The atmosphere was deceptively quiet in the small moshav of Netiv HaAsara, only four hundred meters north of the Gaza Strip, on Tuesday afternoon when Mendy Hartman, a 45-year old Hasid from Bnei Brak, approached an armored IDF jeep and handed the soldier sitting in the driver’s seat a honey cake with a wrapper bearing the image of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. In response, the soldier, a young man wearing a knitted kippa, loudly proclaimed “Yechi Adoneinu,” a Chabad slogan acknowledging the Rebbe’s supposed status as the Messiah. “I have Chabad relatives,” he said with a sheepish grin. The rest of his squad was out behind a nearby house, checking the site where a Hamas rocket had hit several minutes earlier.
Shortly thereafter, the rest of the soldiers came marching up to the jeep, ignoring Hartman’s attempts at engagement. As they drove off, one of the residents came out of his house and implored the Hasid to leave, yelling that several rounds had fallen within spitting distance of his house and that it was incredibly dangerous to remain outside. Hartman, a gregarious man, seemed reluctant to leave and only shifted himself when his colleagues began screaming at him to get in their “Mitzvah Tank,” a converted recreational vehicle turned into a portable-synagogue-slash-outreach-center. As we drove away, I got a notification on my phone. More rockets were hitting in or near Netiv HaAsara.
Four years earlier, I had been down on the Gaza border covering Operation Protective Edge for the Jerusalem Post when I had my first encounter with Chabad’s battlefield outreach. Traveling with another two Post journalists, I had made my way to a small army encampment on the Israeli side of the border when a group of Hasidim came over and began distributing ices to the soldiers sitting in a nearby armored personnel carrier. One took out a pair of tefillin and began wrapping them on a reservist’s arm, saying the blessings slowly so he could repeat them out loud. Walking back to our car, we caught a glimpse of a Mitzvah Tank parked among the reservists’ vehicles, its broad sides bearing religious messages encouraging the observance of various Jewish religious laws. Now, with the outbreak of a new war seeming imminent, I called up Rabbi Dovid Nachshon, the head of Chabad’s Mitzvah Tank program in Israel, to arrange to “embed” with his men as they again made their way down to the front.
As we drove down to the south from Bnei Brak, Hartman, who works in religious outreach, explained that he was working toward perfecting the world and bringing the Messiah so that there would be no more war. In the meantime, he said, one has to focus on working on behalf of Jews twenty four-seven.
“It’s about getting rid of your ego and instead thinking of the other guy,” he said. “That’s why I, a father of seven, am going into an area under fire. During Operation Protective Edge, I was here and heard the sirens and was in the middle of the rockets. [Our Hasidim] ran into the tank and not into shelters because the [merit] of the Mitzvah Tank protects us.”
Elkana Giladi, the driver, agreed with his colleague. At 29-years old, Giladi had himself been serving in the IDF during the last major flare-up in 2014 and had managed to wrangle a day off from his commander to accompany the Mitzvah Tanks, still in uniform, on their mission. In 2014, all seven of Chabad’s Mitzvah Tanks in Israel went down south. “It’s not so scary,” he said of visiting soldiers under fire. “You get used to it.”
As we rumbled over the highway down south, Hartman proudly showed off the presents he had brought for the soldiers: small kits containing a Hebrew Psalm book, a paper charity box and a microfilmed version of the Chitat, a Chabad book combining a Bible, a Psalms and the Tanya, a classic Hasidic work. Each came in a package bearing an image of an IDF tank next to its Hasidic counterpart and stating boldly that it was for “protection and success.”
“The soldiers who received us were so happy,” he said, recalling previous wartime trips. “They felt alone. This is encouragement for the spirit and the mind. I’m endangering myself like you.”
The solders, he continued, could spend extended period under fire before entering Gaza and seeing a happy face bearing gifts of energy drinks and religious items would be a huge boost.
“A smile and blessing and a good word gives him to strength” to go on, he said.
While the Mitzvah Tanks were able to go right into military encampments during the last conflict, this time they were unable to get in, and the Hasidim were left with driving between the ad hoc checkpoints set up by the IDF throughout the Gaza envelope region, handing out treats and putting tefillin on the soldiers pulling guard duty.
“It really makes us happy,” Evyatar Tzabari, a soldier at one of the checkpoints, told The Forward. “It’s welcome. It really gets boring.”
This sentiment’s seemed widespread among the soldiers we visited, although it was often rather subdued. At one checkpoint, the soldiers crowded up and chatted with Hartman but expressed little excitement when he began singing and attempted to engage them in a Hasidic dance.
At another checkpoint, an ultra-Orthodox soldier with long sidelocks came running up to the Mitzvah Tank, complaining that he had not had time to pray that morning and thanking the Hasidim for coming. Scrambling into the RV, he quickly put on tefillin. As he rushed out to return to his post, Hartman called after him, offering him a candy.
Why not, the ultra-Orthodox soldier replied. “You need something sweet in life.”
At another checkpoint, one of the soldiers expressed exhaustion, describing how he had no cover and would have to huddle on the surface of the highway in the face of incoming rocket fire. “God is watching over us,” he said.
WAs one soldier was putting on tefillin, we heard a boom coming from the direction of Gaza. Glancing up, we noticed an Israeli helicopter hovering several hundred feet overhead. “It just shot at Gaza,” someone commented.
By the late afternoon, a ceasefire had been agreed upon. Hamas began organizing celebratory demonstrations across the Gaza Strip, while the political infighting over Prime Minister Netanyahu’s handling of the conflict began in earnest. But for Hartman and Giladi, the day was over. As we began driving north, they started debating whether to get pizza or shwarma.
Sam Sokol is a freelance journalist based in Israel. A former Jerusalem Post and IBA News correspondent, he is currently writing a book on the destruction of the Jewish communities of eastern Ukraine.