Special Report: The Lubavitcher Rebbe and the IDF – A Legacy of Partnership and Support

“He who walks righteously and speaks uprightly, who despises the gain of oppressions, who shakes his hands, lest they hold a bribe, who stops his ears from hearing of bloodshed and shuts his eyes from looking on evil, he will dwell on the heights; his place of defense will be the fortresses of rocks.” (Isaiah 33:15-16)

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the passing of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

The year is 2001 and a newly enlisted lone soldier has just returned to his rented apartment in a small town to the south of Jerusalem. He left everything behind him to come to Israel and enlist in the IDF. His story is similar to those of the many other lone soldiers who come from abroad to volunteer for the IDF, only he is greeted in this town by a kindly gentlemen who upon seeing the soldier’s uniform immediately invites the soldier inside for a hot meal and provides him with a special gift to help “protect” him throughout his military service.

The gift is a special dollar from the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, affectionately referred to as the Rebbe . This dollar, together with a few more, was given by the Rebbe to the kindly gentleman to be given out to soldiers of the IDF together with blessings of protection and success.

The soldier carried this dollar through his regular service, and to this day, every time he is called up for reserve duty, the dollar is safely guarded in the soldiers pocket.

This is just one of the many myriads of stories that connects the last Lubavitcher Rebbe to the IDF.

Rabbi Schneerson became the head of the Lubavitch movement after his father-in-law, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson’s death in 1950. Throughout his career as head of the movement, the Rebbe was a staunch supporter of the IDF and its soldiers.

Rabbi Schneerson, throughout his life, did whatever was in his power to support the infrastructure of the State of Israel, and advance its success. He was concerned with its agricultural,industrial and overall economic welfare,and sought to promote its scientific achievements, and enhance Israel’s standing in the international community.

The Rebbe consistently expressed enormous recognition for the role of the IDF and stated that those who serve in the Israeli army perform a one of God’s positive biblical commandments (Mitzvah).He publicly expressed his view that the safety and stability of Israel were in the best interests of the United States, as Israel stands on the front line against those who want to destroy the West.

The Rebbe on serving in the IDF

Just before the outbreak of the Six-Day War, Rabbi Schneerson instructed his followers worldwide to initiate an active campaign to go around the world and help Jewish men lay tefillin [phylacteries], in hopes that by Jews observing this biblical commandment, soldiers of the IDF would merit divine protection against Israel’s enemies.

Speaking to a crowd of thousands of people on May 28, 1967, only a few days before the outbreak of the war, he assured the world that Israel would be victorious.He said Israel had no need to fear as God was with them, quoting the verse from Psalms, “the Guardian of Israel neither sleeps nor slumbers.” (121:4)

After the Operation Entebbe rescue, in a public talk on August 16, 1976, the Rebbe applauded the courage and selflessness of the IDF, “who flew thousands of miles, putting their lives in danger for the sole purpose of possibly saving the lives of tens of Jews”. He said “their portion in the Hereafter is guaranteed”.

Later vilified by ultra-orthodox rabbis for publicly praising the courage of irreligious, Zionist soldiers and suggesting that God chose these people as a medium through which he would send deliverance to the Jewish people, Rabbi Schneerson protested vehemently against those elements within the ultra-orthodox community who sought to undermine the motivations and actions of the IDF.

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Throughout his reign as the leader of Lubavitch, Rabbi Schneerson was visited by many prominent Israeli officials including Zalman Shazar, Menachem Begin, Ariel Sharon, Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Moshe Katzav, and Benjamin Netanyahu. Many IDF soldiers also made it a point to visit the Rebbe for a blessing and a dollar.

In one filmed meeting with an Israeli naval officer, the Rebbe spoke highly of the IDF, and stressed the importance of maintaining a religious atmosphere whenever possible, even during combat situations. Rabbi Schneerson himself worked with the United States Navy as an electrical engineer during WWII, and was acclaimed by those who worked with him as never giving up on his religious principles.

