Israels military schooled in pluralism at Jewish high school

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At around 6 feet 4 inches and 250 pounds, Lt. Col. Doron Neuhaus bears little resemblance to a typical high school hall monitor checking passes.

But he does have experience.

Neuhaus, 42, commands the Israel Defense Forces’ Passes Unit, responsible for giving security passes to Palestinians. It’s dangerous, thankless work.

Yet there he was in his crisp army uniform, walking the halls of San Francisco’s Jewish Community High School of the Bay, stopping random students in their tracks.

“Do you brag about being a Jew?” he asked one unsuspecting youth. “What do you feel about Israel?”

Neuhaus and 11 other curious IDF officers were on campus as part of a four-day swing through the region. Their visit was the latest sponsored by Gvanim, a six-year-old initiative of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, the Israel Center and the federation’s Israel-based volunteer board.

The word “gvanim” means “hues” in Hebrew. The program seeks to develop respect and tolerance for the many forms of Jewish religious expression. Every year Gvanim brings a select group of Israelis to the Bay Area — ground zero for pluralism — and exposes them to Jewish life here.

Their itinerary took the officers from Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, a predominantly LGBT synagogue, to the Delancey Street Foundation, a rehab organization staffed by former addicts and homeless people.

Given the diverse ethnic backgrounds and streams of Judaism represented in the student body, JCHS seemed an ideal showplace for Jewish pluralism.

“Israel is at the center of this school,” said Igael Gurin-Malous, JCHS’s dean and Israel coordinator, as he gave the officers a tour. “We have five former students in the [IDF] now.”

In Naomi Dardik’s advanced Tanach class, officers sat around a table engaging the students in dialogue. They seemed even more curious about the students than the other way around.

“Do you have trouble with your Jewish identity?” Lt. Col. Inbar Keidar Baruch, 39, commander of the Military Law Academy, asked the class.

One student replied, “You develop your idea of what Judaism means to you as you go through the four years [of high school].”

Another student mentioned that he came out of a Conservative and Orthodox background. “How come?” shot back a smiling Neuhaus.

Lt. Col. David Solomon, 34, was impressed by what he saw at the school. A commander of an IDF engineering battalion, he was excited by the many “hues” of Jewish life in the Bay Area. Paradoxically, it’s something uncommon in Israel, where many, especially secular Israelis, take their Jewish heritage for granted.

“I always looked at being Jewish as a byproduct” of daily life in Israel, he said. “I never had to face the questions or challenges that come from that. I knew so little about being Jewish. We don’t know much about being religious. For us there is just dati [Orthodox] or nothing.”

In the past, Gvanim participants came from many walks of Israeli life — social services, academia, synagogues — but not until now did IDF personnel come aboard. Considering the transcendent role the military plays in Israeli society, it made sense to Solomon to take part.

“The army is more than a defense force,” he said. “It’s a mirror of society, a melting pot, a way to create Israeli society out of this mishmash. Since [founding Israeli Prime Minister David] Ben-Gurion, the army has been a tool for Israeli society to improve itself.”

At a school assembly, the entire student body had a chance to meet the officers. Several told moving stories about their army experience and its significance in defending Israel.

“What would you say to high schoolers in Israel about serving in the military?” one student asked.

“There is no one else to do the job,” replied Lt. Col. Ofer Maor. “The enemy is two kilometers away. It’s very basic: We want to live, and in order to live we need a strong army.”

For these few days in the Bay Area, the soldiers were away from their posts, enjoying the springlike weather. But Brig. Gen. Michel Ben-Baruch, the senior officer taking part, wasn’t worried. He thinks the Gvanim program will benefit the participants as well as future generations of Israelis.

“The main goal of the program is to strengthen the relationship between the Jewish community and Israel,” he said. “With what we learn here, we can be better persons, better officers and we can teach our soldiers a new way.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.