JIM CREES: Thanks to the Rabbi
Editor’s Note: I first ran this column some eight years ago. Recently, I was asked to publish it again ... in the Spirit of the Season. I do so.
Once upon a time ...
Readers of this newspaper may or may not know that I spent a good part of my adult life living in Israel.
It was there I met and married my wife — an Israeli citizen. Soon after our wedding, I was drafted (yes, drafted!) to serve in the Israel Defense Forces. I was one of the very, very few non-Jews to ever serve in Israel’s army. (It’s a long story that I don’t plan to get into at this time.)
In the winter of 1980, I received a call-up notice to serve 30 days of active reserve duty in the Golan Heights. (I was a combat para-medic in the infantry and was called up for service up to 60 days each year.)
This time there was a problem. I had been ordered serve for a period of time which included Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
Now ... I love Christmas and all things Christmasy. Living on Kibbutz in Israel, we were the only family in our entire community to put up a Christmas tree. While living in both the U.S. and Israel, I’ve never missed spending Christmas at home. It’s really quite important to me. I love Christmas. I love the deep message of Peace on Earth, Goodwill Toward Men.
I wasn’t looking forward to not spending Christmas at home with my ever-so-tolerant Jewish bride and my new four-month old son.
It was going to be my first Christmas as a dad! I didn’t quite know what to do.
The problem was this ...
I never told anyone I served with in the Israeli army that I wasn’t Jewish.
It’s not that I was wary of any discrimination or untoward treatment as a minority. (Weird isn’t it. Me. The classic example of a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant. I was a minority in Israel!!!) Anyway ... it wasn’t that I was concerned about being seen as a non-Jew, a gentile, a Goy ... whatever. The reason I didn’t tell people I wasn’t Jewish was simply that once you did something like that you lost out on all the great jokes.
It’s simple. If you’re a Christian serving in a Jewish army, you really can’t be the one telling Jewish jokes, and everyone else suddenly gets real careful about telling Christian jokes. It’s all about political correctness doncha know.
Anyway ... I began my service on the line patrolling as a medic with infantry crews watching over the tense Syrian-Israeli border.
Earlier, however, I requested that on Dec. 24 and 25 I be allowed to go home for a “family function.” My request was approved and everything was all set. I’d carry out my military duties but also be home in time to spend Christmas with my wife and son. After two weeks of unbelievably monotonous slogging, I was all set to go home.
As I prepared to head out of the Heights into Israel-proper the morning of Dec. 24, my commanding officer came in and very regretfully told me there was no way he could let me go.
In the Israel army, no patrol goes out on the line without a combat medic attached. A couple of the other medics had been pulled off duty for one reason or the other and the command team just couldn’t find a replacement for me.
I was going to have to stay in the Golan without going home. It broke my heart.
I knew there was nothing my commander or I could do. That’s life.
So I unpacked, suited up in my cold weather gear and headed for the “safari” style truck we patrolled in each day, all day long. On my way over to the patrol vehicle garage, I decided to stop at the unit chaplain’s office to vent my frustration.
Unit chaplains in the Israeli army are Jewish rabbis. That’s all.
There are no Christian soldiers, so there’s no need for a Christian chaplain. There are few if any Moslem soldiers, (a few Beduin trackers.) So no need for a Moslem chaplain. There are just Jewish soldiers. The chaplains are rabbis.
I stopped in and asked to talk to him for a minute.
I told him how disappointed I was not to be going home and explained why. The rabbi was fascinated. He’d never met a non-Jewish soldier in the Israeli army. While he certainly sympathized with me not being able to go home for Christmas, he was much more interested in why a nice Presbyterian kid from Detroit was in Israel at all, and in the Israeli army specifically.
I was source of wonderment to him.
After a little talk, I headed out to my duty station and the patrol took off for a day of driving back and forth over our stretch of the border at about five mile per hour — all day long.
Just after noon, we noticed a jeep coming up the border patrol road. We figured it was some officer making a nuisance of himself, (as officers are apt to do.).
Pulling up behind us I noticed the vehicle held a driver, the unit rabbi and some other guy.
The rabbi jumped out and called to me. He had somehow arranged for another combat medic to replace me for the rest of the patrol and to cover my duties the next day.
“Come on,” he cried with a huge smile on his face. “We’ve got to get you home.”
Pulling me aside as I stripped off my combat patrol gear, he said none of the other guys knew what was going on, but he just couldn’t allow me to miss being with my family on a day that was so important to me — Christmas.
Climbing into the jeep we began a race to Tiberius on the Sea of Galilee.
Christmas Eve fell on Friday that year and all the public transportation in Israel ends before sundown on Friday in honor of the Sabbath.
I had to get to Tiberius by 3 p.m. in order to catch the last bus home.
With the rabbi goading his driver on to bigger and better things, we raced down the Heights, circled the north part of the Sea of Galilee, and made it with literally a couple minutes to spare.
I gave the rabbi a kiss on the forehead and took off running to catch my bus.
As I raced through the bus station, I grabbed the only thing I thought suitable for a four-month old kid. Tossing a bunch of money at a kiosk owner I bought my son’s first Christmas present ever — a stuffed Augie Doggy doll. I made the bus and got home in time to help Dina whip up a reasonable Christmas meal.
With my in-laws watching over our baby, we traveled to Nazareth for Midnight Mass at the Basilica of the Annunciation — the traditional site where Mary was told by the angel what God had in store for her. I spent all the next day with my family.
And so, thanks to a Jewish rabbi in the Israeli army, I was able to enjoy my son’s first Christmas ... at home ... with him.
Thanks to the rabbi.
Three decades later, my son still has the Augie Doggy doll. He keeps it in his car and it has traveled everywhere he has gone around the state, nation, and the world
Thanks to the rabbi.