As an American Jew growing up in New York, I was never really exposed to the world of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). I remember being jealous of all the kids who came back from Israel after school breaks, wearing the classic green sweatshirts emblazoned with the Tzahal insignia. I remember the elementary school assemblies where a former IDF soldier would speak about his or her experiences to a group of students who wanted to be anywhere but there. I was taught in high school by a former soldier about Zionism, something that the school administration deemed to be quite fitting. I only knew of the two famous brigades—Golani and Tzanchanim. To be frank; I was ignorant.
Let me clear the air before I go any further. I know how the military works. I happen to be the daughter of a U.S. naval veteran, so I grew up with the military in my veins. It shapes your whole way of being, even when you don’t mean it to or even want it to. But there’s something different about fighting for your country because you choose to rather than it being a national requirement when you reach adulthood. To me, there’s something both honorable and terrifying in knowing that you will be going to fight for the land that the Jews deserve, according to the Torah.
When I came to YU in the fall of 2014, I again naively didn’t think that I’d be so exposed to Israel and the IDF. I was sitting in a classroom in midtown Manhattan—roughly 7,000 miles away from the Holy Land, where my friends and twin brother were studying at the time. I went on Birthright my freshman year, where I got to know a few members that were serving at the time I happened to be there. Other than that, why would I need to be aware of it? I identified as an American. I just didn’t see the point.
But one year became two and two became three. I learned that some of the kids that I grew up and went to school with decided to make aliyah and enlist. I remember feeling this sense of pride for my childhood friends, while at the same time being terrified that I would wake up and hear news that I would never want to hear. Alongside that, the more and more I became enmeshed in the YU social life, I met more and more people who either had family in the IDF or had personally served. I became intrigued and wanted to learn more about a subject that was unfamiliar to me.
I started my research. I spent hours over the course of three years learning and absorbing information on the Israeli military. I read different books and looked up different websites that explained to me the different units and rankings. I learned that there were way more brigades and units aside from Golani and Tzanchanim, something I probably should’ve figured out a long time ago. I learned about defunct units and ones that were revived within the past twenty years. When I compared my father’s rank when leaving the U.S. Navy to the IDF, I discovered that if he had enlisted in the IDF, he would’ve left with a pretty high position. If you have the time, I truly recommend you read up on it—it’s fascinating to learn and it really opens your mind to what’s happening in the world around you.
I found something interesting about the veterans I met. Each person came from a different background, both religiously and personally. Each person had their own reasons why the IDF was the right choice for them. Each person had their own story. Some went because they were Israeli citizens and it was their duty, while some enlisted because they felt it was part of what they needed to do, becoming lone soldiers even as Americans. With each person I met, the more I realized how much growing up they needed to do in order to survive. They weren’t so much older than I was; in fact, some were even my own age! I might have had the military background, but I only knew it from the generation before me—never my own. I can’t even imagine enlisting and taking on both the physical and emotional responsibility of fighting for the state of Israel, and for some of the people I talked to, it seemed like the natural choice for them. They didn’t even think twice, never backing away from their decision.
As I’m penning this, we are getting close to Yom HaZikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut—two extremely important days for Israelis and Jews around the world. I think about how hard we fought to gain the land of Israel with the War of Independence in 1948, one which my maternal grandfather proudly served in. I consider the Six Day War and Yom Kippur War, where men and women my age or younger fought al kiddush Hashem for the sake of their country. I think of all the lives lost and all the lives that survived. I think of the attacks that occurred in the past few years, where our nation has come together to give support and pray for the protection of the people fighting for us. There are a few words that come to mind: Pride. Respect. Humility. Honor. Thank you.
So on behalf of myself and the student population at Yeshiva University, I say thank you. Thank you for risking your lives for the country that is our Jewish homeland. Thank you for playing a role in making the state of Israel as amazing as we’ve come to know it. Thank you for letting us support you, even when we didn’t know you personally. Thank you for stepping up when most of us can’t fathom of being in the position you were in. Thank you for making us believe in something greater than ourselves. Just…thank you.