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Rabbi Binyamin Elias

8 September 2023

After studying in Jerusalem’s famous Sefardic Porat Yosef yeshivah, at eighteen years old I joined Kollel Torah VeHora’ah in Tel Aviv. The kollel, an advanced rabbinical seminary, was run by Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, who had just been appointed the city’s chief rabbi, and I was ordained there as a rabbi myself. In 1977, in consultation with several prominent rabbis, I joined a group from the kollel who decided to enlist in the army, hoping to devote ourselves to improving the Jewish character of the IDF.

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After going through an expedited basic training, we graduated as officers in the army chaplaincy. After serving in the 460th Brigade, the armored forces’ training formation, I was appointed rabbi of the 162nd division, and eventually of the Merchav Shlomo Command, which had been placed in charge of the southern Sinai Peninsula since the Yom Kippur War.

My duties as a senior army rabbi involved supervising the provision of kosher food, overseeing synagogues and holiday services, and distributing essential religious supplies like tefillin and Torah scrolls for all service members, on large bases and the most distant outposts. I was also responsible for Halachic matters relating to marriages, conversions, and mourning, and for the division’s burial unit, which had to always be ready to identify and bury any casualties in the most appropriate way.

By the time I came to the 460th, Israel’s peace deal with Egypt had already been signed and the plans for the evacuation of the Sinai were well underway. As an aside, orchestrating this handover meant that we had to liaise with several Egyptian officers. Being an Arabic speaker, I became friendly with some of them, and as a result of these relationships, on occasion, I managed to learn some pertinent information that I passed on to IDF intelligence.

In 1981, on the night following Yom Kippur, a lieutenant came to my office, complaining that he had been forced to work on the holy day. However, I didn’t recognize the name of his unit. I had an excellent and open working relationship with all the senior commanders, and had never experienced them hiding information from me.

I asked the lieutenant to wait in my office, while I went and spoke with the head of Command. “I have a lieutenant here who claims he was compelled to work on Yom Kippur. But I don’t recognize his unit!”

From the commander’s surprise at hearing me mention the unit by name, I understood that I had stumbled across something highly classified. It was, as I learned, a secret unit engaged in a range of operations across the Sinai Peninsula. Only a handful of people in the entire country knew of this unit’s existence, among them Rabbi Gad Navon, the IDF’s first chief rabbi. He was the one who had given the unit a dispensation to operate on Yom Kippur.

About half a year after this incident, Israel’s final withdrawal from the Sinai was set to take place in the early hours of a Sunday morning. On Thursday night, I suddenly remembered that the mezuzah adorning the solitary building that belonged to that secret unit had not been taken down. In general, the buildings that stood on our bases were supposed to be left standing, but chaplaincy orders were to take down any trace of Judaism – books or mezuzot – so that they wouldn’t be desecrated by the Egyptians.

Unsure whether this warranted taking a special helicopter flight out to that remote location, I consulted with the head of Command. “I accept whatever the Chief Rabbi decides,” he told me, adding that he expected to fly out there in any case, so I could accompany him if need be. When I asked Rabbi Navon, he told me to take down the mezuzah, and so the next day I flew to the base to do so.

After Shabbat, Israel’s withdrawal from Sinai went ahead, with all of the painful emotions it stirred up. Once it was over, we gave the keys to an Egyptian official named Captain Mamdouh.

In the lead-up to the evacuation, I had also been involved in hosting a group of American officials from the Israel Bonds organization on a visit to our area. In gratitude, they invited an IDF delegation to make a reciprocal visit to the United States, and I had the honor of being one of nine officers who made the trip. We ended up leaving about a week after the withdrawal, in the spring of 1982.

The officers had heard a lot about the Lubavitcher Rebbe and they wanted to take this opportunity to meet him. Since the Sundays on our itinerary were free, an audience was arranged for the first Sunday after our arrival in New York.

Personally, it was my second time coming to the Rebbe, having previously seen him while in New York with my wife and son. However, it was the first time I had the merit of having an actual meeting with him in his office. The audience lasted nine minutes, which was considered a relatively long time. The Rebbe’s secretary came in repeatedly to try to wrap things up, but the Rebbe motioned to him that all was well.

At a certain point, the Rebbe turned to me. He named the secret base and asked, “So did you end up taking down the mezuzah that was there?”

I felt a shiver run down my spine. From our group, only two other officers were in the know, and they both shot a look in my direction – of shock tinged with suspicion. Of course, I was no less taken aback. After learning about this secret base, I had to pass a comprehensive security investigation, and I had been exceedingly careful to keep the secret close to my chest.

Having observed this reaction, the Rebbe asked to speak in private with the more senior of the two officers, Colonel Amram Mitzna. The rest of us moved aside, and later on, Mitzna filled us in on what had happened next. The Rebbe told him that the information he had about the secret base hadn’t come from me. To make clear that he had his own sources of information – even for things we didn’t imagine he knew – the Rebbe proceeded to reveal some other personal matter that only Mitzna himself and one other person was privy to. Without sharing specifics, Mitzna related all of this to us in utter astonishment.

As the Rebbe spoke quietly to Mitzna, we looked on from the side. He had been curt but courteous until that point, and now I couldn’t help but be impressed by the gentle, amiable manner with which he discussed the situation.

All of us left feeling uplifted; excited to have had the fortune of meeting this great man. I have remained in touch with the others in the group, and they all say that their impressions from that audience have remained with them over the years.

I have merited to spend significant time in the households of several outstanding Torah sages and Jewish leaders; the sense of elevation and holiness that I felt in the Rebbe’s presence, however, was unique. For the Rebbe, I saw, everything was revealed. I get another shiver remembering it now.

Rabbi Binyamin Elias served as rabbi of the Merchav Shlomo Command during the Sinai withdrawal that took place following Israel’s peace deal with Egypt. Today he is the head of the Avir Yakov Torah institutions in Emanuel, Israel. He was interviewed in November 2010.

Editor’s note: The Hebrew version of this story was approved for publication by Israel’s military censor, with some details redacted.