Rabbi Chaim Farro, a student of Rabbi Schneerson who studied under him for five and a half years and was later sent as the first shaliach [emissary] of Lubavitch to Manchester, England with his family, related a story to Breaking Israel News which he heard directly from the IDF officer to which it happened.

An emissary of Lubavitch wrapping tefillin on an IDF soldier on the front lines.  (Photo: UPI Photo/Debbie Hill)
An emissary of Lubavitch wrapping tefillin on an IDF soldier on the front lines. (Photo: UPI Photo/Debbie Hill)

The officer told Rabbi Farro: “I am a senior IAF officer and was sent to Washington by the general staff of the IDF to procure anti-missile equipment from the US. I had a strong personal connection with the Rebbe so when I landed in New York I arranged to have a personal meeting with Schneerson before departing to Washington. In the meeting, which lasted about two and a half hours, the Rebbe asked me certain pertinent questions about what equipment I wanted to procure from the Pentagon. I was unable to answer all the questions he had asked me and the Rebbe pointed out that I was missing vital information on what the IDF really needed and why they needed it. He told me that I was not yet ready to go to Washington. I spent the next five hours on the phone with IDF command in Israel to fill in all the gaps of information. It was only because of the Rebbe’s advice that my mission was ultimately successful.”

Farro reflected on his own experiences or growing up in Rabbi Schneerson’s presence and the values instilled in him about the love of Israel and the IDF.

“For the Rebbe, the security of Israel was something that was at the very top of the his focus and agenda,” Farro explained. “The Rebbe spent many hours in public speaking about how important it was to support Israel, support the IDF and learn from the mistakes that had been made in the past that cost thousands of lives.”

Farro also mentioned how Rabbi Schneerson was prophetic with regards to matters of Israeli diplomacy and politics. “The Rebbe said 35 years ago that to allow the Palestinians to have their own state will endanger the lives of every Jew living everywhere in Israel. Unfortunately, we are seeing the fulfillment of that today.” ​

The teachings and advice of the Lubavitcher Rebbe still hold true today. In September 2009, shortly after his speech to the General Assembly at the United Nations,  Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told reporters that his defense of the legitimacy of the Jewish people and Jewish state was inspired by something Rabbi Schneerson told him in 1984.

During a discussion at Chabad-Lubavitch headquarters in Crown Heights, New York, Rabbi Schneerson told Netanyahu that one day he would need to “light a candle of truth.” It was while preparing his speech to address the famously anti-Israel UN that Netanyahu recalled the words of the Rebbe.

“Remember, you are going to the UN,” Netanyahu said, relating to the reporters what the Rebbe told him over two decades ago, when he became Israel’s ambassador to the world body. “There is an assembly hall there that has eternal falsehood, utter darkness.”

“Remember that in a hall of perfect darkness, totally dark, if you light one small candle, its light will be seen from afar. Its precious light will be seen by everyone. Your mission is to light a candle for truth and the Jewish people,” Rabbi Schneerson advised Netanyahu.

Netanyahu recalls the Rebbe’s Advice

Dr. John Grossman, Chairman of LIBI USA, an all volunteer non-profit that raises funds on behalf of the IDF, reflected on the legacy of the Rebbe and how his support of the IDF still shines forth today.

“Rabbi Schneerson had a deep bond with Israel and especially with the defenders of the Jewish state. After the atrocities of the Holocaust, the need for a Jewish homeland was never greater. The Rebbe knew that supporting the IDF, spiritually and physically, was one of the most important things a person could do to ensure the survival of the State of Israel,” he explained.

“Emissaries from Lubavitch in Israel make sure to visit IDF bases and show their solidarity with the soldiers. During times of war, it is not an uncommon sight to see IDF soldiers and Lubavitch people putting on tefillin together before heading to the front lines,” Grossman said. “Rabbi Schneerson believed that a mitzvah has the power to save a life and what better way to help save the life of a soldier who is off to defend the Jewish homeland.”