As children, brothers Max and Noah Herskowitz of Teaneck were "like night and day," said their mother, Linda, of two of her four sons. Not surprisingly, their lives have again diverged. Max, ”, is a corporal in the Israel Defense Forces; Noah, ‘1, is a private first class in the U.S. Army.
Max is entering his final year at Yeshivat Har Etzion, south of Jerusalem, in a hesder yeshiva program that combines military service in the IDF with study. He joined the IDF in ‘004, following two years of post-high school study in Israel. (Max graduated from the Frisch School in Paramus in ’00’.) After 14 months of training in the Negev and the Golan Heights, he served for two months in the Gaza Strip before its evacuation, five months on the Lebanese border in ‘005, and this summer on infantry patrol in Gush Etzion, in the vicinity of the yeshiva.
Max, left, and Noah Herskowitz are at ease with their younger brothers, Lev, left, and Benny.
With eventual plans to attend college and pursue a career in either the rabbinate or psychology, Max is the scholar who has always been committed to Israel and Torah study, said his mother, Linda Herskowitz, an assistant teacher of special education in the Teaneck Public Schools. That’s why his parents were not surprised when he informed them he intended to remain in Israel for a second year of study in ‘003, which Max knew would make him eligible for the draft there. (When the Herskowitzes made aliyah and lived in Israel from1993 to ’94, the family acquired Israeli passports. A move back to the States meant that the boys would later face a choice of whether to serve in the IDF.)
"I really wanted to be a part of society there and one of the major parts of that is to serve in the army," said Max, who trained as a tank gunner. "I met a lot of people that I wouldn’t have met otherwise, a lot of secular people," he added, explaining that those in the hesder yeshiva program mingle with non-observant soldiers. "There was not another member of my yeshiva in my combat unit," he said. That exposure, however, has not shaken Max’s commitment to a religious lifestyle, for which he credits his family and years of immersion in Torah study that has "centered on the land of Israel and has shaped my value system."
It was a different story when in ‘005, Noah broke the news to his mother that he planned to enlist in the U.S. Army. "She just cried and cried," he recalled. A bit of a rebel who "likes action," said Linda, she and her ex-husband, Michael, a finance and technology executive in New York City, were really blindsided. Noah was the last person she imagined would thrive in an environment where he’d have to take orders. "His father and I tried to dissuade him," she said, but soon realized that her independent son was determined to make a radical change in his life.
After a year at Machon Lev, a yeshiva associated with the Jerusalem College of Technology, following his ‘003 graduation from Frisch, Noah enrolled at Yeshiva University. "I was not motivated. All I did was watch movies and hung out playing video games," he said of his decision to drop out before the end of his first semester. He then took a stab at learning video game design in the continuing education program at NYU. Finally, working at Pizzeria Uno on Route 4, he knew he had reached a dead end.
At first, he debated about whether to follow Max’s example and enter the IDF. But ultimately, he felt that the rigid structure of the U.S. armed forces would give him what he most needed: leadership skills, confidence, discipline, educational opportunities, and training. It also presented a chance to help the Army, he said, although he declined to offer his assessment of the war in Iraq, where he will be deployed this summer. Studying communications and first aid through Army correspondence courses has helped him find direction. A "vague seven-year plan," he hopes, will include law school.
Although he’s only one of a handful of Jewish soldiers on the base at Fort Stewart outside Savannah, Ga., and the only one he knows who sports a kippah, Noah has found life there hospitable to his observance of Shabbat and kashrut. In fact, his Army pals envy him his extra monthly food stipend, and he’s been given passes home for all the major holidays.
Now when he leaves home, his mother no longer cries. "I don’t think it’s because she loves me any less," he said. His mother conceded she’s never seen him happier. "I guess he knew what he needed, what was best for him," she said.
Max and Noah said they appreciate having had the freedom to chart their own courses, despite how stressful those courses may be for their parents. Said their mother, "Both boys are 110 percent committed to the choices they have made, and that’s more than I can say about a lot of other kids their age. It’s given me a lot of faith that everything will be OK."