Rabbi Shalom Hammer, a chaplain in the Israel Defense Forces, is determined to bring healing and civility to the heated dialogue over religiosity in his adopted land.
As a member of the IDF’s Jewish Identity Unit, he works predominantly with secular troops in Israel’s armed forces. But he extends his mission to civilian life as well.
The 47-year-old author and educator was born in Queens; raised in the Orthodox community of Monsey, NY; and has been an Israeli citizen since 1990. Appearing at Chabad of Western Monmouth County in Manalapan on Jan. 10 and 11, he will discuss how “even IDF forces must be reminded about what we are fighting for [and] that living in Israel doesn’t guarantee that you are absolved from struggling with Jewish identity.”
He spoke with NJ Jewish News on Dec. 25 from his home in Beit Shemesh.
NJJN: What is the Jewish Identity Unit?
Hammer: We are a branch of the IDF under the army rabbinate, and we run programs with a Torah perspective. We do not give religious instruction. We give lectures to open to them a Jewish ideology, a Zionist ideology, and a love for the Jewish people based on the Torah.
NJJN: Most people serving in the IDF are secular. How do they respond to what you are doing?
Hammer: There is a saying that “there are no atheists in a foxhole,” so when it comes to military service, you’d be surprised at how many people are interested in hearing about what religion has to say in terms of what their mission is. We have certain commanding officers who are very interested in having their soldiers relate to Jewish tradition so they can understand who they are and where they are coming from. Outside the army in secular society there is an awakening resurgence toward Judaism. People may not be religious, but they want to be told about Jewish tradition. They want to know about the Torah and what makes it special and why it gives us an identity separate from the people of other nations.
NJJN: But most of these people are not observant?
Hammer: Absolutely not, and most of them are not interested in being observant. The point is, the door is open for us. If we do it with sensitivity and demonstrate unity, it lends us the opportunity to give over this platform of Judaism to them from an Orthodox perspective but without any coercion.
NJJN: Can you speak about an increased haredi presence in the army?
Hammer: The haredi presence is still not felt. It is still a very small minority and they have their own units. I don’t have much contact with them. They don’t bring me to speak to them. They are not looking for what we have to offer in terms of Zionist ideology.
NJJN: In Beit Shemesh, where you live, there has been heavy conflict between the haredim and the Modern Orthodox. Is it still intense?
Hammer: Well, yeah. It might not be as blatant, but it is present, and its undertone is very strong. The violence has subsided, but the feeling of abusiveness is still very much present.
NJJN: Some people say there is a bigger conflict between secular and religious Israelis than between Israelis and Palestinians. Do you agree?
Hammer: I would say it is Israel’s main problem because the Palestinians are an opposing team we can easily identify. But when there is infighting in your own family, the pain is that much greater. There are very serious divides. So long as the haredi world does not serve in the army, there will always remain a major rift with secular Israelis. So long as the rabbinate here, even within the Orthodox Zionist world, does not learn how to deal and talk with other denominations of Judaism and secular Jews in Israel, this rift will remain strong.
NJJN: How should the Orthodox be speaking to other Jews?
Hammer: With tolerance, patience, consideration, and no coercion. I have begun my own initiative. I am running around the country speaking in kibbutzim and moshavim that are completely secular. Some of them are anti-religious. I have had a huge amount of success in these places speaking to them. They have a very strong interest in Judaism. The moment you show them you’re tolerant and you just want to give them your point of view but hear theirs as well, there is a tremendous amount of unity. It’s a beautiful thing.
Alan Richman contributed to this article.