When Yoni Zierler put on his Israel Defense Force uniform Sunday morning, he felt that something was not quite right. He reached down and realized that his gun was not there.
"Your gun becomes such a part of your life that you feel when it’s missing," Zierler explained to the crowd at the Jewish Center of Teaneck later that morning.
IDF soldier Yoni Zierler speaks at the Jewish Center of Teaneck on Sunday. Photo by Michael Laves
Now on a two-week leave from the army, the 19-year-old came to visit his parents, Rabbi Lawrence and Bernice Zierler, and speak to his father’s congregation about his experiences as a "lone soldier" a soldier who made aliyah on his own, leaving behind family and friends.
From September ‘004 through June ‘006, Zierler lived in Israel with his parents while they were on sabbatical. He finished high school there, but while his classmates prepared to go off to the army, he prepared to go back to America.
Ultimately, however, he decided that he had to stay. And once he began to assimilate into Israeli life, he felt the call of the army.
"Once you’re part of Israeli society, it’s hard to run away from the army," he said. "You just can’t escape it. [And] if you’re an officer, almost every single door in the country is open to you."
Zierler began studying in a yeshiva that requires students to split their time between learning and army service, but found the door to the army closed to him as a foreign volunteer. When the March draft came around, he wasn’t included. He returned to Teaneck in May to finalize his plans to make aliyah so that he could serve. On his return to Israel at the end of the summer, he was finally called up.
"I wanted this for me because, A, this is my country and I want to defend my country; and B, this is the way of life [in Israel]," he said.
Now a member of the Duchisat unit of the Kfir Brigade, he is still in advanced training. He has 11 months to go before returning to Hesder Yeshivot, but he may sign on for another four months of army service to become a noncommissioned officer.
Asked if he regrets giving up the typical American college experience, Zierler didn’t hesitate in defending his choice.
"Yeah, these are the best years of my life, but these days, when I walk down the street in uniform I’ve never felt so proud of myself," he said. "These feel like the best years of my life because I’m in the army."
While he spends Shabbat and other holidays with friends and their families, Zierler has grown closer to other lone soldiers, who are not always from America but share the experience of being on their own. And as tough as his commanding officers are, he has found that being a lone soldier has earned him a different kind of respect among his peers.
"People are very sympathetic. They’re very caring when they find out I’m alone," he said. "They’re impressed, they’re not sure how we’re able to do it."
When his son announced that he wanted to enlist, Rabbi Lawrence Zierler wasn’t surprised. Speaking to The Jewish Standard after his son’s talk, Zierler said his son had grown up in the Bnei Akiva youth movement and had embraced Zionism early in life. Once the family was in Israel, he and his wife understood that their son would want to stay, he said.
Although they are proud of what Yoni is doing and say that cell phones make staying in touch easier, they still worry, the elder Zierler said. They also have a newfound empathy when watching news reports from Israel.
"This is a very personal army. We all know people who have lost children," he said. This is a key difference between the Israeli army and the U.S. army, he said. In the United States, because it is a volunteer army, soldiers become faceless, the rabbi said.
"For the most part, it’s somebody else’s child," he said. "But not in the Israeli army. It’s your child. It’s your neighbor’s child. It’s your cousin’s child."
The younger Zierler is well aware of the dangers, and knows that he could lead a very different life if he wanted.
"There are times I visit my friends and see the lives they live and wonder what it would be like if I went to college," he said. "Then I stop and think about what I’m doing. In my mind, it’s so much more meaningful and gives me so much more than what college in the States could give me. There’s no comparison with the life I live now."