BY MYRON LOVE
The IDF (Israel Defense Force) is the first and last line of defense for the people of Israel. As Zev Faintuch noted, quoting a Holocaust survivor, “without a strong army, there would be no Israel”.
But it is not only Israelis (Jewish, Christian, Bedouin and Druze) who stand shoulder to shoulder in defense of the Jewish state. A goodly number of Jewish youth – including several from within our own Jewish community – have also gone to Israel to enlist in the IDF and help protect the people of Israel.
Those foreign volunteers are referred to as “lone soldiers” – one of whom was Winnipegger Zev Faintuch. On Monday, June 5, Faintuch spoke to an audience of about 50 crammed into a room at Temple Shalom about his experiences as a member of the IDF. The program was under the aegis of Winnipeg Friends of Israel.
Being a “lone soldier” doesn’t actually mean that you are alone or lonely, Faintuch explained. It means that you do not have family in Israel. Generally, he noted, “lone soldiers” are matched with adoptive families to help them feel more connected.
“It is nice to have someone you can talk to when you are on leave who understands what you have been through and a place to go where you can feel at home,” he said.
Faintuch served in the IDF for 18 months in 2011-2012. He was a member of Nahal brigade serving in an infantry battalion. Throughout that time, he was stationed in southern Israel near Sderot, which is just across the border from Hamas-ruled Gaza. Fortunately, it was a quiet time. There was little or no hostile activity during that period.
The first question that Faintuch was asked by his fellow soldiers was: What motivated an overachieving nice Jewish boy who has trouble screwing in a light bulb (all in his own words) to enlist in the IDF. As he explained, he had been a Zionist from a young age. As a Gray Academy student, he was imbued with the Zionist ideal and love for Israel. He participated in the March of the Living (which takes high school students first to the Auschwitz extermination camp in Poland, then to Israel) and the Gray Academy’s P2G program (which involves exchange programs between Gray Academy students and teachers and their counterparts of Danciger Regional High school in Kiryat Shemona in northern Israel).
In addition, his mother, Shelley Faintuch, is a leader in Israel-related programs and activities in our community.
The moment that clinched his decision to join the IDF, he said, came on the second last evening of his Grade 12 trip to Israel. (Every year, the Gray Academy of Jewish Education arranges a trip to Israel for its graduating class at the end of the term.)
“When we were discussing our experience in Israel, one of my friends commented that he hoped his children would get to see Israel,” Faintuch recalled. “I took that to mean that Israel’s existence was in question.”
Other factors also played a role in Faintuch’s decision. He cited personal development and the opportunity to learn another language. “I had studied Hebrew, but wasn’t fluent,” he said.
There was also a Holocaust component. His great- grandparents had perished in the Holocaust and a great-uncle in Winnipeg is a survivor.
Faintuch went through the IDF’s rigorous training program, culminating in an all-night, 60 km hike in the desert with full backpack and running the last two kilometres carrying a stretcher
“I pushed myself further than I thought I was capable of,” he said.
His principal duties in the army were manning a heavy machine gun and operating a remote control overhead weapons system. “I sat in a vehicle – with a 50-calibre machine gun on the top – and operated a joystick connected to a camera,” he said. “I was supposed to surveil the surrounding area and provide cover for my other team members should we find ourselves in a combat situation.”
He also recalled how on Rosh Chodesh (the beginning of each month), a temporary shelter would be set up and a Torah would be brought out for morning prayers. “It was surreal and incredible,” he said.
“Would I do it (volunteer to serve in the IDF)?” he asked out loud. “Yes. It was an incredible experience. But if I could do it again, I would try to make officer. I wasn’t confident enough in my Hebrew.”
Faintuch was asked if he thought that he had made a difference to the defense of Israel. He responded negatively. “It doesn’t really make sense for the IDF to take on foreigners,” he noted. “We have to be paid more and require more resources. The positive answer though is that Israelis appreciate that some of us in the Diaspora have their backs. They don’t feel so alone when we stand shoulder to shoulder with them.”
He reported that 20% of the soldiers in his company were lone soldiers and 25% of his platoon were English-speakers.
In response to a question about the IDF’s code of ethics, he reported that it is among the strictest in the world. “Under the rules of engagement, we are only allowed to fire our weapons if we are in immediate physical danger,” he said.
Since his return, he has completed his BA in Global Studies and MA (at the University of Western Ontario) in Global Risk. “There are a large number of both Jewish and Muslim students at UWO,” he commented. “One of my best friends there was a Palestinian. We don’t talk politics.”