Monsey man trades yeshiva studies for IDF service
Sgt. Chaim Silber was waiting for the order — the one that would take him and his unit, the 202nd Airborne, also known as the Vipers, into Gaza. While Silber waited, so did the world — to see if a fragile, brokered ceasefire between Hamas and Israel would hold.
“We’re in pretty good spirits, though we are nervous,” said Silber, 23, from an undisclosed location near the Gaza border as he waited to hear whether the Vipers would be going into battle. “We have no idea what can happen. There’s a fear of the unknown….We could go into Gaza; or there could be missiles here.
“We’re scared and we are proud of what we are doing.”
Silber, a Monsey native, is one of the so-called lone soldiers — non-natives without nearby family who serve in Tzahal (the Israel Defense Forces, or IDF) — he had been released from his service less than three weeks before the most recent hostilities between Hamas and Israel erupted. Wanting to be with his unit in a time of danger and need, and feeling a call to duty, he re-enlisted, willing to see action if the government deemed it necessary.
“I thought I could move on in life, go back to yeshivah, travel, and study,” said Silber. “Then this war broke out. I couldn’t just sit back and watch, so I re-enlisted and went back to my unit for six months of active duty.”
For Silber, the journey from Monsey yeshivah boy to a member of an elite paratrooper unit was unconventional, but not unexpected. It was the road less travelled for someone from a “yeshivish background,” but one that Silber had settled on in his mind long ago.
“The truth is that Chaim talked about being an army man since being a little boy,” said his mother, Brookie Silber, who lives with her husband, Shea, in Monsey.
It was a path that was practically sealed the day she bought her youngest child camouflage pajamas when he was three years old. Silber wore them every night and would have worn them to school under his clothes had his parents not objected. He watched such World War II movies as “The Bridge Over River Kwai” until he knew them by heart. He attended Boy Scout camp because he wanted “to learn how to survive in the wilderness,” said his mother, who describes the family as stemming from chassidim, with roots in the Sqverer, Viznitcher and Bluzever sects and connections to Chabad.
Nonetheless, Silber, the youngest of five, continued on the path that obedient frum boys take, continuing his studies, and loving the familial feel of the beit midrash. After studying in Yeshiva Gedolah of Bridgeport, Conn., he attended a talmudic academy in Jerusalem. Once in Israel, however, he knew he had to follow his true calling.
“This was something I felt I had to do, deep down inside,” he said. “It was an obligation. If I was going to live here, to give back.”
The academy’s rabbis attempted to dissuade him, urging him instead to continue his Torah studies. On the other hand, his father, a building contractor who worked closely with his Arab neighbors when the family lived in Israel from 1979 to 1984, remembered how tense could be the situation in Israel. So, while neither the elder Silber or any other family member were enthused, Silber eventually persuaded them all that the IDF was the place he was meant to be.
It was his mother, especially, who understood that her son’s childhood fancy had grown into a serious desire.
“I have always been very supportive,” said Brookie Silber. “There is worry, but I do have a lot of emunah [faith] and we just have to believe that all our children are being watched. There comes a time when you can’t hold their hand anymore.”
For Silber, and other lone soldiers, the IDF does some of that hand-holding, seeking to ease their way as they navigate a foreign country and military culture. The Lone Solider Center — named in memory of Michael Levin, a Camp Ramah in the Poconos alumnus who was killed in the 2006 Lebanon war — provides both practical and emotional support to those wishing to serve in Tzahal.
Founded in 2008, the center has branches in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Haifa. It provides basic needs and guidance to about 2,000 of the nearly 6,000 lone soldiers each year, according to Josh Flaster, a founder and member of its board of directors. Those the center serves may be “machal” soldiers who serve two years and return to their home countries; olim (new immigrants) doing their three-year service; or those, like Silber, who began as machal, but decided to make aliyah and continue in the military. As well, the center is seeing more young charedi, who serve without family support, Flaster said.
“I saw the need first-hand,” said Flaster, a Yale University graduate from Phoenix, Ariz. Witnessing one too many “Israel Apartheid” weeks on campus during college “lit a fire inside me,” he said. Always a strong Israel supporter, he wanted to take that dedication to a “higher level of giving,” which he did by joining the IDF.
It was not always easy, however, to fulfill what he believed to be his true calling. “A lot of the lone soldiers have a difficult time in our service, not necessarily during the time on base, or on missions, or training, but when you are given leave,” he said, because they have no place to go. “And after you finish service, [that] is really, really hard, [you’re in] a new country, you don’t know where you are, you don’t live on base, you need to find a place to live.”
The center steps in to provide guidance and assistance to those making their way through Israeli society. During service, it provides a sense of family for those who do not have family in the country, by hosting Shabbat dinners for 200 to 300 soldiers each month, and holiday celebrations throughout the year. Center volunteers attend pin and beret ceremonies marking the end of training, Flaster said. They bring snacks and drinks, and take photographs to post on Facebook, just as family members might do, so that soldiers do not feel left out as they watch their native comrades celebrating with their families.
“It’s very depressing,” he said. “I know from experience.”
After they complete their service, the center helps lone soldiers navigate college entrance exams, hunt for apartments, furnishing the new living quarters, and preparing for their future as Israeli citizens.
“They are always here for me, watching out for lone soliders who come from all over the world,” Silber said. “I couldn’t have done any of this type of army service — it would be so much more difficult if not for the Lone Soldier Center.”
On the Gaza border, as Silber waited with his unit for orders, Hamas’ rain of missiles came to an end, at least for now. In Monsey, the Silber family breathed a sigh of relief.
“When he finished four weeks ago, I was like, ‘whew, this is great,’” said Silber’s father, Shea. “This whole thing with Gaza broke out. I hoped he would not see any action….When he re-enlisted, my heart sank. I had a lump in my throat, I’ll be honest with you.”
Silber, however, wrote to his mother that he and his comrades were upset that they did not go into Gaza, despite the obvious peril. Subsequently, Chaim Silber was in the south on maneuvers, preparing for whatever may happen next.
“They were hyped to finish the job,” Brookie Silber wrote in a follow up e-mail. “As parents, of course, we were relieved.”