June 22, 2024
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Tzalash: Protecting the Protectors of Israel

When Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb arrived in Israel for a sabbatical year in 2009, he never expected to have stayed—let alone the path his career has taken over the past 15 years. Now, the father of four has taken the opportunity to channel his passion for supporting the mission of the Israeli Defense Forces through his work with Tzalash, a unique nonprofit supporting observant soldiers both spiritually and emotionally. Since taking over as managing director in 2021, Rabbi Gottlieb has seen and learned a lot, especially since October 7.

Tzalash came onto Rabbi Gottlieb’s radar in 2020, when his son was drafted into the IDF just as the COVID-19 pandemic had taken hold of the entire globe. At the time, Rabbi Gottlieb was working as a full-time teacher at Yeshivat Har Etzion (the Gush), and was working to build a synagogue in a new suburb of Beit Shemesh. “I was the rabbi of this new community, and really not looking for anything else,” he recalled. “I was fulfilling the family dream and helping the Jewish people in those two capacities.”

Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb, managing director of Tzalash, and the rav of Kehillat HaEla in Beit Shemesh, and a teacher at Yeshivat Har Etzion (Gush).

Rabbi Gottlieb’s son began his IDF service “vibrantly and passionately religious,” and like many other observant soldiers, faced a multitude of challenges. “He was with a hesder group, and while I knew there would be challenges with becoming a full-time soldier, I never really expected there to be religious obstacles,” said Rabbi Gottlieb. He explained that in addition to the exhaustion that comes with fighting on the front lines, religious soldiers experience an added level of intensity from their commitments to praying with a minyan, keeping Shabbat and learning Torah consistently.

When he finished his service a year and a half later, Rabbi Gottlieb’s son attributed his success to an organization that Rabbi Gottlieb himself had not heard of until then: Tzalash. His son sang the praises of Rabbi Peretz Einhorn, founder of Tzalash, and Rabbi Gottlieb made it a point to maintain a connection with Rabbi Einhorn out of gratitude for all that Tzalash was able to do for his son.

(l-r) Rabbi Gottlieb and Jewish Link co-publisher Moshe Kinderlehrer interacting on a recent Jewish Link Pitch Meeting podcast.

“Fast forward to 2021, and [Rabbi Einhorn] was asking if he could come see me,” recalled Rabbi Gottlieb. “He then said something I was not expecting to come out of his mouth: ‘Will you join me? I need a partner.’” At that point, Tzalash was still a relatively new organization, having only been offering its services for several years, and Rabbi Gottlieb was hesitant, initially refusing the opportunity for lack of experience.

“[Rabbi Einhorn] was so persistent and so dedicated to the mission. He truly did not understand what the word ‘no’ meant, because as he said to me more than once, ‘But the Jewish people need us! The chayalim need us!’ When someone is that persistent, and you’re convinced of their sincerity, it impacts you.”

While deliberating whether to take this role, Rabbi Gottlieb was connected with the great posek Rav Osher Weiss, who said something that ultimately made the decision for him: that “to help the chayalim in the way that Tzalash does is kodesh kedoshim—there’s nothing more important.” And so, three weeks later, Rabbi Gottlieb found himself joining Rabbi Einhorn’s team, and has been working tirelessly ever since.

Access to Torah learning is critical for religious soldiers across the country.

On the job, Rabbi Gottlieb quickly learned about the fantastic services that Tzalash offers from the inside out. “We target soldiers who are not only from religious backgrounds, but who come from hesder and mechinah programs—all different kinds who have an educational religious framework before going into the army,” he explained. In that context, Tzalash offers things like continued Torah learning on base, Shabbat programming and regular base visits from staff members to keep up morale. Tzalash also oversees the production and distribution of pocket-sized sifrei chizuk, as well as advocacy and support for lone soldiers and religious female soldiers.

“The deeper challenge is more subtle,” Rabbi Gottlieb shared. “If left untreated, it can be incredibly damaging, especially to the young soldiers who have received a certain type of spiritual nourishment for a year or two before the army. They’ve become wrapped up in things like davening and minyan and shul attendance … and then in the army, their mission becomes to protect the Jewish people, and they’re not focused on those things. At some point, if you don’t fill up the car, you’re going to be running on empty, so if you don’t nourish yourself spiritually, it can be really alienating.”

Rabbi Gottlieb’s son learning while in service.

Tzalash’s mission is to provide a remedy for this challenge by offering positive religious encounters for these soldiers. “What we try to do is not reactive,” said Rabbi Gottlieb, although he did note that Tzalash’s team is available to soldiers 24/6 for advice and counseling. “Our programs are intended to be preventative in a sense—the common denominator is that they all allow for active Torah study and religious experiences, not passive. We want to engage our soldiers and give them a sense of excitement and passion, so that after we leave, they have the resources and the motivation to continue.”

Since October 7, Tzalash has extended itself to oversee other initiatives supporting the religious IDF soldiers, including the distribution of supplies, and notably, becoming a pipeline between soldiers facing tough questions and rebbeim who can talk about them. The organization also introduced support groups for families of those on the front lines, specifically therapy services for mothers with children who are serving, as well as its Eishet Chayil division for the wives of soldiers. Overall, Tzalash has seen a proliferation of people using its vital services in the past several months, with more programming on the horizon as the brave defenders of Israel continue their fight.

A soldier learns while overlooking the beautiful landscape of Israel.

To hear more from Rabbi Gottlieb and the incredible work of Tzalash, listen to the latest episode of The Jewish Link Pitch Meeting podcast, available on all streaming platforms and on The Jewish Link’s YouTube channel.

More information can be found at tzalash.org.

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