Tefillin in training: Former IDF Orthodox soldier on Ukraine’s front lines

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JTA — As an Orthodox Jewish man, Tzvi Arieli wraps his arm and forehead each morning in tefillin, the black leather straps that connect two small boxes filled with verses from the Torah.

But Arieli makes exceptions.

“If I need to shoot Russians, timing is really important. I might not be able to focus on tefillin and war in the same split second,” said Arieli, a former Forces soldier. defense force who fights alongside the Ukrainian army as his adopted country defends itself against the Russian invasion.

The 42-year-old has spent the past few weeks preparing for battle as he lay at his in-laws’ home about 70 kilometers (43 miles) south of the Ukrainian capital, kyiv, in a town he preferred not to name for security reasons. . Now, nearly a month into the war, he said he was on his way to ambush enemy troops as a member of a parachute unit.

Russian President Vladimir Putin launched air and ground strikes against the neighboring country on February 24 after Ukraine rejected its territorial claims. These included the recognition of Crimea as part of Russia and the independence of two Russian-backed breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine.

Arieli, who first worked for the Ukrainian military in 2014 to fend off separatists, is a rarity as an Israeli fighting directly against Russian troops. Yet it reflects the complex set of ties that Jews from the former Soviet Union have with the region and with Israel.

“I consider myself Ukrainian,” said Arieli, who was born in Latvia. “I’m also Israeli but I’m not very happy with Israel at the moment,” he added, a sentiment he links to both personal and political concerns.

Arieli emigrated to Israel after high school, where he attended college and served in an IDF unit that fought Palestinian militants in the West Bank during the Second Intifada. He also spent two years studying in the United States, at the Rabbinical College of America in Morristown, New Jersey.

He then led the Zionist youth organization Bnei Akiva in Ukraine, where he met his wife, a Ukrainian Jew. Together they moved again to Israel where Arieli worked for an anti-terrorism unit within the Defense Ministry.

But Ukraine attracted Arieli.

Israeli-Ukrainian Tzvi Arieli appears at an event promoting ties between the two countries in 2015. (Courtesy Arieli/ via JTA)

He received a job offer from a friend to work in the Jewish community of kyiv as an educator. He then served as Deputy Director General of United Ukrainian Appeal. Then the Ukrainian army brought in Arieli as a tactical trainer for units trying to quell the separatist insurgency in Donbass.

More recently, Arieli ran an “IT business”, which, like many other businesses in the country, came to a halt due to the war.

After more than a decade in Ukraine, Arieli feels like a native. And that’s exactly how he’s seen, he says.

“Jews have become much more closely tied to Ukrainians and Ukrainian identity since the country became independent in 1991,” he said. “It’s something that a lot of Americans and Israelis don’t understand.”

He recalled when his Ukrainian boxing coach was appalled that a champion chosen to represent the country was not “100% Ukrainian”.

Tzvi Arieli, seen here praying in a Ukrainian army barracks in 2017, is a Ukrainian immigrant from Israel who is fighting in its army. (Courtesy of Arieli/via JTA)

But the coach’s line of thinking, Arieli continued, revealed the absence of anti-Semitism in post-Soviet Ukraine. “He said only Ukrainians and Jews should represent Ukraine.”

Many Ukrainians see the Israeli leadership’s refusal to give in to their country’s adversaries as a model for themselves. Israel’s spy agency, the Mossad, is seen as representing Western intelligence potential that could help Ukraine in this time of crisis, Arieli said.

This perception put Arieli in strange circumstances.

“Many Ukrainians think or wish that I was Mossad,” he said, adding with a laugh: “I try to convince them that I am not, but sometimes it is better if they think that I’m. It’s like making their wishes come true.

Arieli himself is furious at what he calls Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s lack of support for Ukraine. While Israel has sent substantial humanitarian aid to the region and set up a field hospital in western Ukraine, it has not provided the specific military assistance requested by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Bennett sought to maintain relations with Russia even as other countries imposed harsh sanctions.

Setting up an emergency room tent at an Israeli field hospital in Mostyska, Ukraine, March 22, 2022. (Carrie Keller-Lynn/Times of Israel)

Bennett has sought to play an important role in efforts to mediate negotiations between Ukraine and Russia, and Zelensky said this week that peace talks could potentially take place in Jerusalem. But Arieli dismissed the argument that Israel should exercise caution because of Russia’s role in Syria, which affects Israeli security.

“The leaders of a country must decide what is good and what is bad. And Bennett says, “We don’t want to take sides,” he said.

Pointing to Russian Attacks on Civilian Targets, he added: “Russia kills innocent civilians every day, and Bennett will not tell the truth? Russia is on the wrong side. You can’t be neutral about that. This is not a kosher position.

Arieli is also “really mad” at Israel for a more personal reason: his dog.

Before the war, when he considered evacuating his family, Israel was Arieli’s first choice. But that changed, he said, when the Israeli Veterinary Services, a government agency, told him that since his Labrador was less than a year old, the pup needed another round of vaccines against the disease. rage and should stay in Ukraine for a month before coming. to Israel. (Since the start of the war, Israel has relaxed entry rules for pets accompanying refugees).

Tzvi Arieli is pictured here in 2015 with other Ukrainians and Israelis involved in the military training he provided. (Courtesy of Arieli/via JTA)

“Our dog thinks we are his parents. He sleeps with us. We won’t leave him alone. Israel should make an exception at times like this,” he said.

Arieli’s wife and children, aged 13 and 14, are in Germany with the support of a rabbi in Stuttgart. Pupsik the puppy also went there.

Meanwhile, the soldier’s apartment in kyiv near the Dnipro River was still standing on Tuesday, but he wouldn’t be surprised if it wasn’t for long. “A few apartment buildings right next to mine were destroyed by Russian shelling,” he said.

Arieli’s ties to Ukraine go beyond his wife. Like many Ukrainians, he is a native Russian speaker, and like many Russian-speaking Ukrainians, he has long been a supporter of Ukraine’s independent identity from its former political leader.

When war broke out, he trained civilians to become soldiers in the newly formed Territorial Defense Force, overseen by the Ukrainian military.

But Arieli, who has previously publicly expressed concern about army standards and trainingadmits he was frustrated.

“You can have 150 people every day, another day 150 come in and most don’t know how to shoot. It’s hard to see progress when you train someone who has never held a gun,” he said.

So he asked his fellow soldiers where he could be most useful – and that could be in the forest west of kyiv.

Although Arieli couldn’t say exactly what his unit’s plans are, he offered possible clues by detailing the “absurdity” of Russia’s ground campaign.

“There are only a few roads from Belarus for tanks, and the Russians had miles and miles of tanks on those roads, in the open. They use those old Soviet tactics that make them sitting ducks,” he observed.

Confirmation reports that the Russian forces suffered heavy losses, Arieli said the tanks were constantly breaking down, blocking the road and running out of gas. “There are fewer tanks and soldiers here every day,” he said.

Despite his optimism about Ukraine’s prospects for military success, Arieli worried about Putin’s next move.

“It’s a very dangerous situation because there’s a 50% chance he could use nuclear weapons,” Arieli said. “He doesn’t want to have Ukraine, he wants to destroy it.”

He is also devastated by the abrupt and brutal turn his life has taken.

“This war has ruined our lives; we lost everything,” he said. “You know, I really don’t like violence, but what choice do I have now?”

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