JIM CREES: The Rabbi saved my Christmas
Editor’s note: While having lunch in town recently, a number of readers at an adjacent table asked me to rerun a Christmas column I wrote some years back. In response, following is the column in mention.
Having spent a good portion of my life living in the Holy Land, I was lucky enough to celebrate two dozen Christmas holiday seasons in the land where the “old, old story” took place.
It was wonderful.
As a non-Jew living in a predominantly Jewish society, my neighbors blessed me with an acceptance and compassion too often rarely offered minorities in other places.
And yes, as a White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, I was a minority!
In our home, we had the only Christmas tree in our community. Rather than being threatened by this in any way, our neighbors enjoyed the “happening.” We would often open our home to classes of school kids coming to see a real Christmas tree.
It was a lot of fun, and throughout the holiday season my Jewish friends and neighbors were so very warm, accepting, and open to my celebration of this special time of year.
One year, the outreach of compassion was especially felt.
The year my son was born, in 1980, I was called up for military reserve duty to serve 30 days “on the line” in the Golan Heights. (Yes. I was a non-Jew serving in the Israeli Army. No. I wasn’t a mercenary. It’s a long story. Let’s move on.)
The month-long period I would be serving fell smack at Christmas time.
Before logging in and heading to my assigned unit, I specifically asked for three days off from duty, Dec. 24-26, stating a “family event’ as the reason for my request.
The request was approved and I headed off to my unit patrolling on the Syrian border knowing full well I would also be home for Christmas that year.
As my time-off days approached, I planned how I would get home.
It wasn’t easy. Christmas Eve that year fell on a Friday night. Friday evening is the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath, and all public transportation ends in mid-afternoon. I would need to be out of the Golan Heights and into Tiberius before 3 p.m. or I’d end up trying to hitchhike home.
I was confident everything would fall in place. Too confident. The morning of Dec. 24, my commanding officer informed me I wouldn’t be heading home for my “leave” after all.
I served as a paramedic in the Israeli Army. No patrol in the Israel Defense Forces ever went out along the line without a medic as part of the infantry team.
The unit with which I was serving had plenty of medics, but ... One of them had been sent home for a funeral, another had been tossed in the slammer for some reason, and a third was desperately sick.
That left, only two — me and another guy. The other medic was just coming off a night patrol. That left me.
I couldn’t go home or the patrol couldn’t go out, and there was no doubt the patrol was certainly going to be on the border ... with me. I was crushed.
This would be the first Christmas in my life I’d missed being with family ... ever.
And it would be the first Christmas I’d spend with my four-month old son — our first baby. It was pretty devastating, but you do what you have to do.
I suited up with all my battle gear and headed out to meet up with the patrol team.
Along the way, I passed by the unit chaplain’s office. At the spur of the moment, I decided to stop in a tell him how I was feeling. I just wanted to vent.
The chaplain was a Rabbi. Obviously. This was the Israeli Army. I quickly told him the story and expressed how disappointed I was at the circumstances.
The Rabbi was enthralled. He’d never met, or even heard of a non-Jew serving in the Israeli Army. He asked “how,” “why,” and “when” and after a little conversation I headed out.
It was going to be a long day, and a much longer weekend.
We began our patrol along the Syrian border. It is hard, cold, and very, Very, VERY tedious work.
Sitting in a patrol vehicle called a “Safari,” we’d traveled over, and over, and over the same stretch of patrol road ... at five-miles an hours. It’s like driving through a moonscape in slow motion.
After six hours of this, we noticed a jeep roaring up the patrol road behind us — still some distance away. That was pretty odd.
The jeep finally pulled up behind us. In it were three soldiers — a driver, obviously, the unit Rabbi, and another guy.
The Rabbi jumped out of the jeep and told me to switch places with this other fella. He was a medic. The Rabbi had spent hours searching through the ranks of units stationed all along the Golan Heights and up to Mount Hermon in order to find a replacement medic for me.
He rushed me into the jeep still fully loaded down with my combat gear. The driver turned around and started a crazy race down the mountain toward the Sea of Galilee.
We screamed into the Tiberius bus station just a few minutes before the last bus south (and home) pulled out. The Rabbi grabbed me and gave me a hug.
“I couldn’t let you miss this holiday with your family,” he said with a smile. “That just would have been wrong.”
I took off running for the bus queue.
Along the way was a small kiosk selling pop, candy and other goodies. There was a stuffed Augie Doggie doll hanging from a hook. I grabbed it and ask the dealer how much he wanted. I tossed 10 Shekels at him still on the run and jumped on the bus that was already backing out to begin its run south.
And so ... I spent the Christmas of 1980 with my family, and my son got his first Christmas present. Thanks to a Jewish military Rabbi. The Augie Doggie doll is still with him wherever he goes.
Thirty-three years later it sits in the passenger seat of his car in Prince George, British Columbia — with him on all his journeys through life.
There really are good people out there — of all faiths. Compassion is compassion whether you’re Christian, Jewish, Moslem ... whatever.