Nineteen days after he graduated from high school, 18-year-old Harrison Adler of Tenafly was en route to Israel.
Two months after that, he was a lone soldier in the Israel Defense Forces.
It’s not that he has decided not to go to college — Mr. Adler, now 19, has been accepted at the university of his choice and he will matriculate there, an uncommonly mature freshman, in the fall of 2016. But his path to college now includes a detour, one that he had planned for some time.
Mr. Adler, who went first to public school in Tenafly and then to Dwight-Englewood, a secular private school, in Englewood, was back in New Jersey for a brief visit. His time back home included a talk at the annual New Jersey Friends of the IDF dinner in Parsippany in late November. (The dinner attracted more than 450 people and raised more than $1 million, which will be used for programming for IDF members.)
Later, he described his choices, the worldview that led up to his decision, and the changes it has made in him.
There were two dovetailed reasons for his joining the IDF, Mr. Adler said. “First, there was my desire to help the world. There are a few places where that comes from. My parents are very charitable, so I was exposed to the mindset that we need to give to other people very early. And that was combined with a second feeling — of Zionism, and of Jewish identity.
“When you combine those things, you end up at the place where I ended up,” he said.
It certainly is true that the Adler family set a formidable example when it comes to charity. Harrison’s parents, Jim and Dana Post Adler, are active philanthropists; his mother is vice president and co-chair of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey’s Women’s Philanthropy and sits on the boards of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, National Women’s Philanthropy, and the Adler Aphasia Center in Maywood, among many others.
And it is not coincidental that the aphasia center’s name includes Adler. Harrison’s grandparents, Myron and Elaine Adler, created the center in response to Myron Adler’s stroke, which left him aphasic; when Myron (or Mike, as everyone called him) died on September 15 this year, the outpouring of grief in response made clear that the love he evoked was not pro forma gratitude to a benefactor but a genuine response to real loss.
All this is part of Harrison Adler’s inheritance. And then there’s the part he did himself.
Although he had been to Israel on a family vacation just once before he moved there to become a lone soldier, “I started thinking about it maybe four or five years ago, and then over time, I thought about it more,” he said. “And then, maybe six or seven months before I finished high school, it clicked, and I knew what I would do.”
Mr. Adler did not make aliyah, he said; instead, he plans to come back to the United States to live once his tour of duty is over. “I am a volunteer in the army,” he said. The two months between his landing at Ben-Gurion Airport and his IDF induction were busy, because “as a foreign soldier, you have to do a lot of bureaucratic work, paperwork, going from place to place filling out stuff. And then, about a month before the army, I did a pre-army program with other lone soldiers.” His Hebrew had not been particularly good before he went to Israel, he said, but that program included some language classes, and it was augmented by a two-month Army ulpan program after induction. And then, “I drafted into combat after that, in August 2014,” he said.
“There is no unit exclusively for lone soldiers,” he continued; he is in a unit “with a few other lone soldiers, because we just happened to be placed together.” By now, he shifts effortlessly between Hebrew and English, and uses both in his unit.
“We were in training for eight months, and then we go to guard a border,” he continued. “It just so happens that the border my battalion was assigned to is the one with Lebanon.
“Close to Syria,” he added.
“We do border patrols, guard duty mission,” Mr. Adler said. “I’m sorry, but I can’t tell any stories about it.” And it is necessary to add that Mr. Adler was entirely straightforward about what his boundaries were, and he stayed well inside them. The questions that he could answer, he did answer; the questions that he could not answer, he immediately declined.
Mr. Adler feels strongly that he made the right decision. “This is the greatest choice I have ever made in my entire life,” he said. “It gives you an education you can’t get from going to school, or from doing anything else. It gives you perspective on life, it gives you mental and physical strength, it teaches you the way to deal with issues and problems that you wouldn’t have if you hadn’t gone through it. That’s the biggest gift of all — the idea that when your service is over, even 10, 14, 20, 25 years afterward, the lessons you were taught then will help you in every situation.”
What’s an example? “Here’s one,” he said. “Time management.
“Say that you’re working for some company, and they give you a project to do. Or say that you’re in school, and you have a paper to do. You have both the perspective and the discipline to know that whatever it takes to do it, you just have to do it. You do it until it’s done, and you do it no matter what the quote unquote pain might be during the process of doing it, because the only thing that matters is the completion of the task.”
Serving in the IDF also has helped shatter stereotypes of Israel. “I serve with people who are Christians, Muslims, Druze, Orthodox, and atheists,” Mr. Adler said. “They come from many sociological, economic, and racial backgrounds. And all we care about is getting the job done — and doing it together.”
Friendship is another benefit of army service, he added. “It’s different than it was in high school. This really is a brotherhood, in the farthest extent that you can use the word. We are brothers. We are a fraternity. It was true throughout training, and it is especially true now, when we are on a very dangerous border. All the commanders and the structure itself has tried to impart a sense of ‘you guys are all in this together,’ but they never had to hammer it in, because we did it ourselves.”
When he is asked whether his return home after his pending February 2015 discharge is likely to seem anti-climactic, Mr. Adler’s hard-won practicality surfaced once again. “I think that I am 19 years old, so anything I predict about the ‘quote unquote’ real world isn’t going to hold any way.
This is the greatest choice I have ever made in my entire life. It gives you an education you can’t get from going to school, or from doing anything else.
“I grew up in a bubble,” he continued. “I was living in north Jersey — not the poorest area in the world. The army shattered that bubble, and that’s one of its most important aspects. It breaks all sense of coddled-ness.
