Brooklyn Boy

Brooklyn Boy

Netty C. Gross

If the televised image of Brooklyn’s Adam Shapiro defending Yasser Arafat is bad for your blood pressure, then meet Aaron Singer, another son of the borough. (Adam’s from Sheepshead Bay, Aaron from neighboring Flatbush.) In late April, Singer, 30, left his job, wife and baby daughter and flew to Israel to volunteer for reserve duty. He had immigrated to Israel in 1995, served in the army, but later moved back to the United States. “Why shouldn’t I come back here?” he told me in Jerusalem. “I was a paratrooper in the IDF. I’m in good health. My people are in trouble.”

But that’s only half the story. In the two-week period leading up to his departure, Singer managed to raise $20,000 from friends and strangers to buy bulletproof vests for reservists. The idea simply “popped into my head after people heard I was going and asked me how they could help.” Fact is, he says, soldiers are issued flak jackets designed to deflect shrapnel but not stop bullets. The safer ceramic vests run about $1,000 apiece.

“The army simply can’t afford them,” Singer says. “But the Jewish people can. And it’s something everyone can participate in, no matter how one views the conflict.”

Singer jumped into action – juggling deals with army bureaucracy. Two days after his arrival, he was busy negotiating with Export Erez, a manufacturer of army supplies, and is considering putting in an order for its top-of-the-line Anti-Terror Bulletproof Jackets. “It weighs 20 pounds and will stop all projectiles except an armor- piercing bullet,” he says with confidence.

Singer, a fourth-grade teacher in the Vein hasidic yeshivah, says his life has been transformed by his dual mission. “People have been amazingly generous and supportive,” he enthuses. One morning, he found 35 checks in his mailbox. Parents of his students raised $800 in two days. A Satmar hasid pressed $700 into his hand. His synagogue paid for the flight to Israel.

The list goes on. A stranger phoned his wife and offered to pay the family’s bills if money ran out. A synagogue in Queens organized a fundraiser. An acquaintance gave him a cell phone for his use in Israel. Even the registrar at Touro College, where he was enrolled in a spring semester course, gave Singer a full tuition refund.

The outpouring of cash and emotion, he theorizes, points to a growing recognition among all Jews, “even those who aren’t Zionists” – like many of the ultra-Orthodox who donated to his cause – “that no Jew can be safe today unless we defend ourselves in Israel. People are grasping at an opportunity to help save their brethren.”

Singer, one of seven children, reminds me of a breed I thought extinct: the fast-talking, Brooklyn yeshivah grad for whom Jewish pride is at the very core of his existence. The archetype usually had a Holocaust survivor parent in the frame. So I’m not all that surprised to learn that Singer’s father, Jacob, 62, was born in Poland in 1940 and spent his early childhood being smuggled through various ghettos and camps, culminating in Bergen-Belsen. “My father’s story,” says Singer, his voice slightly quivering, “has shaped my life. He suffered.”

After Singer dropped Orthodoxy in 1991 (“the smoking on Shabbes kind of gave it away”), he moved to Israel, married a French convert he’d met on an Orthodox kibbutz and returned to Brooklyn. But the marriage failed; he went back to Israel and joined the army, where he talked his way into a paratroop unit. “It was extremely hard. They broke me, but they made a mensch of me too.”

In 1998, Singer, back in Brooklyn, met his current wife – their daughter is 15 months old – returned to (modern) Orthodoxy, found fulfillment in teaching and discovered that “life is beautiful.” The intifada, however, intruded. Singer says his calls to the Israeli consulate in New York to volunteer were politely turned down. But after the terror attack at the Park Hotel in Netanyah on Seder night and the launching of Operation Defensive Shield, he wasn’t taking no for an answer.

“I phoned the recruiting office in Israel and told them I’m coming. They said, fine. So here I am. I don’t want to do anything stupid or crazy. I love my wife and baby and miss them terribly. But I’m a Jew and love my people too.”

As for landsman Adam Shapiro, Singer says, “Jews have very big hearts. They always want to help those who are suffering. He’s doing something very ‘Jewish.’ Just for the wrong side.”

Netty C. Gross

Copyright c 2002. The Jerusalem Report

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