On the eve of Passover, the Israeli army is embarking on one of its biggest operations of the year.
Whether in the field, on a base or with family living abroad, "every last soldier has everything he needs for seder night," asserts Capt. Ze'ev Rosens, rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces Tank School in southern Israel.
Preparation for the holiday begins a month before its start, Rosens says, and includes figuring out where each soldier will be, thus ensuring that the proper amount of matzah and other necessities are on hand.
Base kitchens, some of which serve thousands of soldiers a day, must be cleaned and koshered. That means bringing in reinforcements days before Passover: Reserve soldiers are called up for a day or two at a time to handle this most unmilitary of duties. "Getting rid of chametz is no less important than fighting with our enemy," Rosens says.
At his base, many of the soldiers are part of the hesder yeshiva program, in which the soldiers combine army service and yeshiva studies, so Rosens forgoes help from the reserves. Soldiers living on a base should be responsible for their own kitchen, he says, because it lends a greater seriousness to the effort.
This year, the kitchens were being koshered for Pesach two days before the burning of chametz. From the moment they start the koshering, soldiers are not allowed to bring chametz on base. That's a strict army order; any soldier found with chametz can be punished.
What the soldiers do off the base is strictly up to them, the rabbi says. "We are not forcing anyone to keep mitzvot," says Rosens. "But in the army, each person must respect his fellow soldier."
Such respect means that the kitchens are free of kitniyot (rice and beans) to accommodate all levels of Pesach observance. According to tradition, Sephardi Jews eat kitniyot; Ashkenazi don't.
Rosens, 37, has been a career officer for the past six years. The New York native made aliyah with his family at the age of 9.
His fifth seder in the army will be a family affair: His wife and seven children always attend, as do the spouses and children of other base commanders. "It is an amazing experience" for both the family members and the soldiers, Rosens says.
For some soldiers, the army experience is their first seder, and many want to share their own personal stories — from the Ethiopian soldier who walked hundreds of miles to make it on a transport plane to the Jewish state, to the soldier from the former Soviet Union who tasted real freedom for the first time in Israel.
Soldiers can participate in at least half the seder — many split their time between the festive meal and guard duty. The end of the seder is emotional, Rosens says, with the soldiers dancing and singing "L'shanah haba'ah b'Yerushalayim" ("Next Year in Jerusalem").
Those in the field receive enough matzah, grape juice and seder plate elements to fulfill the mitzvot of seder night, Rosens says. Lone soldiers, those without families in the country, including the 100 on his base, have hospitality for the seder night if they do not need to be on the base; those with families visiting Israel are given furloughs to be with their loved ones. Some soldiers also receive permission to travel to their home countries to be with their families.
For soldiers who may feel like slaves to the army during the festival of freedom — especially the newly conscripted soldiers who arrived on the base just last week — Rosens says he communicates a different message.
"There is no greater way to celebrate freedom," he says, "than to be a soldier for our own state."