Their parents did it. Their siblings did it. Many of the friends they left behind are doing it.
So it’s not surprising that new high school graduates like Lior Peri of Cresskill, Yonatan Hochberg of Closter, and Lihi Moshe of Fair Lawn are headed to Israel later this summer to prepare for service in the Israel Defense Forces.
Their journey back to the land of their birth is facilitated by Garin Tzabar, an Israel Scouts-affiliated organization dedicated to providing a framework of support for “any Jew from anywhere who decides to move to Israel and join the army as a lone soldier,” according to Yair Ran, director of Tzofim Garin Tzabar for North America through Friends of Israel Scouts.
Garin Tzabar (literally a “seed group of sabras”) holds seminars educating prospective participants and their parents about IDF culture, arranges group flights, and — perhaps most importantly — places each seed group of 20 to 25 teens on one of 50 kibbutzim that cooperate with the program. The lone soldiers dorm together and contribute labor to the kibbutz. In return, their meals and laundry are taken care of, and each gets assigned a surrogate family. Those who do not already know Hebrew are provided with intensive lessons.
The program is entirely voluntary. No Israeli citizen living abroad is required to join the military, although it is compulsory for Israeli residents when they turn 18.
“We are not trying to convince anyone to do this; in fact, we want them to think carefully and understand how difficult it is, because army service is not a Hollywood movie and we don’t want them to be disappointed,” Mr. Ran said.
“We are here for those who make that decision and for those thinking about it. Our main goal is to bond and build them into a cohesive group before their move, and to let them know from alumni what it’s really like. We have parents meetings and groups to support them as well, before and after their children go to Israel.”
Mr. Ran notes that the program attracts more participants each year even though it does no active publicity or marketing. After a war, as there was last summer, interest always peaks.
Garin Tzabar now processes about 400 lone soldiers from around the world every year, and more than 1,200 Garin Tzabar participants are now serving in all branches of the IDF; 25 percent of the boys and many of the girls are in combat units. In North America, Garin Tzabar sponsors nine groups in the summer and three in the winter, or about 200 teens altogether.
Nearly all of the eight Bergen County residents going to Israel on Garin Tzabar this summer are Israeli by birth. In North America, about 60 percent of Garin Tzabar members have Israeli parents. This can be a strong motivating factor.
“I always knew I wanted to go to the army,” said Ms. Peri, 18, the oldest of five siblings born in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Hasharon. She was 14 when her family moved to Cresskill. “My parents both served in the IDF and they support me. I also heard from a lot of my friends in Israel who are starting their service, and that will definitely help me through the process of the army, since my family is staying here in the U.S.”
Ms. Peri says that her Cresskill High School classmates encouraged her decision. “Most of my basketball and track teammates asked what motivates me, and I told them that the experience will mature me and teach me and make me stronger,” she said.
She’ll be leaving late this month to visit relatives and friends, and then on August 19 will join her Garin Tzabar group of 21 young adults at Kibbutz Yizre’el in the Jezreel Valley, where they will spend about three months getting their paperwork, their bodies, and their Hebrew skills in shape for the military. Once they begin their service, they will meet every weekend back at the kibbutz to share their feelings and experiences through Garin Tzabar facilitators.
“For now I’m planning to serve two years and come back for university,” Ms. Peri, who hopes to be a physical trainer, said. Generally, female soldiers serve two years while male soldiers serve three, though the term of service for all young men soon is to be reduced to 32 months.
Yonatan Hochberg of Closter expects to stay in Israel and go to medical school there. In fact, the recent Northern Valley Regional High School graduate already had applied to colleges here as a pre-med major when his parents encouraged him to attend an introductory Garin Tzabar seminar along with some friends.
Mr. Ran said that 70 percent of Garin Tzabar members stay in Israel at least a few years after the army, often completing college using their post-army financial benefits. Furthermore, 30 percent of the families eventually follow their sons or daughters to Israel — or back to Israel, in the case of Israeli expats.
Like Ms. Peri, Mr. Hochberg grew up in Ramat Hasharon, moved to New Jersey at 14, and will be staying at Kibbutz Yizre’el. “I’m still in touch with friends going into the army now,” he said. “I’m most excited about serving in the army and spending a few months on the kibbutz with my garim. The hard part is that I’m not going to have my parents with me and won’t have a lot of time on my own — and the military service itself, obviously.”
Mr. Hochberg would like to go into the artillery corps but he understands that inductees are not guaranteed to get their first choice.
Lihi Moshe of Fair Lawn said that she is a little nervous about learning how to live independently. She came to New Jersey with her parents and siblings when she was just 8 years old.
“We grew up in a very Israeli home and we traveled to Israel every year,” she said. “My two older siblings also did Garin Tzabar. It’s always been a plan of mine to move back, and I got more interested in the army after my siblings did it. I feel, like any other Israeli, that this is something I have to do. I know it will be a challenge — but I’m determined to do it.”
The other area members of the group are Michal Elyasaf, Gale Dayan, and Inbar Zick of Tenafly; Shaked Naftalovich of Cresskill, and Gabriel Haymes of Fair Lawn.
“We always ask Garin Tzabar participants why they want to do this,” Mr. Ran said. “Many of them grew up on stories of their own parents in the army. But the main thing they stress is that they are not running away from anything. They want to go to Israel.
“People look for meaning in their lives, and these boys and girls feel very connected to the Jewish state. Most have very supportive parents. What usually makes the decision is a visit to Israel. They see soldiers on the bus next to them and they think, ‘I want to be like him or her.’ They want to challenge themselves, and be part of something bigger.”
Anyone interested in Garin Tzabar may email Mr. Ran at email@example.com or call him at (212) 390-8130, ext.304.