LAKEWOOD, N.J. — From this Jewish enclave on the Jersey Shore, prayers are being said for Israeli soldiers fighting on the front lines in Gaza.
But perhaps nowhere in Lakewood are those events 6,000 miles away being felt more than in the home of Township Committeeman Steven Langert and his wife, Sharon, whose 22-year-old son Aaron, is among the estimated 740 Jewish-Americans serving in the Israeli Defense Forces.
For the Langerts, an Orthodox family, their son's service to the Jewish homeland is a source of enormous pride and their faith brings them a sense of inner comfort about his purpose, even if as concerned parents they follow every harrowing development with trepidation.
Aaron Langert is one of those soldiers on the front lines. He was deployed to Gaza with the rest of his Givati or Highland Brigade not long after the start of what Israel calls "Operation Protective Edge," its current conflict with the Palestinian-controlled Gaza Strip. That military operation began with the abduction and murder of three Israeli teenagers by Islamic extremists in June and has since evolved into an all-out war.
Sharon Langert, 46, who runs a style blog called Fashion-isha, is notified of every missile strike through news alerts that light up her smartphone. She also keeps in close touch with family living in the Jewish state. Indeed, many relatives including her parents, her sister and her mother-in-law have moved to Israel over the years, she observed.
There is a deep spiritual connection to Israel that non-Jews may have a difficult time understanding, she explained. She pauses to share her faith that Israel is a holy place that God has given to the Jewish people and after a millennium of persecution, it is the one place on Earth that is their guaranteed safe harbor.
"One of the things that is breaking my heart about this whole situation is the terrible press that Israel is getting," Langert said. "I really need to touch on that."
Israel has the right and obligation to protect its homeland from terrorism, just as the United States has sought to protect its homeland from terrorism, she asserts.
"Their goal is to protect their people, they have an obligation to protect their people, the last thing they want to do is hurt innocent civilians," she said. "They are in such a difficult situation right now. It breaks my heart that all of this anti-Semitism is rising up and all of this anti-Israel propaganda. … The people in Israel are the ones in the Middle East who are out for freedom. They would love to live peacefully with the Arabs. They are a country that has Muslims in their Parliament. They're open to all people as long as those people are not attacking them."
The men and women who serve in the Israeli Defense Forces (the all-inclusive name for its army, navy and air force) are supported here in the United States by a nonprofit organization called the Friends of the Israeli Defense Forces, which was founded by Holocaust survivors in 1981 and which works closely with the Israeli government. Their aim is to support all of its soldiers but in particular, "Lone Soldiers," a term used to identify foreigners, such as Aaron Langert, who have joined the IDF.
In 2013, there were 2,562 foreign citizens from more than 68 countries serving in the IDF, according to Friends of the IDF. Of that number, American citizens represent the greatest plurality of soldiers to Israel, followed by Russia with 393 of its citizens serving in the IDF, 280 Ukrainians and 236 French, according to the group.
Howard Gases, director of the New Jersey Chapter of Friends of the IDF, said the organization raises about $85 million in support of individuals serving the Israeli armed forces, delivering 46,000 to 50,000 packets of essential items to service members who are deployed, as well as assisting "Lone Soldiers" with financial support and travel expenses.
"Over the years, people realize that they need to support the IDF," Gases said. "For a strong Israel to survive, we need a strong military and a happy military."
Make no mistake, Langert said, a love for Israel is not a betrayal of being American. Often, it is difficult to explain to someone who is not Jewish what Israel means to the Jewish people.
"We are so grateful that we live in such a great country, where there is freedom of religion and there is for the most part, until recently, there's very little anti-Semitism that we can actually see."