Daniel Peer first found his Jewish spark on a battlefield in the heart of Gaza.
Peer grew up in Nivot Alit in the north of Israel. Though he didn’t grow up observant, he knew how to pray and occasionally put on tefillin.
Peer entered the IDF in November 2001. As a boy he had learned Taekwondo, and the IDF trained him further in hand-to-hand combat. When he finished basic training, Peer was sent to Gaza.
Peer typically worked in teams with three other soldiers. Their mission was to scout out territory, collect information and find and destroy Kassam missile factories. They also routinely were assigned the job of locating and arresting wanted terrorists. Peer’s close-combat experience proved essential for the assignment.
“Every day in Gaza people are trying to kill you,” Peer said. “A lot of bad things were going on. It was scary.”
In addition to combat missions, Peer was also trained later as an operator of the IDF’s large armored bulldozers, some of which are the size of monster trucks. He was sent to Gaza on several occasions to destroy missile factories and terrorist hideouts.
Peer spent a lot of time in Gaza, both in his bulldozer and on foot. He would prefer to forget most of the missions, but one experience will always stay with him.
He and another soldier were in Gaza on an operation. They were running between buildings just feet from each other. Suddenly Peer saw his partner stumble and then crumple to the ground. His uniform was stained with blood. He had been shot by a sniper hiding in a nearby house. Within minutes, his life drained out of him.
The incident was a wake-up call for Peer. The fact that he had survived when the other soldier did not left a deep impression on him.
“HaKodesh Baruch Hu saved my life. It was not like lot there were a lot of people. There were only two people and it was either him or me. Something was going on. You have to believe it.”
Peer clearly saw Hashem’s hand in his salvation. He knew that Hashem had saved his life, but he did not understand why.
Peer was discharged from the IDF in 2004. He was called up for reserve duty in the summer of 2005 to help remove Jews from Gush Katif during the Disengagement. The IDF sent him one letter calling him up, then another and finally a red letter, which is typically followed by arrest if not followed. Peer refused all of the orders.
At the time, the Israeli government was debating whether IDF soldiers should tear down synagogues in the communities of Gush Katif. Though they eventually decided against it, if the government had given the order to destroy the synagogues, Peer knew that it would be his job as a bulldozer operator to carry it out. Hashem had saved his life in Gaza and Peer knew he could not return now to destroy a synagogue there.
Something deep inside Peer cried out to him to refuse the orders. The pintele yid in him, the Jewish spark that he had discovered on the Gaza street, reminded him that synagogues were places of holiness.
“I couldn’t take Jews out of Gush Katif. I told them I won’t do it,” Peer said. “I would have had to destroy a Beit Knesset.”
The Disengagement came and went. Peer did not participate, and yet he somehow avoided arrest. Throughout this time questions kept filling his head – Why did I survive? Why did G-d save me? What’s my purpose in this world?
Following that summer, Peer moved to the United States with an army buddy and settled in New York City. Peer’s friend had family members who lived in Lakewood and who invited him to come for Shabbat. After a few months in America his friend decided to spend a Shabbat in Lakewood and Peer tagged along.
With their long hair and sandals, the two men looked exceptionally out of place in Lakewood. But the family welcomed them with open arms.
Though he had gone to synagogue every Saturday growing up, this was the first real Shabbat he had ever experienced. During Shabbat they sang songs together with the family and delved into the deeper meaning of many fundamental Jewish concepts. They also learned together some of the laws of Shabbat. Peer was deeply touched by the experience. He was mesmerized by the love he saw in the family and the beautiful community of Lakewood.
“Baruch Hashem my soul liked to listen to everything,” Peer said.
Peer felt the strong tug of the Jewish spark inside of him. After Shabbat he went back to New York City, packed up his stuff and soon after moved to Lakewood. He wanted desperately to soak up everything, to learn more about his religion.
“HaKodesh Baruch Hu kept me safe and sound in the army for this.”
Peer learned for one year in a yeshiva in Lakewood, and then spent time learning in Monsey and Boro Park. He’s now back living in Israel. The spark that he discovered on the Gaza battlefield has been the thrust of his Jewish growth ever since. And just as it helped him to survive his physical battle, it continues to inspire his daily spiritual battles as well.
Michael Gros is the former Chief Operating Officer of the outreach organization The Atlanta Scholars Kollel. He writes from Ramat Beit Shemesh, Israel. The Teshuva Journey column chronicles uplifting teshuva journeys and inspiring kiruv tales. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org To receive Michael’s articles via email or see back issues, visit http://www.michaelgros.com
Published in the Jewish Press in February, 2010