IDF Feature: Tenacity and Talmud

The story of a modern scholar-warrior who walks, literally and spiritually, in the footsteps of Judah the Maccabee.

Nissan Ratzlav-Katz, | updated: 15:16


Overlooking the conference table in the Academic Board Room at West Point, the famed American military academy, there stand the statues of three Jewish warrior-scholars - Joshua, King David and Judah the Maccabee.

When leaving West Point, head east, cross the Atlantic Ocean, travel the length of the Mediterranean Sea, come ashore on a Tel Aviv beach, and then make your way towards Jerusalem. About half-way to the holy capital city of Israel you will come upon the city of Modi'in - the revitalized hometown of that same Judah whose statue graces the board room of the United States Military Academy at West Point. And it is here, in the modern city of Modi'in, that new Maccabees are being shaped daily - living, breathing Maccabees, not stone carvings.

The institution turning out those scholar-warriors is the Meir Harel Yeshiva, a Hesder yeshiva (one of a network of Torah study academies combining demanding Judaic studies and military service) headed by Rabbi Col. Eliezer Chaim Shenvald.
Yoad would not be held back.
And one of the first scholar-warriors the yeshiva produced is a young man named Yoad Kaplan, from Caesarea.

In December 2008, at the tail end of Chanukah - holiday of the Maccabees - Kaplan and fellow Meir Harel Yeshiva student Uri Spiegel were squad commanders in the 51st Battalion of the Golani Brigade, gathered in a staging area just outside the Gaza region in southern Israel. Daniel Attar, also a Meir Harel Yeshiva student, was with another company assigned the same mission: enter Gaza and neutralize the enemy.

By that point, the Hamas regime in Gaza and its allied jihadists had been bombarding Israeli cities and towns with hundreds of Kassam and Grad rockets for years - ever more intensely after the unilateral disengagement from the region in 2005, in which thousands of Israelis were uprooted from their homes. As Yoad and his comrades waited, they heard and saw the Hamas rockets flying out of Gaza, heading toward their civilian targets on the Israeli homefront.

"We felt like emissaries.... It felt like we were defending our homes," Yoad told a local Modi'in newspaper. For his company commander, however, it was even more literal - his Ashdod home had been hit by a Hamas rocket just a short time earlier.

Operation Cast Lead (also called the Gaza War) began on the sixth day of Chanukah with a series of airstrikes, but one week later, on a Saturday night, the infantry was ordered to penetrate the enemy lines. The 51st, Kaplan's battalion, was one of the first in.

It was also one of the first hit when the enemy fired dozens of mortars toward the advancing Israeli ground forces. Yoad and 17 other soldiers suffered wounds of varying severity when a shell landed in their midst that very night. Suffering from what was determined to be moderate injuries, Yoad was evacuated to Soroka Hospital in Beersheba, where he was rushed immediately into the operating room. Doctors worked diligently to save his arm.

After a few days of hospitalization, Yoad mentioned matter-of-factly to his doctor that he was going to begin an officer's course in two months. It was then that Yoad got the shocking news: only after another year of rehabilitation would it be possible to determine if he could ever return to a combat unit, much less an officer's course.

But Yoad would not be held back.

For the next several months, he made intense efforts to strengthen himself both physically - with physiotherapy three times a week - and spiritually - with a return to high-level learning at Meir Harel Yeshiva. Doctors, physiotherapists, friends and family were amazed by Yoad's speedy recuperation, which they saw as just short of miraculous.

Within seven months of suffering what was supposed to be a debilitating arm injury, Yoad requested to return to combat duty. He quickly persuaded all the relevant decision-makers that he was fit to take part in the infantry officer's course, no matter how physically demanding it may be.

So it was that Yoad Kaplan was called to step forward before hundreds of new and veteran officers two months ago to be awarded recognition as Outstanding Officer of the Course. At the concluding ceremony, when Yoad received his Second Lieutenant rank, IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak offered high praise for Yoad's dedication to excellence. His success, they said, demonstrates the awesome power of faith in the righteousness of one's cause and tenacity in reaching one's goals - with which one can achieve the impossible.

Building those character traits, along with moral and practical leadership skills, are part and parcel of the encompassing Torah learned, lived and taught at Hesder Yeshivas such as the Meir Harel Yeshiva. There can be no doubt that Judah the Maccabee would feel more at home overlooking Rabbi Shenvald's study hall than he ever could peering down from the mantelpiece at West Point.

(Nissan Ratzlav-Katz - "a dynamic and effective writer," according to former US presidential speech-writer David Frum - provides marketing and business communications services for a wide array of organizations in Israel and abroad. He is also a former Opinion Editor for Israel National Nissan can be reached at or through