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Serena (Schwechter) and Shai Kalish: Ever since she attended MMY, Serena planned to make aliyah. It was something she and her husband, Shai already discussed when they were dating. What she did not envision was that within a few short years of their aliyah, Shai would voluntarily enlist in the IDF at the outbreak of war, leaving her with three small children at home.

Serena was born in Great Neck, NY and credits her parents, North Shore Hebrew Academy, and Central for instilling her with a strong sense of Zionism and excellent Hebrew. Shai hails from Baltimore and learnt at Yeshiva Gedolah of Silver Spring and Lev HaTorah. Together, they built their home in Silver Spring, MD. Their professional lives took off, with Serena working as a PA and Shai as an attorney, and aliyah became something that remained a dream, one they planned to achieve, but increasingly difficult with their professional trajectories. Would their careers transfer to Israel? What’s more, they were comfortable in their community and very involved with their shul. But Shai became more and more concerned with the rise of antisemitism in the United States and felt their spiritual home was in Israel so when Serena and Shai heard about the new community of Neve Shamir, they bought an apartment on paper and started to make plans.


They arrived in Israel in the fall of 2021 with a two-year-old and an eight-month-old. Serena started working as a PA in American yeshivot and seminaries, as well as in telemedicine. Shai worked as an attorney at an Israeli law firm and their sabra baby arrived last year. They quickly made friends in their new community, noting that like themselves, everyone wanted to get involved in building their new shul and arranging programs. “Olim have a special character,” says Serena. “Many people in the U.S. are just trying to get through life and are complacent. Here, we find every single person who has decided to uproot their life and make aliyah, is a passionate person by nature. We are surrounded by passionate people who all want to contribute and to build our new shul. There is such a high percentage of leaders who live here who are involved in making it such a great community.”

It may be exactly the character trait of being a passionate giver that led Shai to decide to enlist after the Hamas massacre on October 7. In November, Shai received a text that a religious program within the army, Shlav Bet, was looking for new recruits. He sat Serena down and explained all of the reasons why he felt he needed to serve and asked her thoughts, expecting her to say no. It took Serena three seconds to say, “Of course, we need to do this.” Since then, Shai has been serving on the Gaza border, identifying soldiers’ bodies who were killed in Gaza. “I never thought this would be my life,” says Serena, “but we felt we needed to do this.”

“I felt a strong duty to Am Yisrael,” says Shai. “Am Yisrael was put in a vulnerable position and I had a duty to respond; wherever they needed help was where I wanted to be. When seeing my neighbors and friends being called up immediately and seeing their wives at home alone with their families, I felt this sense of responsibility; how could I sit on the sidelines and not help? How could I sit here while other families are suffering for Am Yisrael and I’m not? This led to my discussion with Serena about how we could help. We weighed what that meant for our individual sacrifice as a family along with the tzibbur’s needs but we ultimately decided together that the sacrifice of our individuality for the tzibbur was what was needed to do.

“People ask if it’s challenging from an emotional standpoint identifying bodies of fallen soldiers for the rabbanut, especially since some bodies are missing body parts. I put all of my emotions on the side when I do this work and I think to myself that there’s a family on the other side that needs to know, and they need to know in a halachically approved way. Halacha has a framework to help families rebuild from the destruction and loss of their loved ones and that’s all I think about. I say a perek of Tehillim before to ask Hashem that I remain whole and not fall apart by what I’m seeing and that I should do it in the most efficient way possible so that a family can be notified.

“I meet so many people from the charedi/Chassidic camp who may have typically sat on the side of this effort but who are enlisting in Shlav Bet in the army with each person having a different reason for doing so,” says Shai. “Some say if I’m not learning in kollel, this is what we should be doing. Others say they just wanted to help and this was the way to do it. You see many people from many walks of life outside of the mainstream Dati Leumi; and you really feel acheinu kol Beis Yisrael. When we sang it at the Tekes, it was very moving. To sing during the war when so many different kinds of people were enlisting, we felt that power of acheinu kol Beis Yisrael.

“As olim, we envision moving to Israel for the reasons described in Masechet Sotah in the discussion of why Moshe Rabbeinu wanted to enter Eretz Yisrael. Either for mundane reasons like eating the fruits of Eretz Yisrael and swimming in the Kineret, or as the Gemara concludes, to keep the mitzvot hatluyot ba’aretz like trumot u’maasrot – and be a more fulsome Jew in Eretz Yisrael. What I overlooked though until Shlav Bet is the opportunity to keep the hilchot melchama (laws of war) such as al ta’amod al dam re’echa and v’haya machenecha kadosh and zihui chalalim. I find that putting the theoretical halacha into practice during a war, which includes ensuring that each Jewish body is treated in a respectful and halachic way, is a powerful part of living in a Jewish country. I will take this experience with me for the rest of my life.”

Shai is not the only one putting his life on hold for the nation, Serena is doing the same, at home with three small children and working two jobs. For many, having a husband in the army while balancing everything at home is more than enough of a contribution but Serena wanted to do more. So, she’s contributing to Am Yisrael with a social media campaign of Israel advocacy, @thelactationpa which has attracted thousands of followers as she tells Israel’s story – from an inside view of being a soldier’s wife, a story that few recent olim can share. And she, like her husband, is making a tremendous impact.

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Ariela Davis is a passionate Jewish educator/writer and also served as a Rebbetzin before her aliyah in 2020. She is the Menahelet of Ulpanat Orly in Bet Shemesh.