On August 17, 11 New Jersey residents joined 48 other future Israeli soldiers from across North America aboard a flight from New York to Tel Aviv.
Instead of settling into a college dorm or a first job after college, most will live in kibbutz housing as they prepare for two or three years in the Israel Defense Forces through the Lone Soldiers program of Friends of the IDF and Nefesh B’Nefesh . Many of them will live in peer clusters as members of the Israel Scouts-affiliated soldier support program Garin Tzabar.
Nobody was recruited or coerced, not even the ones who hold Israeli citizenship, as many of them do. Both the Lone Soldiers program and Garin Tzabar are there for those recruits who voluntarily choose to serve their ancestral homeland in the army or through National Service.
“It’s been a progression of things throughout my life that led up to this,” Avioz Hanan, 21, of Teaneck, a recent graduate of the University of Maryland, said a few days before the flight. “I was born in Haifa, I moved here at age 4, and we went back every year to visit family and friends. I always had a connection to Israel, and every time something happened there I really wanted to go.”
“Every time something happened there” generally refers to an incidence of conflict. For Mr. Hanan, the straw that broke the camel’s back was last summer’s war with Hamas in Gaza. He tried to explain the pull for him and others with similar sensibilities. “Whenever there’s a conflict it puts everything in perspective for us,” he said. “It brings up the connection we have to Israel and strengthens it. When something happens, I start questioning why I’m here and not there helping.”
When Mr. Hanan told his parents that he was thinking of joining Garin Tzabar and serving in the army, “they were kind of expecting it,” he said. “Of course they are worried and they would prefer I didn’t go, but they are proud of me.” His father is Israeli by birth; his mother is American.
Like the others on the flight, Mr. Hanan does not know yet where the army will place him. That depends on the outcome of physical and psychological testing that will be done over the next few months while he is living on Kibbutz Yehiam in the western Galilee. “If I had a choice, I’d like to serve in the infantry, maybe one of the special-forces units,” he said.
For now, he plans to return to the United States after his discharge. “The hardest part of leaving is putting my life on hold for a couple of years,” Mr. Hanan said. “My friends are starting their careers and I’m starting this journey — and I don’t know where it will lead me.”
Michael Bruck, 18, of Paramus, joined Garin Tzabar instead of applying to college. “I started to realize maybe college was not for me right now,” he said. “There are things I want to do before; I want to take a detour.” As he spoke, he was packing for his trip with his Israeli girlfriend from Chestnut Ridge, N.Y., whom he met through Garin Tzabar. The couple is part of a group staying on Kibbutz Beit Zera near Lake Kinneret.
Mr. Bruck, a recent graduate of Schechter Westchester High School, was born to Israeli parents. Hebrew is his first language. Through yearly trips to Israel, he feels very much a part of Israeli culture.
“I’m also a pretty big Zionist,” he said. “I am not religious at all, but my ancestral connection is strong, and I always went to Jewish schools and learned Jewish history, both ancient and modern. I believe Israel is central to our survival and I need to go there to do my part to protect it.”
Another reason, a more personal one, motivates him as well. “I’ve had a lot of army-related deaths in my family,” he said. His grandfather fell in the Six-Day War, and his cousin was killed in battle in Lebanon in 1995. Last year, another of his cousins was standing near a train station in Tel Aviv wearing his army uniform, talking to his girlfriend on the phone, when a terrorist stabbed him fatally.
“I feel if I don’t go and give my part, they sacrificed their lives for no reason,” Mr. Bruck said.
Dotan Rand, 18, of Fair Lawn also has a personal inspiration for joining the army, aside from having been raised in a “super Zionist” household by parents originally from Tel Aviv.
“Both my grandfathers were Holocaust survivors,” she said. Her maternal grandfather told her that his dream of getting to the Promised Land “gave him hope to make it through. He went to Palestine and worked in the swamps right after the war. All my life I heard about what my grandparents went through. I went to Israel every summer and spent time with them and with my Israeli cousins, aunts, and uncles, and I wanted to be like them. I wanted to serve like them.”
A recent alumna of the Frisch School in Paramus, Ms. Rand will live on the Orthodox Kibbutz Lavi as part of Garin Tzabar’s division for lone soldiers who are Sabbath-observant and keep kosher. She is the baby of her family, she said, and it is hard to leave her parents and siblings, but she thinks about two of her cousins who were injured on IDF duty, one losing a limb and another losing an eye in combat. “I saw that, and said to myself, if somebody could risk two years of their life for their country, they should,” she said.
Cochava Silvera, 18, of Bergenfield is unlike the other young people on the flight to Israel because she is not Israeli and she is not going directly into the army. Instead, Ms. Silvera, who graduated from SAR High School in Riverdale, N.Y., signed up for a pre-army Torah study program for young women at Midreshet Lindenbaum in Jerusalem.
“I’ll be learning with the girls I’m going into the army with, and that’s a big plus,” she said. Though many Orthodox young women opt for National Service rather than the IDF, she preferred to emulate most Israeli 18-year-olds by serving in a noncombat military role for two years. “I’m petrified, I’m scared of guns, but why shouldn’t it be me?” she said. “I want to give back in that way.”
Her family always has discussed the idea of aliyah — “It wasn’t an idea I just came up with and surprised my parents,” she said — but she traces her determination to move to Israel not to those family talks but to the terrorist murders of five members of the Fogel family in an Israeli town in March 2011.
“I was in eighth grade at the time and we didn’t talk about it in school, but I was so upset about it that my teacher sent me to talk to someone in the office,” Ms. Silvera said.
“There was a feeling inside me that I can’t describe; a feeling like ‘Why am I here in America? I should be there.’ I’m listening to that feeling, and I will be there.”
Lihi Moshe, 18, of Fair Lawn also made aliyah that day.