Yoni, while serving in Gaza, was assigned to the unit preparing soldiers for burial. The Israel Defense Forces didn’t issue bullet-proof vests to that unit but Yoni wanted one, even if he had to buy it himself. He asked friends in the Baltimore yeshiva community to help him with the cost — $1,534 — and they did. Oh, and there were 79 others in Yoni’s unit who wanted one, too. Within days, Jews from Baltimore raised $122,720 for 80 bullet-proof vests.
In New Jersey, Rabbi Tomer Ronen put out the word that he would be flying to Israel, bringing “care packages” — socks, underwear, T-shirts — to his son’s IDF unit, if anyone would like to contribute. In 24 hours he collected $10,000, filling six duffel bags with nearly 600 pounds of Fruit of the Loom and Hanes.
Reflecting how informal and independent these wartime charities have become, Bnai Akiva’s Camp Moshava raised $5,000, deciding the shopping list as if they were parents on visiting day, based on conversations with relatives in the IDF. The head counselor, flying to Israel to watch her son get inducted into the IDF, delivered the shipment herself. Moshava explained in their fundraising letter, “Tzahal [the IDF] is doing the very best to provide the essential equipment. … However, there are some basic necessities that are beyond their scope at the current time to provide.”
All over the United States, Jews were exchanging e-mails and social media posts telling each other that almost everything was “beyond the scope of the IDF to provide.” Jews e-mailed that “they heard” Israeli soldiers were without proper boots, socks or bullet-proof vests, deprived of hats, shampoo, wipes, deodorant, underwear, razors, goggles or knee-pads. In Israel, people drove to the front with pizzas, even steak freshly grilled from Maale Adumim. The IDF reported receiving “tens of thousands” of packages.
Lt. Col. (res.) Avinoam Sharon, who worked in the Military Advocate-General Corps, the IDF’s legal wing, told The Jewish Week that many of these ad hoc charities are “bona fide attempts by caring people to do something helpful, some are attempts to feel good or relevant, some are thinly veiled commercial enterprises…. others are simply scams.” These donations could also be illegal, unwanted or unethical.
Illegal, says Sharon, because it is against regulations for anyone in the IDF to ask for gifts of value. The IDF itself, he said, when giving a watch to an officer upon retirement, is not allowed to give a watch valued above $50.
Unwanted, because the IDF asserts that its soldiers are well supplied. After looking the other way while absorbing 50,000 reservists in a month, IDF rules are once again being enforced: soldiers are not allowed to accept or solicit donations for themselves or their unit, or through a third-party. The IDF reiterated that the only acceptable donations are those funneled through IDF affiliates such as LIBI, a fund established in 1980 by the prime minister and IDF chief of staff; Agudah LeMa’an HaChayal (Association for the Wellbeing of Soldiers); and the American-based Friends of the IDF (FIDF).
There was an ethical problem, as well, concern that one soldier with access to American money might be living like “the millionaire” on “Gilligan’s Island,” while another soldier might be living lower-class in his own platoon. When donations are helter-skelter, with outsiders deciding who gets what, said Maj. Gen. (res.) Yitzhak (Jerry) Gershon, national director of FIDF, “It is [a problem] because I’m not sure that the right people are always getting the right things.”
It should be noted that several of the ad hoc “Israel Emergency Funds” formed in the wake of war, have begun allocating their resources to necessities far more urgent than socks and underwear. Riverdale Jewish Center, for example, announced last week that it was allocating the synagogue’s war-related donations to Yad Sarah, a 30-year-old organization specializing in hospitalization, home care and medical costs, to purchase of 60 wheelchairs, along with walkers and canes, for injured soldiers who have returned home.
The FIDF’s Gershon explained that more can be accomplished, and more equitably, when donations are pooled and coordinated. For example, donations to FIDF allow for the grant of $50,000 to each battalion for a week’s rest and recuperation (13,000 soldiers took advantage of this in 2013); assistance to the children of fallen soldiers; the purchase of refrigerators, game rooms, and computer centers for army bases; and the distribution of holiday gifts such as 50,000 mishloach manot packages on Purim.
Sharon, now working on a doctorate in Talmud and Jewish law at the Jewish Theological Seminary, says with every draft notice a letter goes to parents “instructing them not to buy any equipment for their children. The IDF supplies everything necessary, and then some, including orthopedic inserts, toiletries, sunscreen, you name it. You’re not expected to buy your own gear.”
Besides, he adds, “IDF soldiers are prohibited from using [donated] equipment that is not military grade, tested and approved by the IDF. The IDF has very rigorous standards for those things, and as we say in the army, those standards were written in blood.”
Yet need was becoming greed. One paratroopers unit set up a web site resembling a bridal registry. On it, a soldier wrote, “the funding here in the IDF is very limited and therefore there is a lack in better equipment…” Maybe it was August in Gaza, but he complained that jackets “to keep warm in cold weather aren’t provided by the army…. My team and I ask for your help in the form of monetary donations…. [a cold-weather] windbreaker will cost us around $70; quality Asolo brand boots, around $150; flashlight gun attachments, around $100…”
In fact, that unit did not need the boots anymore than the cold-weather jackets. One father of a soldier in that unit e-mailed that “top quality” boots are indeed given to these soldiers for combat but the IDF allows soldiers to wear Asolo boots “for everyday use.” The Asolo boots were “a status symbol…. they make for great bragging rights!”
Jealousy outranked necessity. Haaretz reported a complaint that when the Sayeret Matkal, an elite special operations force, was equipped with expensive mountain boots, “the entire IDF wants the same thing.”
Sharon is stunned by individuals who think they can decide for themselves how to best equip an army. If your son was a policeman, “Would you buy boots or bullet-proof vests, haul’em down to the local precinct and say, hey, its for your SWAT team?”
One constant in almost all the informal wartime appeals was the fear that the sophisticated IDF (and therefore Israel) was in reality overwhelmed, vulnerable, ill-equipped, forced to choose between bullets or boots. And to many Jews an infantalization of the soldiers has crept into perceptions, that our soldiers, fresh out of high school, remain child-like, perhaps a remnant of the Gilad Shalit years when, captured without a fight, his image was that of a helpless little brother. That is not how Americans see the Marines.
“You may have something there,” says Sharon, “the way people sometimes think of Israeli soldiers. Maybe we do infantilize our kids even when they’re in the army, that we have to send them all kinds of stuff and keep taking care of them. We sometimes let our emotions take over, clouding our better judgment.” After all, for the soldiers that died or might die, who wouldn’t want to send them gifts, anything at all, if we could?
FIDF’s Gershon has kind words for the informal charities. “There is something remarkable, unique to our people: Kol Yisroel areivim zeh l’zeh,” the idea that all Jews feel responsible, one for the other. “In times of trouble, every citizen becomes a philanthropist. Every family becomes a charity. Achdut (unity) is great. The soldiers need to feel that the people are supporting them, and the people need to feel that they are standing behind our soldiers. But the IDF says now is the time to [know] that every necessity is in place.”
As for all the underwear, wipes and socks, there was enough, he jokes, for a Target — not the practice range, the store.