attrition starts before the second and third parts, when serious focus on Torah learning and Halacha requires soldiers to begin observing an Orthodox way of life.

“The heart of Nativ is the host family program,” Kossowsky said. “It really gives the soldiers insight into what it means to live in a Jewish religious family, either regular Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox. They have a choice, whatever they feel more comfortable with. We ask them to find a host family close to where they live so they’re not asked to go to a different side of the country, and so they feel they’re helped in the process of their journey.

“The reason it’s so difficult for soldiers is that it requires a huge identity change. The soldiers are asked to do things halachicly that they never expected, and it’s a big deal. I’ll say that the soldiers who choose to leave are those who came to learn what Nativ is about, and they decided it wasn’t right for them. Some haven’t dropped out but have yet to pass the final exam. There’s always a chance to come back after they’ve learned a little bit more, and spent more time with their host family. There’s never a ‘No, you’re not welcome to the Jewish people.’”

Kossowsky pointed out why the sister Nativ course for Israeli civilians takes an entire year, proceeding at a slower pace, with evening courses once a week, whereas in the army it’s every day. “It’s more compact, up to nine hours a day. We really understand that not everyone learns the same way. They’re attending classes, watching videos, having discussions, going on a trip once a week to see Israel, visiting sites described in the Torah, and meeting with their host families on Shabbat and holidays.

“Even if they chose to leave the program, they still have a stronger feeling of Zionism than when they came. I actually feel it improves their connection to Israel,” Kossowsky said, adding that there’s a huge need for more hosts, good generous families willing to open their homes and show the soldiers what it’s like to live a religious life. ■

Readers can find out how to open their Orthodox homes to a lone soldier by contacting: 052-941-6993.

The Skrzypek family saga

Ever since Antoni Skrzypek can remember, his father was connected to his Jewish roots. His mother supported Antoni’s decision to study in the Na’ale High School program with a desire that “Whatever my son does, I just want him to be happy.”

“My father tried to find out as much as he could about our family’s history and attended many events organized by Jewish organizations in Poland. I know he is particularly interested in the Jewish life of prewar Warsaw, a world with an extremely rich and unique culture and traditions, which perished after the horrible events of the Holocaust never to return. He knows a lot about the history of Polish Jews but usually speaks about it with sorrow and a form of nostalgia for something he never got to know.”

Lukasz Skrzypek, Antoni’s father, was more than enthusiastic to hear that his only son had decided to enter the Nativ Orthodox conversion program. “When I came home to Warsaw for vacation, he offered to do everything with me as long as I explained to him how. It was important for both of us to keep Shabbos, eat kosher, pray three times a day, and do all the other things that Orthodoxy obliges me to,” Skrzypek recounted. 

“During Shabbat it was hard for us to enter our building because we had to wait for someone who would use the intercom to open the door for, us and we needed to climb 10 floors by the stairs, since using the elevator wasn’t an option. 

“But there was always something that made up for the difficulties. The long walks I had with my dad on the way back home from the synagogue on Shabbat night, having the chance to play board games with the whole family on Shabbat, or even making a kosher hamburger meal that came out really delicious. What made me really happy was to see how my father gets to learn about the religion of his people. I saw and I knew it’s something very special to him. I believe this experience connected both of us even more. To me, it’s insane how much we’ve done if we take into account that we were in modern-day Warsaw and that halachic Judaism is something new for both of us. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to do all this without him.”

The story of Skrzypek’s Jewish side of the family is, in his own words, “not a simple one. They came from Saint Petersburg, Russia, where they had owned multiple leather producing factories. After the Soviet Revolution, due to their high social status and Jewish ethnicity, they were forced to leave behind all their assets and run away to Vilnius, which at that time belonged to Poland. During the escape one, of their children died in a train. They lived there until the German conquest of Poland. After the establishment of a ghetto in Vilnius, they once again had to run away, this time seeking help from their relatives in the Warsaw Ghetto. From there, they were sent to the Treblinka Concentration Camp from Umschlagplatz, the holding area adjacent to railway stations where Jews were assembled for deportation to Nazi death camps. All of them were murdered.”

Only Skrzypek’s great-grandmother Raya survived the war, hiding with her toddler son Jurek in a Polish village. “After the occupation, they settled in Warsaw. They lived in the only Jewish residential block in the whole city in a run-down, dangerous part of town. Despite that, my great-grandmother continued many of their Jewish traditions. She worked for a Jewish newspaper called Folks Sztyme.” Eventually she remarried and gave birth to a daughter, Dorota. Skrzypek’s grandmother Dorota grew up distancing herself from Jewish identity, having her own traumatic memories of being chased by an axe-wielding neighbor.

“Even though we talk a lot about our Jewish roots and family history, I will probably never truly understand how my grandmother feels. Every generation faces its own issues and dilemmas; but looking back at everything that happened, I can say that I’m glad that in my life I got to contribute to the Jewish state and try to restore the Judaism in my family.”

The writer is the author of The Wagamama Bride, a story about the search for Jewish identity in Japan, available at Jerusalem’s Pomerantz Books and on Amazon.