'Israelis Need To See Themselves As Jews First': An Interview with Panim el Panim Founder Colonel Geva Rapp

Published: January 12, 2011

As an IDF reserve colonel and a chozer b’teshuvah who studied for many years in yeshivot in Jerusalem, Geva Rapp finds himself in a unique position to relate to so many of today’s generation in Israel who are searching for their Jewish heritage. Recognizing the dangers that the lack of basic Jewish knowledge among Israelis poses to the Jewish character of Israel, Rapp founded Panim el Panim in 2005 in an attempt to infuse Jewish values into Israeli daily life, particularly among Israeli youth.

Panim el Panim is bringing a renewed awareness of Torah values and faith and a revived sense of pride in the Jewish state to tens of thousands of Israeli high school students, soldiers, army officers, and thousands of kibbutz members.
The Jewish Press: Before describing your involvement with Panim el Panim, can you tell us about your experience in London almost two years ago when you had to flee at risk of being arrested as a war criminal?
Rapp: I was invited to London on a speaking tour by Aish Hatorah to speak to the community. I asked them not to publicize the event, especially not in the universities. By mistake a lecture was arranged at the Hillel center of a London university and Arab students found out about it. They knew I was one of the coordinators of Operation Cast Lead War in Gaza and they organized huge violent demonstrations. They surrounded the Hillel center and climbed the walls, screaming and waving big signs that read “Arrest Israeli Colonel Geva Rapp for war crimes.” They even sent e-mails out about it and claimed that I live in the “illegal settlement” of Kiryat Moshe, a neighborhood in Yerushalayim that is well within the green line! In England if someone submits a complaint against someone for war crimes, a judge can arrest him. I was advised to return immediately to Israel and that’s what I did.
What was the idea behind Panim el Panim?
I myself am a chozer b’teshuvah. During the First Lebanon War, I found myself jumping from a troop carrier. We were attacked by our own airplanes by mistake. We were not allowed to fire back because the airplane was our own. The only thing I could do was pray. But what is prayer? Whom should I pray to? What should I say? I knew the words “Shema Yisrael” but not the rest of the phrase and not its meaning.
Another time during that war a bullet was aimed at my chest and I happened at that very instant to have turned to call my soldiers. I felt a big punch in my back. I thought someone was hitting me, but there was no one near me. I forgot about it, but the next day someone told me there was a hole in my backpack. I saw that a bullet had entered my flashlight, which I usually keep in front but had this time put in my backpack. It was a miracle. I had heard that there is a beracha of thanksgiving one makes, but I had no idea what it was.
When I finished the army, I had spare time before going to university and I went to Yeshiva Machon Meir. I studied Torah and stayed there for a couple of years. I understood from my own personal experience that this lack of learning and knowledge needs to be addressed. This is one of my goals now with Panim el Panim.
When did you start Panim el Panim and where do you concentrate your efforts?
We started about five years ago with six schools in the center of Tel Aviv. Today we give classes in forty main schools, reaching 20,000 students. We also have shiurim for parents of students. After seeing our program, Education Minister Gideon Saar realized the importance of bringing “Moreshet Yisrael” to the schools. He wanted the teachers in the school to teach but they said they can’t because they don’t know anything. Instead he decided to have us initiate projects in the schools.
We teach about Am Yisrael and Ahavat Yisrael and about the Jewish holidays. This is the first time they hear anything like it. In a school in Tel Aviv 80 percent of the students could not even complete the phrase of Shema Yisrael. There is a void in their lives and we come to fill in that void. We do not count success by how many tefillin are put on. It’s a long process, which must begin with understanding Jewish faith. Israelis need to see themselves as Jews first.
The ministry of defense has also invited us to lecture at army bases around the country, and kibbutzim ask us to come to speak. I went with my wife and children to Kibbutz Degania for Yom Kippur two years ago and now we’re going there every two weeks to give a shiur. Someone at the kibbutz commented on how their parents who established the kibbutz wanted to throw out the exile, but by mistake threw out our heritage with it. Now they are very eager to learn about that heritage.