“But if you look at it from another angle, the army itself is a certain kind of bubble,” he said. “You certainly have your work cut out for you, and it’s incredibly challenging stuff, and people get hurt, and sometimes people pay the ultimate price, but at the end of the day it’s not very open-ended. When I get home and try to start a business and a family, that will be one of the most opened-ended experiences you can possibly have. You have no one guiding you, nothing except your own experiences, and even those don’t necessarily prepare you.”
His army training has prepared him very specifically for a certain set of circumstances, Mr. Adler said. “If there is a war, if I go into war, then I — and everyone else — has to hope that our training has prepared us well enough so that we can snap into it and we know what to do to save our lives and everyone else’s lives. And I also believe that everything that I have learned and will learn in the past, in school, in the army, in college, in life — all those things will coalesce into something resembling action.”
When he gets to college, Mr. Adler said, he will be more prepared to take on anti-Israel bias than he would have been right after high school.
“If somebody turns on the news, they can see things that — to put it mildly — are not exactly true about Israel. Israel does not engage in aggressive acts. That is antithetical to everything that Israel stands for. The country’s paramount goal is to provide safety for its citizens, and by extension to the citizens of surrounding countries, and by extension the rest of the world. Every action Israel takes has been measured up against the idea of its being attacked. So anytime someone sees something in the news about an aggressive action taken by Israel, it needs to be understood that it’s not reporting why it is taking that action.
“This is something that I know not from the army but from being in Israel. Someone doesn’t have to be in the army to learn the truth about what is happening. All they have to do is take off their blinders, block out whatever outside bias might be coming in, and to look at the facts. To look at events as they actually happen.
“I believe that the most important thing anyone can do to support Israel is to be informed. When I am in college, I intend to find a soapbox, and to project from said soapbox what the truth really is.
“It is so important that people hear the truth and understand it.”
Mr. Adler does not know exactly what he wants to do after college — he knows he’s interested in hi-tech, and will work toward a double major or dual degree in physics and electrical engineering. Beyond that, he’ll figure it out, he said.
Whatever he does, he will model himself after his grandfather Mike, he said. “He was one of my role models. He was 17, and the guy volunteers to serve in the tank corps under Patton.” This, of course, was during General George Patton’s European campaign during World War II. “He fights in France and Belgium, comes back, starts a business with my grandmother, they grow it immensely, and they start an incredible family.
“If I can accomplish a fraction of what those two people did, I will consider my life a success,” Mr. Adler said.
Mr. Adler’s parents, meanwhile, are “both fiercely proud of Harrison and terrified,” his mother, Dana Adler, said. “Or should I say terrified first — but also fiercely proud?
“We have lived such Jewish lives, we have always been so pro-Israel, so Zionist, and it’s a bit mind-boggling to me how many people come up to me and say ‘How can you let him do this?’” she continued. “This is something that he talked about for a long time, so it wasn’t a huge surprise. And as long as he comes home in one piece, God willing, it will be the best thing he ever could have done for himself.
“It made him into a man.
“He’s more focused, more disciplined, he looks great, and he has a kind of quiet confidence about him that he never had before.
“I always knew that this man was underneath the boy, so the whole transformation isn’t as amazing to me as it was to other people,” she said. “I remember that when he was in middle school at Dwight Englewood, the principal there, who is incredible, was talking about that odd transition from childhood into adolescence. And she gave the best advice.
“Always remember what these kids were like when they were very little,” she said, quoting the principal. “That’s how they’ll be in the end. That’s when they show their true selves, when they’re very little.
“Harrison was always such an inquisitive, happy, fit little boy. Now he’s a man, and he still has that quiet innocence that he had then, but now there’s a confidence behind it.
“All American kids should go through some sort of community service,” Ms. Adler concluded. “Military service, community service, for at least a year.” One of the many ways in which teenagers could grow from that experience, she suggested, was because their parents would be held at somewhat of a remove. “Oftentimes these kids do better without us,” she said.
Jim and Dana Adler and their children — Harrison and his two younger sisters, Caroline and Eliana — belong to Temple Emanu-El in Closter, where they are a constant presence.
“Harrison is a great kid, interesting, bright, and quirky,” its rabbi, David-Seth Kirshner, said. “He gets this inheritance from both sides of his family. His mom is a super Zionist; the idea of his dedicating this time of his life toward Israel is not surprising and it is quite inspiring.”
Quirky how? “In a very good way,” Rabbi Kirshner said. “I remember that even when he was 12 or 13, he felt really comfortable coming into my office — most people, even adults, would think that my office would be made of kryptonite — to ask me questions about Judaism. He would plop himself down in a chair and say, ‘Explain this to me.’ Most of the time they were deep philosophical questions. That made him different from most kids.
“He is a deep thinker.”
Emanu-El right now has three lone soldiers — the other two are the children of Israeli-born parents — and the community is very proud of each one of them, Rabbi Kirshner said. He leads a trip to Israel at least twice a year, and the groups make a point of having Shabbat dinner with lone soldiers — either its own or young people from other diaspora communities — on every trip. Whenever possible, for the last year and a half, Harrison Adler has been among those lone soldiers.
As much as Mr. Adler gives to the IDF, he also is getting, Rabbi Kirshner said. “It has not only matured Harrison, it has given him a layer of introspection and insight, so when he comes back for college, he will be at a different grade of maturity and readiness.”
Or, as his mother says, quoting something she heard but can’t attribute, “Many folks spend their entire lives searching for their hero.
“I raised mine.”