A Commando in Hashem's Army!
Debbie Shapiro interviews Ariel Siegelman
, in order to be a realist you must believe in miracles" Ben Gurion. Israel
At 3:30, the doorbell rang and I opened the front door to a young man sporting a large black velvet kippah, long tzitzitt, and a smile as large as
. Ariel Siegelman is a soldier in an Israeli Defencse Force special counter terrorist unit that's been involved in many "serious and dangerous operations in enemy areas." Six years ago, while still active in the IDF reserves, Ariel took his expertise in counter-intelligence and security to an international level with development of The Draco Group, a security company specializing in security solutions and security training to clients worldwide. One look at this gentle young man with keen, intelligent eyes and my stereotyped preconception of the egotistic macho " Wyoming v'otzem yadi" Israeli soldier was shattered. kochi
THEY NEVER MISSED AN
OPPORTUNITY TO REMIND ME OF MY JEWISHNESS
Ariel grew up in
North Carolina "on the border of Georgia and ," in a secluded rural area, where "aside from my family, there was only one other Jew living there. Tennessee
"There was only one other kid in my school that wasn't a Baptist – he was Catholic. The kids would ask me where I went to church. I told them that I don't; that I'm Jewish. They were even more shocked when I told them that I don't believe in their god. It was a difficult time for me. They never missed an opportunity to remind me that I was a Jew - I guess I own them gratitude for that, baruch Hashem."
Ariel grew up with a strong sense of Jewish identity. His parents sent him to a Lubovitch shaliach to prepare for his bar mitzvah, and from then on he put on tefillin every morning. Although he didn't keep kosher, he was always careful not to eat pork.
In college, Ariel became involved with a non-Jewish foreign exchange student and traveled to
to meet her family. "At dinner, I asked what type of meat was being served. The girl's mother quickly answered, 'Don't worry. I wouldn't serve pig while you're here.' With those words, my girlfriend's grandmother started yelling at her daughter, and within a few minutes, the entire family was screaming at each other– in French, of course. It was as if a firebomb went off! With my refusal to eat pig, the grandmother had realized that I am Jewish, and she was furious that there was a Jew in her house! She had lived in Occupied France under the Nazis; who knows how many Jews had she sent to their deaths? It suddenly dawned on me that I could not marry this girl – or any other non-Jewish girl." France
Not long after Ariel returned to the
, his best friend was killed in a car accident. "It happened when he was on his way to visit me. I suddenly realized that life is very short. I had no doubt that my friend, Eric, was standing before Hashem, giving an accounting of his life, and I suddenly realized that life – even if one lives live to be a hundred and twenty – is really very short. What was I doing with my time on earth? Was having a good time at a party really that important? I knew that I had to identify my values and then do something with it." United States
Not long afterward, a visiting rabbi gave a lecture at my university campus. "All of you came to this lecture because being Jewish is important to you," the rabbi began. "But if someone was watching how you live your life, how long would it take for that person to realize that you are Jewish. What are you doing on a day-to-day basis to identify yourself as a Jew?"
That question piqued Ariel's curiosity. What COULD he do to express his Jewishness? Before long, he and a friend began studying Judaism together. "Neither of us really knew anything," he explained, "but my father, who had meanwhile become religious, provided me books and made himself available to answer our questions. I soon came to the conclusion that I should show pride in my being Jewish by behaving like a Jew, in other words, to follow the Torah. By the time I was twenty-two, I was trying to live my life according to the halachah.
"Then, in September 2000 the Intifada broke out. Watching coverage of the violence, I saw footage of Israeli soldiers – boys my own age – put their life on the line to retaliate against the acts of terror. People were afraid to travel to
– they were cancelling their tickets -- yet I felt that this was davka whan I must go. After all, if I were to see masked men sneak into my house, followed by screams, I would never say, 'Boy, am I fortunate not to be there!' I'd rush right in to help my family! Well, Israel is my home and the Jews are my people. How could I not be there with them?" Israel
A year after moving to
, Ariel joined a special Army unit that, as he so evasively put it, "does the types of things people in special units do." From his refusal to answer any additional questions, it was obvious that he was involved in extremely sensitive missions and that more information would not be forthcoming. Israel
OPERATION CAST LEAD
Operation Cast Lead started on December 27, 2008, in response to the bombardment of civilian targets by terrorists stationed in
. A few days later, Ariel was one of the thousands of troops involved in an all-out Israeli military offensive against the enemy. Gaza
Ariel recalls, "
is a dangerous place. It has a lot of people who are violent and want nothing more than to see a lot of dead Jews." Gaza
"We all knew that we were going into a place that the enemy wanted us to come into. We knew that they had booby traps set for us, we knew that they were waiting for us with antitank rockets;
is not a place you want to go. Gaza
"Walking toward the border, there's this line of soldiers as far as I can see. At a certain point, I was asked if I have my dog tags. I didn't. So they give me tags with a number – 6624, and added my name with this number to a long list. 'Put one in your boot. Put one in your other boot. Put one around your neck.' If they find pieces of my body somewhere, hopefully they will be able to tell, oh, that's #6624.
