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Lone soldier fulfills a life’s goal in Israel
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Lone soldier fulfills a life’s goal in Israel

‘I didn’t want to be just another boring kid,’ says Rafael Kaplan

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

The weirdest thing for Rafael “Rafe” Kaplan, now that he’s home in New Jersey, is that when he goes to bed, he knows he’ll get to sleep through the night.

“No one’s going to cross over the border in the middle of the night. I go to bed knowing I won’t be woken up for a drill,” said Kaplan, who returned to Warren several weeks ago after a year-and-a-half tour of duty in the Israel Defense Forces’ elite paratroopers brigade. “But I miss holding a gun. I miss the physical aspects. And I miss being in a Jewish army in a Jewish country where everyone says, ‘Shabbat Shalom,’ and I don’t need a note explaining my absence for a holiday. Everyone knows when it’s Rosh Hashana or Sukkot.”

Kaplan, 25, is the son of two local rabbis, Randi Musnitsky of Temple Har Shalom in Warren and Ron Kaplan, formerly of Temple Beth Am in Parsippany. Since returning, Rafe Kaplan has already been on several speaking engagements at synagogues, and has managed to sit out the snow on a family vacation in Florida. NJJN spoke with him from there by phone.

Kaplan grew up mostly in Elkins Park, Pa. (his mother and father were then pulpit rabbis at Temple Emanuel in Cherry Hill and Congregation Or Shalom in Berwyn, Pa., respectively.) He attended first the Solomon Schechter Day School in Cherry Hill and, later, what is now Golda Och Academy in West Orange. When he graduated from Indiana University, he knew he wanted to join the military before heading off to medical school.

“I’ve always respected soldiers because they know they are sacrificing something for their country. I wanted to respect myself in that way. I didn’t want to be just another boring kid going from college to a job to a promotion and then I’d turn 50 and I would not have done anything I really wanted to do. This was originally for me.”

At one point Kaplan considered the U.S. Marines, but they wouldn’t take him because he is deaf in one ear. “Their medical standards are higher than the IDF’s,” he said, and was thrilled when he found he could serve in the Israeli army.

He volunteered through a program called Mahal, which handles all the administrative details for Jewish men and women (under 24 and 21, respectively) who are not Israeli citizens but wish to serve in the IDF for 18 months. Once enlisted, foreigners serve side by side with Israelis and are treated the same. After initial training, when it came time to choose units, Kaplan decided to take the test for the paratroopers, and got in. He was concerned that as an American, he’d be put on desk duty, rather than being assigned to combat. He needn’t have worried.

He knew he would face intense physical and mental challenges, but what he wasn’t prepared for was the intense spiritual bonding that came from being in the armed forces in Israel.

“It was very cool that in a Jewish army, my best friend was from Rome. He spoke no English and I speak no Italian. Together we spoke the holy language of Hebrew,” Kaplan said. “When we lit the menora on Hanukka as a platoon outside of Lebanon, I cried. When they said, ‘Why are you crying, it’s just Hanukka,’ I said, ‘It’s so cool that we are lighting the menora together.’ I know that wouldn’t happen in any other army experience.”

He did experience some moments of anxiety; though he never saw actual combat, the tryout for the paratroopers was grueling. “For 36 hours straight, we were crawling and running on difficult terrain with heavy backpacks through the night. I was worried — I wondered if it was in fact too dangerous or difficult for me.”

But his fears were overpowered by his determination to be part of the division. “The paratroopers are very respected,” Kaplan said. “They liberated Jerusalem during the 1967 Six-Day War” and are generally held in high regard.

One side benefit of being in the paratroopers is that he got to experience the thrill of the parachute jump seven times as part of his training, which he originally was trying to figure out how to work into his time in the IDF. Four times the jumps took place in daylight; three times, they were at night, as part of a war games exercise, simulating what they would do in wartime. “It’s the most incredible experience. You always jump alone. And it’s nothing like recreational skydiving because you are jumping with 300 pounds of gear on, and then you have to reach a rendezvous point and march.”

The other thing that Kaplan said got him through the harsh conditions was thinking about Jewish history. “When it was difficult marching all night, I would think, ‘At least I have a gun to protect myself. We’re here and we’re strong and we can defend ourselves.’ I thought about the Holocaust and the Jews marching all night then. If they slowed down, they’d be shot. If I slowed down, I’d just get a push and it would make me stronger.”

Kaplan also had the opportunity to connect with the Land of Israel again, something that would not have happened with Americans in the U.S. military, where he would have been sent abroad. Marching around Israel, he said, “I felt like I could picture all the ancient Jews that came before, like Abraham, running around on the land.”

But, he said, he has no plans to make aliya. The most challenging part of his entire tour of duty was dealing with the cultural divide. “Israelis are just a different breed,” he said. “Even if something is guaranteed by law, it’s never really guaranteed.” As he explained, whether an authority figure would follow the letter of the law or not was always somehow open to question. Often, he explained, it depended on how many times, and how aggressively, one asked for things the law already granted.

For example, “lone soldiers” — those who are in the country, alone, with no family — are guaranteed one day every month to manage their affairs — in theory. “Sometimes your commander will say, ‘No, no. It’s not good for now. You can’t go.’ It doesn’t matter what the law says,” Kaplan said. But he learned how to work the system. “You have to ask over and over repeatedly. Americans get taken advantage of because we’re timid and we give in. They always say no at first. Eventually, they say yes.”

And, he said, “the whole country runs like the army,” and he doesn’t want to live in such an “aggressive” place.

Still, he said, although non-citizen volunteers do not get called up for reserve duty if there’s a war, Kaplan said he will go “if everyone else gets called up.”

In the meantime, he’s enjoying American pizza, sleeping through the night, and worrying about where he’ll be accepted to medical school, which he hopes to start in the fall.

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