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A Soldier in Hashem’s Army

Daniel Rober's path to Torah Judaism was long but fascinating. During his childhood in Nebraska, Daniel was raised with a unique blend of Judaism and American patriotism.

Daniel turned 18 at the height of the Vietnam war, and was drafted into the U.S. army. He was sent to a language school in El Paso, Texas, where he studied Vietnamese for nine months, to train for assignment as a code breaker.

Towards the end of his stay in Texas, he came across an article in a local newspaper about two young rabbinical students who had recently arrived in town. Daniel had always been curious to know more about his Judaism. At the first opportunity, he made his way to their address. 

His meeting with the two students, Levi Bukiet and Yossi Gutnick, was the first time that Daniel had seen Jews of that type. They told him that they had come to Texas as emissaries of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, to teach Judaism to the local residents. He discovered that these two students were among thousands like them, studying and observing the ancient laws of Judaism.

The Jewish spark in Daniel's heart was ignited. Later, during a two week furlough that he received before being deployed to Vietnam, Daniel accepted an invitation from his chassidic friends to visit Crown Heights, the neighborhood of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Daniel was deeply impressed by the Rebbe's personality as well as the intense Jewish life in the community. He felt fortunate to be part of the Jewish people and began to fulfill practical mitzvot. 

After his vacation ended, Daniel and his unit were deployed to the far east. During their training as code breakers, Daniel and his colleagues had been exposed to much sensitive information, and there was a fear that they might be captured. Therefore, they were not sent to Vietnam but to Taiwan, where they would be safer. From there they intercepted enemy radio communication, particularly from the warplanes that flew overhead.  

There were very few Jews in Taiwan, and hardly any who were Torah observant. Daniel did not have anyone with whom to share his religious experiences. Nevertheless, he did not compromise on his beliefs. On the contrary, he strengthened his observance of mitzvot. 

One day he heard on base that a religious Jewish businessman, Rabbi Mendel Shemtov, had arrived in Taiwan on a business trip. Daniel arranged to meet him at the first opportunity. It was an emotional meeting on both sides, although they had never met before. Rabbi Shemtov was amazed that there was a religious Jewish soldier in Taiwan. As a gift, Rabbi Shemtov gave Daniel an electric pot so he would be able to prepare his own kosher meals. On another visit Rabbi Shemtov brought a large supply of frozen kosher chicken and meat for Daniel.

Naturally, the army kitchen was completely traif. To Daniel's good fortune, though, the kitchen manager was an elderly Chinese gentleman who had lived in Shanghai during the Second World War, in a neighborhood populated by a large group of Jewish refugees. Due to this exposure he understood Daniel's needs quite well and was able to supply him with separate dishes and ingredients as needed. 

Daniel kept the meat from Rabbi Shemtov in a small freezer in his room. He would cook a piece for Shabbat or Yom Tov, and was able to have a festive meal. 

One night Daniel woke up to the sound of banging on the door of his room. Drugs had been found on base, and a room-to-room search had been ordered. A soldier with a search dog entered his room, and Daniel began to quake inside. He had no drugs in his possession, but bringing outside food onto the base and cooking in the room were both absolutely forbidden. Daniel had no doubt that the dog would discover the meat, and then he would be court martialed. The dog approached the closet where Daniel kept his freezer, and his heart skipped a beat. To his relief, the dog walked right past it, as if he  smelled nothing at all.

* * *

After nine months of service, Daniel was called in for a chat with the commander of the division. He asked Daniel to explain the strings that he wore hanging from the sides of his garment (tzitzit), the kippah on his head, and his insistence on not working on Shabbat. It seemed that the commander had never before been exposed to religious Jews. 

In a few brief sentences Daniel explained to the commander what it meant to be a Jew. In the end, the commander offered Daniel an opportunity to complete his service and be released early from the army. Daniel jumped at the opportunity. Since the time he had discovered authentic Judaism, he had lost his taste for army life, which prevented him from living his life as he wished. 

A release date of September 16 was scheduled for him. Daniel checked the calendar and found out that the date fell on Rosh Hashanah. He went back to his commander and explained that he would not be able to participate in the release procedures on that day. The commander was dumbfounded at the request, but in the end he agreed to move Daniel's release date up 12 days.

From there it was a short path for Daniel to fully embrace the lifestyle of a Chabad chassid. Within a year he became a student in the Hadar Hatorah yeshivah in Brooklyn, and then joined the Ohr Temimim yeshivah in Kfar Chabad. Daniel married and started a family in Israel. Today his name can be found in many Jewish homes and synagogues, inscribed on the artful leather covers that he produces for classic Jewish works and prayer books.  

 

 


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