Gaza conflict hits close to home for St. Louisan who volunteered to serve in Israel Defense Forces

Adam Spielberg, pictured at his Chesterfield home, volunteered for the Israel Defense Forces and served 18 months in a variety of areas, including Israel’s border with Gaza. He is a featured speaker at an upcoming fundraiser for local nonprofit Shaving Israel.The group raises money for toiletries, personal items and food for IDF soldiers. Photo: Kristi Foster

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

Over this past week, Adam Spielberg has found himself thinking of his friends.

“I’ve been talking to them,” said the Parkway Central graduate before pausing to take a deep breath. “I don’t know. I’m just really worried. Gaza’s a horrible place to go into. It’s armed very heavily. It’s not going to be an easy war.”

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Spielberg knows better than most Americans that nothing about life in the Israel Defense Forces is easy and he can understand the Mideast conflict in a way more personal than many. The 25-year-old actually served on the Gazan border during an 18-month hitch with the IDF. Now living in Chesterfield, where he grew up, he said the experience was a memorable one.

“Over there, it’s very real. People you know are going in,” he said. “It’s not like over here when we invade a country and it won’t really affect you day-to-day. Over there, you know the people personally who are going to war.”

Thanks to Shaving Israel, which collects donations to bring necessities in short supply — toiletries, personal items and food — to IDF soldiers, the local Jewish community will get to hear from the native St. Louisan who completed his service late last year, when he speaks at the Conway Meadows Clubhouse early next month. He’ll be relating some of his experiences in the Holy Land as part of the Mahal program, which allows non-Israeli Jews to volunteer for service in the IDF.

Though his talk was planned before recent events in Israel, Gaza has been of particular interest of late due to the spike in violence in the region. Israel has been launching airstrikes as volleys of Gazan missiles threaten sites as far away as Tel Aviv. Spielberg has been in communication with a number of his friends who are still in the military and he said there have been large-scale callups as the possibility of a ground invasion grows. However, reports of a ceasefire were circulating at press time on Tuesday.

Spielberg said he personally knew of individuals who had finished their service but were trying to sign up for another tour in light of the conflict.

“It took us thousands of years to carve out that little piece of land and frankly, it is an honor to be able to defend it,” he said. “It’s not a chore.”

He said he felt for civilians on either side of the conflict, both the Israelis who live under missile threat and the Gazans who are often placed in harm’s way when Hamas sites military targets in civilian areas.

“Hopefully peace will come soon,” he said. “Nobody hopes for war.”

Spielberg orginally traveled to Israel in high school through a program that allowed the Federation and his congregation, United Hebrew, to underwrite some of his journey. The path that would eventually lead him to join the military began while he was viewing the sights and ran across a man who told him about the special IDF program. He knew he wanted to do it but was looking towards law school at the time.

However, later he found himself changing plans and he saw that his shift away from law allowed him an opportunity.

“I just bought a ticket and went,” said the Columbia College graduate who now plans a career in marketing.

That initiated the start of a new relationship between the Jewish State and the St. Louis native. He said that trips to Israel often just feature the important sights. Much like Israelis who visit the United States and see only Disney World or New York, American tourists don’t always become as strongly acquainted with the real Israel.

“People will say ‘Wow, it was so great…It’s like this magical place,’” he said. “Well, it’s not really this magical place but then when you get to know it, it is something even more.”

Spielberg, who trained near the Dead Sea and served in a variety of locales including Hebron in the West Bank, said his education on Israel was made more intense by being stationed in isolated areas. Much of his service took place in the mountains near Lebanon.

“I spent time in these small bases on the border for 20 days at a time and there are no phone calls and sometimes you are high up in the mountains in the snow,” he said. “I learned what [Israel] really is and it is that much more of a great place because of its cohesiveness, the people.”

The friendliness of the populace frequently impressed him. They were often warm and welcoming – particularly when they’d hear his accent.

“Especially in the smaller towns, older people would come and ask me where I was going on Shabbat and what I’m doing for the holidays to make sure I have a place to go,” he said.

That’s a real concern for many soldiers from other nations who are often left mostly on their own for both worship services and certain supplies of ordinary life since most troops are expected to live with family or at least have someone nearby. It’s one of the reasons Shaving Israel exists in the first place.

“Most of the people who are in the army who are American have either made aliyah and they are serving or they are a volunteer,” he said. “It’s really hard because Israel doesn’t supply you with much.”

Laundry and shopping were a big challenge with both having to be done in only a couple of hours before Shabbat fell.

“It took me months to sort it out,” he recalled.

Still, he did have one advantage many non-Israelis don’t. For much of his time he was able to stay with the Bronsteins, former St. Louisans residing in Israel.

“It could have been a lot harder because I basically had a family,” he said.

He found Gaza to be the most stressful and tense posting during his service. He described it as a frequently lawless zone where gunfire into the air is often heard and the Israelis’ job was simply to keep the border sealed.

“You definitely see the conflict from the ground,” he said.

Spielberg said he didn’t believe that the picture sometimes seen in the media of Israeli military behavior is an accurate one.

“On the news you hear about all these Israeli soldiers doing all this crazy stuff and if you were actually there you knew how far we went to not cause trouble, to avoid conflict, how much we try to go down the middle of the road,” he said.

Usually, their job was just to enforce the law and keep trouble from breaking out, whether that meant from Arabs or Jews.

“Ninety nine percent of the time, you are trying to avoid conflict and keep the peace,” he said. “A lot of times when it is the Jews causing trouble in the settlements, you’ve got to tell them no. People don’t understand and think we go around shooting people. I didn’t shoot my gun at anybody once.”

He said that the training was excellent.

“It was kind of weird because the most dangerous parts of my service, your training kicks in and then you don’t feel scared at all,” he said. “You are trained so much to do this so you are sitting there and something is happening and training and your sense of duty kick in at the same time and you don’t really have any fear.”

But that wasn’t to say there were no fearful moments. Missile attacks during his time at the Gaza border were a particularly rattling experience but he compared them to the familiar tornado warnings in the Midwest. They are real and threatening but unlikely to hit in a particular location.

“You get scared about the stupid stuff honestly, the stuff that probably [isn’t as dangerous] because you haven’t been trained for it,” he said.

Spielberg’s talk will be held at the Conway Meadows Clubhouse, 14325 Conway Meadows Court, Dec. 2 at 2 p.m. Light refreshments will be served. RSVPs are requested by Monday at 314-724-9200 or 314-579-9653.