July 20, 2006
SOMEWHERE NEAR THE GAZA BORDER – Words cannot begin to describe the amount of dust near the Israeli border with Gaza. Even without a lineup of tanks, armored bulldozers and other heavy equipment, one hour in leaves one brushing sand out of hair, ears, nose, pockets and everywhere else.

The soldiers don't seem to mind. It helps that by Israeli standards the temperatures have been a few degrees below average for the last several days, and a light breeze makes the weather manageable.

Back from two days fighting in Gaza, there's a flurry of activity, as troops service the tanks, clean their guns, catch up on much needed rest, and prepare themselves for their next tour of combat.

"Their visits do wonders for our morale" The most striking thing about it is the quiet. Perhaps quiet isn't the right word: There is a frightful noise when a tank moves five meters, and there is a lot of talking as crews go about the business at hand. But there is little of the banter that usually characterizes groups of guys in similar situations. There is no horsing around, no teasing. The soldiers are professional, even relaxed, as they go about their tasks.

Part of the reason is these are highly trained combat soldiers, performing the chores they have done a thousand times since basic training. But there is more to the atmosphere: With more incursions into Palestinian-controlled territory expected, the troops are hardly in a talking mood.

It's a humbling experience for the strongest of soldiers. The heat inside the tanks is fierce, and the "heat" from facing Palestinian gunmen while searching for Kassam rocket launch pads is a tough test for anyone. One tank gunner says he’s gone 72 hours without sleep.

Good chance for a break

Despite the busy day, most seem happy for the opportunity to chat, down a bottle of water and even put on tefillin with three Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries making the rounds. It's a good reason for many guys to take a short break.

"When these guys show up, it doesn't matter what they bring. We appreciate the fact that they care" "Their visits do wonders for our morale," says Rafael, a second-year soldier from the Tel Aviv area, of the latest round of Chabad shluchim to go out in the field in a show of support for those on the frontlines of Israel’s defense. "They give you a great shot in the arm of Judaism, really bring you back to G‑d."

Another soldier, Ami from Moshav Netua near the Lebanese border, agrees.

"Look, I'm secular, but these guys help us maintain a connection to our religion," he says. "It's really important out here: Guys are hot and sweaty and haven't been home in quite a while. When these guys show up, it doesn't matter what they bring – water, cookies, it doesn't matter. We appreciate the fact that they care."

Given the nature of the situation, there can hardly be a routine to the visits. But according to Rabbi Aharon Prus of Chabad's Youth Organization, that's part of their strength.

Chabad brings water and refreshments to the frontlines
Chabad brings water and refreshments to the frontlines
"Look, a lot of people only think tefillin when they think of Chabad," he says shortly before the visit from his office in the Lubavitch village of Kfar Chabad. "But I would say that's not the main thing. Sure, it's important, and we offer tefillin to as many soldiers as we can. But we play it by ear. We see what the guys need, whether it's a cold bottle of water, a box of cookies, or a hug to show the guys we recognize their sacrifice and we support them. Especially for soldiers headed out to battle, it's a real morale booster and sends them out strengthened."

From Teacher to Goodwill Messenger

"Infectious" is the only word to describe the smile that seems to be a permanent fixture on Rabbi Moshe Simon's face. By profession he's a first-grade teacher, and it's difficult to imagine him doing anything else, or anything that he'd enjoy more. Unlike the unassuming Prus, he is bubbly and animated as he runs from soldier to soldier, tank to tank, with water, a hug and a good word for each individual.

"I've got 11 children at home. But these guys are also my children" "If I'd had twice as much water here, they'd have finished that, too," he says back in the car, having emptied out case after case of water. It is the only thing he is disappointed about.

"It's not that I've got nothing else to do," says Simon. "I've got 11 children at home. But these guys are also my children, and I'll do whatever I can to help them out.”

According to Prus, that's a lot.

Rabbi Aaron Prus helps a soldier with tefillin.
Rabbi Aaron Prus helps a soldier with tefillin.
"Moshe has got an unquenchable passion for the IDF," he says of Simon. "On base, in the field, at war, in peace, camped out in the middle of a training exercise somewhere, Moshe is there with whatever he can round up – cold Cokes, cookies. He's even got a speaker on top of his car to play music and dance with them if the atmosphere is right – whatever it takes to make a connection."

On the way back to the Chabad neighborhood in Kiryat Malachi, the rabbis are already discussing the next day's visit. Simon recalls that there are two platoons at another location who haven't had a visit for several days, and says he wants to make sure he's set up with music, a loudspeaker and maybe some sweets.

Simon says dryly: "As long as we're going, let's use all the tools we've got to make it special for them.”