Teaneck-Col. Geva Rapp (res), serving in the first Lebanon war as a young officer, experienced a frightening episode of friendly fire. The plane was Israeli and he was on the ground; he couldn’t fire back or instruct his soldiers to do anything except to try to protect themselves. He thought it might be a good time to pray, but as he had been raised as a secular Israeli, he didn’t have the words. It happened to him again, in combat in the same war; Rapp experienced what he felt as a “hard slap on the back.” He had turned around at that very moment to speak to his soldiers, but when he turned back around no one was there. He dismissed it, but as he unpacked his pack later, he found a bullet, that had been shot at his chest, and had instead entered his backpack, ricocheted through a flashlight and out through the top of the pack. He had heard there was a prayer one could say of thanksgiving in cases such as these, but again, he just didn’t have the words.
After he finished his active duty stint, Rapp went to Yeshiva Machon Meir, and began learning those words and the meaning behind them. Ten years ago, he founded Panim el Panim (no relation to the BBYO organization), and works to educate secular Israelis in schools and in the army, in basic Jewish philosophy and practice. He visited Teaneck last week with 12 IDF soldiers to share stories of their work during Operation Protective Edge and other conflicts and to share their mission with a wide variety of school and organizational audiences. He spoke at Mocha Bleu in Teaneck and at the Frisch School.
“Our units are prepared to give their lives, but (without the background) they don’t know where and what for,” said Rapp. Therefore, Panim el Panim was established as an education movement to raise and deepen the national spirit of Israel, to quench a thirst in the hearts of secular Israelis, to encourage unity and strength between the secular and religious communities. This knowledge enhances the commitment of secular Israelis to the Jewish nation and the state of Israel, he said.
Today, the program has a yearly budget of $2 million, with IDF programs set up at 45 bases and dozens of outposts, giving 3,100 shiurim a year. Panim el Panim also operates in 80 secular high schools, reaching 28,000 students, and invests in secular teachers, with nine training and guidance centers. The program also provides learning opportunities on 70 kibbutzim, with more than 5,000 participants each year.
Kibbutzim are important in the heart of one Panim el Panim soldier who visited Teaneck. Born on Kibbutz Ginosar on the western banks of the Sea of Galilee, Major S. (res.) (name withheld due to army regulations), spoke to JLBC, and shared his journey from being a secular Israeli and IDF air force F-16 combat flyer, to a religious Jew and reservist called up to help coordinate air bombings during Protective Edge.
Having been raised as a kibbutznik, entrenched in socialist and Marxist philosophies, he said he had no knowledge of mesorah (Jewish tradition) at the time he joined the army eight years ago. His journey to orthodoxy began with his friendship with a fellow soldier in his unit, a yeshiva student named Danny, who answered many of his questions. As he began to understand the mission of Israel and his role to protect and defend it, he eventually found his “existential place in the world” as a religious Jew, but, as a commander of the officers flight academy, he didn’t know how to communicate the intricacies of this larger mission of Israel to his students. “I decided to take one year after my release from the army, to stay home and read books,” he said. Doing that, he said, meant turning down several secular job opportunities: One with Israeli president Shimon Peres, one with opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu, and another as a pilot for El Al.
After several years of intense study, Major S. remains in kollel when he is not on reserve duty. He has been called up for the last three wars, including Protective Edge. Major S. relayed that every effort was made at all times to minimize casualties in Gaza, that he and his colleagues were using the intelligence they had from the rocket attacks to identify targets and not only dropped leaflets, but called the cellphones of civilians in those buildings, urging them to leave. “We have the best intelligence and we used it (to keep civilians safe). No one can tell Israel what morality is. There is no question about morality with us. How do you know when they know they are in the wrong? You see the antagonism,” he said.
Over the past several years, he crystallized the reason for his work and the reason why he serves in the IDF. “Our job is to rebuild the Beis Hamikdash,” he said. As a shaliach for Panim el Panim, he shares this mission with secular Jews on a regular basis.
“In the Haggadah, it says we are threatened not just by one enemy, but many enemies,” Rapp told JLBC. “But I heard from my rabbi, Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu (former chief rabbi of Israel), that when we are not one, when the nation of Israel is not united as one, this is the real threat, the only threat. The threat is not from the goyim,” he said.
“We feel we need to strengthen the bridges and the unity in Am Yisrael. The main tool is just to teach the basics of Torah and emunah (faith). So people understand that we are all people from Avraham Avinu, we are one family, one nation. Our brothers abroad also need some outreach,” Rapp said, referring to his reason for the trip, which includes twin goals of education and fundraising.
“Why does Hashem put the money of the poor people in the pockets of the rich? Because Am Yisrael needs each other and they need to help one another. Poor people are in America because they don’t have Israel. They do not have the land, the air, of Israel. So we come to give this to them and they give to us also,” Rapp said.
One of Teaneck’s most enthusiastic supporters of Panim el Panim is Naftali Abenaim, owner of the restaurant Mocha Bleu. He hosted the 12 soldiers, Rapp, and a number of supporters and donors, donating the entire cost of the dinner event at his restaurant. “Panim el Panim reaches deep into our chayalim’s souls, and extracts their experiences to combine the essence of serving Hashem and serving your country,” Abenaim told JLBC. “Geva and his delegation are people who are thirsty and passionate to bring a strong sense of Torah to every single soldier’s home. There should be no doubt or hesitation why one should support Panim el Panim. [These are] true motivations and real results,” he said.
The soldiers also visited Frisch on Monday, sharing stories of Operation Protective Edge and interacted with and inspired the students.
To learn more about Panim el Panim, or to donate generously, please visit the American Friends of Panim el Panim at http://www.afpelp.org/. Col. Rapp can also be contacted through Dov Goldman, founder of American Friends of Panim el Panim, at 917.575.2525 or [email protected]
By Elizabeth Kratz