"Right before the border, we're ordered to stand up in a big semi-circle many, many men deep. Our brains are buzzing, trying to figure out what's going on. A rabbi stand before us and, yelling at the top of his lungs, he screams the pasukim that the Kohen Gadol said to the nation before they went out to battle: 'You are the army of
and you are going to war. But you will not be afraid because G-d is going out to war with you; G-d is going to fight your battle for you.' I think I speak for the other guys who were there, all that buzzing, all of that confusion that was going on in our heads, now it was focused. We went into Israel Gaza, and G-d went into with us." Gaza
Ariel's unit engaged in heavy combat, yet, "from all that shooting, all of those explosions, all that stuff that was going on around us, no one in my unit got killed!" One soldier was injured when a chunk of concrete flew out of a house and tore the arm of his uniform. A medic took care of it with a baby-wipe! "These experiences made me realize how much Hakadosh Baruch Hu is in the details in every moment of our live. If that guy had been standing just one inch closer to the building, his arm would have been torn off."
Ariel recalls Shabbos in
: "It was Friday, and we had limited supplies. Amidst the constant hyper-awareness of being in a war zone, a debate began regarding what we should use to make iddush. We decided to make a minyan in one of the operations bases. It was amazing; even those guys who keep nothing were willing to risk their lives to take part in the Shabbos davening. The streets were extremely dangerous --- booby traps everywhere, any corner or window could be hiding a sniper, even our 'safe houses' weren't so safe, and we had to crawl through certain parts of it so that the enemy wouldn't see us. Yet, as the sun was getting lower, small groups of Jewish men snuck through the dark alleyways in order to take part in the minyan. Gaza
"To keep the enemy from identifying our location, the house had to be kept absolutely pitch black dark. So there we were, a few dozen soldiers, dressed in our combat gear, standing together, shoulder to shoulder, very quietly singing Lecha Dodi. Outside, the enemy was hunting us, yet inside, it was Shabbat! There we were, a room full of hunted Jews, connecting to eternity -- and to the generations of Jews before us, who were moser nefesh to keep Shabbos. It was an awesome moment. My friend, Ayal, who is not yet religious, turned to me with tears in his eyes and said, 'Ziggy [that's my nickname], this is something that you will never be able to explain to anyone, but you will tell your grandchildren about this moment.'"
THESE ARE OUR ENEMIES
I ask Ariel for more stories. "After taking over a house, we began checking the area around us. This is very dangerous work – every corner, every window, has the potential for death. As my team rounded the edge of a small shack, the first soldier at the door checked the area using a strong light anchored to the end of his weapon. In the back, near the wall he noticed a pile of blankets on the floor. Something about it didn't seem right. Then the pile began to move, and an old lady sat up. Our team leader yelled to her in Arabic to come out, but she just sat there staring out. The Commander heard what was going on and ordered, 'Shoot to kill.' The team leader responded in shock, 'What?! But she's someone's grandmother.' The Commander, now more assertive said, 'SHOOT TO KILL!!' At that, he fired into the mass of blankets and the human form melted away.
"A few minutes later, back in our safe house, we stood together, shuffling our feet, feeling terrible as we commenced a debriefing of the situation. After all, we had killed someone's grandmother. None of us had come to Gaza to kill old women. Shortly afterwards a special explosives unit was sent to check the shed, as was standard procedure. They discovered that the shed was packed with all kinds of wires leading to huge explosives buried underneath the dirt floor. The old lady – that sweet little grandmother – was still holding the detonator in her hand.