What message do you bring to Israeli soldiers?
As I mentioned,  I was one of the coordinators of Operation Cast Lead. I met thousands of brave soldiers who were eager to go into battle despite knowing how dangerous it was. Our units are prepared to give their lives, but they don’t know why and what for. Eighty percent of them can tell you nothing about Am Yisrael. If you take a regular guy and tell him to fight – obviously it’s difficult to kill or be killed. But if he knows what he’s fighting for, it’s easier.
Here you take a guy who not only has a vacuum of knowledge, but he’s brainwashed by the media that we are conquering other people’s land, that we are harming the “poor Palestinians,” that we are to be blamed. You expect him to be a fighter? So we try to bridge this gap by explaining who we are as Am Yisrael, starting with Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov. By request of the IDF rabbanut and the Ministry of Defense, rabbis and reserve officers and commanders come to speak with battalions before they enter war. Without hearing our speeches a battalion will fight, but after hearing our words of encouragement and praise for what they are doing they are equipped with a moral understanding and sense of permission. They know the Torah is with them and they are doing the right thing.
Do you see a different level of commitment to fighting for Eretz Yisrael among religious versus non-religious soldiers?
If we go back to the Six-Day War, there was no difference among those who were religious and those who were not. During that war, when soldiers reclaimed Har Habayit and came to the Kotel, they cried. But if you asked them why they were crying, few would have been able to answer. And if you came to the first minyan the day after at the Kotel, hardly anyone came to pray because they didn’t know what prayer was. Yet they were very Zionistic. Now there is a total change. Today we see that the soldiers who are studying Torah and Zionism are much more committed. But all soldiers today are searching for something. That’s why they go backpacking to India and Australia. After the army they all buy tickets. The question is whether it be a ticket to India or to Yerushalayim. I really believe that if they are exposed to Jewish heritage in school and the army, they will know that after the army they will have a place to study Torah. Unfortunately there are too many who are seeking and don’t find anything because there aren’t enough people to reach them.
 Another serious problem we are facing is that many young people today are not even entering Tzahal. There’s one elite school in Tel Aviv where 20 percent of the children are not enlisting at all. After three to four months, another 20 percent find a way out. After we began teaching in that school, we saw a dramatic change. The last class had a 94 percent enlistment. That success rate led a 17-year-old student to publish a letter in a Tel Aviv newspaper blaming the principal for bringing Yahadut to her school and “ruining the youth by making them soldiers.”
Would you attribute this decline in enlistment to the influence of post-Zionism or to excessive immersion of Israeli youth in materialism?
I think it’s a combination of the two. In Sefer Orot, Rav Kook explains that when the nation of Israel will return to the Land of Israel the first generation will very quickly achieve prosperity. That is what happened. The Zionist movement originally concentrated on safeguarding the survival of Jews within Israel. They saw Eretz Yisrael as a big shelter to protect Jewish existence. Instead they ended up making the desert in Israel bloom, and their accomplishments gave them the feeling that they achieved twice their dreams. This led them to leave off striving anymore, and this is choking the nation. The word post-Zionism is a mistake. It’s rather the feeling that if we accomplished everything, then there’s nothing left to strive for.
Many organizations try to take advantage of this confused state of mind and pump money into pushing an agenda of cosmopolitism, globalism and humanism into the Israeli education system. We hear Ahmadinejad say the Europeans killed us and so we [the Zionists looking to create a Jewish state] should have chosen Europe instead of Israel. That’s not just a simple speech. Ahmadinejad has his intelligence which informs him where our weak point is, and they think this is our weak point. We question whether we are right, whether we should live in our land at the expense of the poor Palestinians, whether it’s really their land. Too many people in Israel have these questions because they don’t know who they are. It is our job to connect this generation in a real way to its ancient roots, which are also our glorious future.
Original Article Published in The Jewish Press