CEDARHURST, New York — A soldier and a devout worshipper stand side by side, encompassed in a golden hue, in a painting on the dining room wall in the home of Jonathan and Alissa Nierenberg. It was a gift from their son, Noah, who told them the image symbolized his Jewish faith and his willingness to defend Israel.
Jonathan now glances at the wall in somber admiration, as Noah Nierenberg, 22, has gone to Israel to be that faithful soldier depicted in the painting. His parents sent him off with a mix of emotions.
“Of course, we’re proud. We’re nervous. We’re frightened. But this is what he needs to do for himself,” Alissa said.
Nierenberg was in Israel for the High Holy Days and to visit friends when the country was attacked by Hamas. He had returned to New York on Saturday, Oct. 7, the night of Hamas’ invasion. But on Wednesday, Oct. 11, he was bidding a tearful farewell to his parents at JFK Airport before boarding a direct flight back to Israel.
The danger he faced in Israel, he explained to The Tablet in a Zoom interview from Israel, was nothing compared to the pain he felt being away from his friends and his homeland.
“How can I not be here? My brothers and sisters are at war? This is who I am — where I need to be. … This is where my heart is. I couldn’t be outside of the land of Israel when we’re going through something like this,” he said.
Since the war began, thousands of Israelis and Palestinians have died, and a humanitarian crisis threatens the Gaza Strip. More than anything, the Nierenberg family wants the war to have a quick resolution.
I don’t even want to call it a war effort,” Jonathan said. “We, of course, support our troops, but we want this to be over.”
Since becoming an Israeli citizen after high school, Nierenberg has considered the country his home. He completed the process for citizenship — called Aliyah, meaning “rising” or “ascending” in Hebrew — a little over a year ago, while he was serving in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). He is part of the Lone Soldier program, which is made up of soldiers in the IDF with no family in Israel to support them.
Now that he’s back in Israel, Nierenberg says he’s willing to do whatever needs to be done, whether that means going back to the front, serving meals, or participating in Torah studies.
Before the war broke out, Noah had been living in New York, working to complete his Talmudic studies at Yeshiva University in Washington Heights. For the time being, that yearlong process has been cut short; he and his family hope he has the opportunity to resume and complete those studies soon.
Meanwhile, as he awaits in the reserves to be called into frontline service, Nierenberg said he spends most of his time teaching the Torah to his fellow Israelis. It can be difficult, he said, to find God in such a war-torn environment, and he’s made it his mission to uplift those fighting by reminding them of the strength their faith gives them.
One day, Nierenberg hopes to finish his studies and become a rabbi, living in his own home in Israel with the golden-hued painting of the soldier and the worshipper on his own dining room wall. Until then, he prays for peace.
“Now is a sensitive time in the world. We need to believe in the brotherhood of men. That we’re all under one God, and everyone needs to keep each other in our hearts and prayers,” he said.
Donations to Lev LaChayal, an organization that supports people like Noah Nierenberg in the Lone Soldier program, can be made at levhatorah.org/donations/llc
Catholic Relief Services is accepting donations to support those in crisis in the Gaza Strip at support.crs.org/donate/gaza-crisis