NATIONAL AND INTERNATIONAL SECURITY
Upon completing his Army service, the IDF asked Ariel to train community rapid response teams, the civilian volunteers who act as a first response to terrorist attacks, most usually in the so-called settlements.
Eventually, Ariel decided to use his vast experience in anti-terrorism to open The Darco Group, an international organization that provides security solutions to individuals, organizations, governments, businesses and corporations. They specialize in providing training, protection, and logistical support for clientele in difficult to operate regions. Ariel's team has provided security in both maritime and land-based operations, securing ships against piracy and providing full support to businessmen and diplomats alike. Although, due to discretion he could not be very specific about his clients, he did show me pictures of himself, together with a few other Israelis security experts, deep in the African jungle. "We were protecting a mining company," was his terse explanation.
What was it like being the only religious Jew among primitive natives and secular Israelis?? "First of all," he begins, "it's not totally outside of my world. After all, I grew up in a rural environment where I was the only Jew.
"Although at first glance the Israelis that I work with might seem irreligious, I am always amazed at the greatness of their Jewish neshamah! If I would make a brachah quietly, for example, they would chide me, 'Nu, why can't you let us have the zechut of answering amen?' When I'd make Kiddush, they would all quickly stand to listen, while placing their hands over each other's heads in lieu of a kippah. It's amazing to see how, in such a totally non-Jewish environment, Israelis connect so strongly to their Judaism. And their level of mesirat nefesh! I have never seen a people so giving, so caring, and so willing to suffer for their own people, for the cause, and although they won't tell you straight out, but yes... for the Torah."
Ariel's team also utilizes their military and security backgrounds to offer high adventure trips in Israel and around the world. "We build tailor-made experiences for businessmen, families, and youth. One of our most popular experiences is the Commando training courses that we offer in Israel. People come to us to get real training in Israeli combat and security techniques. It might sound strange to some people, but we have been very pleased with the outcome of teaching Jews from around the world skills to protect themselves, their families, and their communities. It gives a sense of confidence, of responsibility to our people, and besides," he adds with a laugh, "it's just plain fun!"
ON THE HIGH SEAS
The word “pirates” bring to mind raggedy eye patches, thumping wooden legs, colorful talking parrots (who constantly repeat, "Yes Mate" in a gravelly voice) and, of course, old fashioned boats with blossoming white sails. So when Ariel told me that his company fights piracy, I was taken aback.
"Today," he begins, "the majority of pirate attacks take place around the Horn of Africa. The pirates capture ships and hold the sailors for ransom – as a matter of fact there are now some 400 sailors being held hostage in Somalia under extremely primitive conditions. The pirates are careful that the hostages remain alive, for if not, the Western World would react with a large scale operation to eradicate piracy. They're not interested in war; they're interested in money."
How does The Draco Group secure vessels against piracy?
"The first step is prevention," Ariel begins. "That means securing the vessel so that it's not easy to board, and installing adequate technological systems that can offer enhanced capabilities to the team on board for detection of suspicious vessels. In this way, the crew can buy time and avoid confrontation. However, most important of all, we place onboard well-trained, disciplined and discreet security personnel, who know how to create a powerful deterrence and, if it becomes necessary, will fight the pirates. But the best deterrent is when the pirates see that the ship will not be an easy target."
WE'RE ALL DOING OUR PART
"Each person alive in this person has a responsibility to use his knowledge and capabilities to make a difference," Ariel explains. "For that reason, my posek told me to always carry a gun with me; since I am an expert marksman, I have a responsibility to use that knowledge, if necessary, to save Jewish lives."
How do you feel about the yeshivaH bachurim who don't serve in the Israeli Army?" I asked. Even as I worded the question, I felt as if I was walking on eggs.
Ariel immediately put me at ease. "There's really no distinction between a guy wearing a uniform and a guy in a black suit. To think otherwise is small minded. Not everyone should or can do the same thing. Each person has his own mission, and they should try to fulfill that mission. A person who joins the army just to pass his time is missing a golden opportunity to protect Am Yisrael and to save Jewish lives. Likewise, a person who warms the yeshivag bench while feeling relieved that he's not in the army, is missing the whole point of his learning. We all have to be warriors in whatever we do, and both aspects are crucial. In whatever you do, that is your mission for Am Yisrael. And you better be a commando at it!"
The author wishes to thank aish.com for allowing her to use some quotes from one of their videos.