Reconnecting with my Birth Country: how I spent 22 days volunteering on an Israeli army base
I used to look at the piles of photo albums my mom had stashed away in her closet. Photograph after photograph of her, at 18 years old, in army uniform, smiling with the other Israeli soldiers on her base. It depicted a world I would never grow up to learn about once my parents moved to the United States when I was only six months old.
Over 19 years later, I am back in Israel, sitting in a parked Armoured Personnel Carrier (APC) staring up at the Israel summer night sky after a long day of volunteering on the base, wondering why, only now, I’m back in my birth country.
What I quickly realized is how sheltered I was growing up in the States as an American, only worried about GPAs, Grey’s Anatomy and the latest tips in Cosmo. More importantly, I finally understood why my Israeli family always glorified their country back at home and why my cousins were counting down the days until they were old enough to sign up for the army. And us Americans are counting down the days we are of legal age to drink.
See, there’s the difference. Because the love for their country is so strong, Israelis really do show the rest of the world through their brother and sisterhood. Being passionate about a country is to protect the country. Even people who are not citizens of Israel want to join the Israeli army because of the level of dedication. By simply being a volunteer, I wanted to get the same sort of experience, even if I wasn’t to start up basic training in a few months.
My interest in going to see Israel sparked when I went back to my high school at the end of this past May to re-unite with a few old classmates. I remember specifically when someone got up and said they were going to spend a week in Israel. He wasn’t Jewish. He had no connection to Israel. But apparently he did.
Knowing at that point that I needed to go to Israel, I called every agency I could that afternoon. I finally came across Sar-El Volunteers for Israel, a program where students and adults from all over the world can spend a few weeks volunteering on an army base. After talking to the president of the program and submitting the necessary paperwork, I booked my ticket, and left for Tel Aviv, Israel on July 9, 2009.
I remember when I first jumped off the bus that brought us to Mount Hermon, where our base was located at the most northern part of Israel, what we would learn to call home for the next 22 days. Our group excitedly stood outside where the soldiers raise their flag each morning, gawking at the Israelis walking around with guns, drinking Coca-cola, and looking back at us as if they’ve never seen 11 foreigners from different parts of the world with so much luggage, weird clothes, and strange accents. Little did they know, no matter how different we seemed, we all shared the same passion and love for the same country: Israel.
“There’s something about the country, about Israel,” said Sar-El ’09 volunteer Genevieve Reisman from Scarsdale, New York, “Israel is a country where you just don’t feel limited.”
That moment when I felt the limitless possibilities was when I put on the Israeli Defense Forces uniform for the first time. Turning around to show the others, one of my friends had said, “You know you actually look like an Israeli soldier?” At that moment, I suddenly felt this intense feeling of closeness to the country where I was born. I felt like I was a part of the country, the unity, the people, and the togetherness. So maybe I wasn’t serving their country for two years like some others, but I was engrossing myself in an experience of a lifetime. I wanted to feel the passion these Israeli soldiers felt everyday as they stood straight with their weapons at their sides, saluting the Israeli flag. For three weeks I was one of them.
For the Israeli citizen, joining the army is the equivalent to the American going to college upon graduating high school, except it is mandatory. What makes the Israeli and United States army different is that serving the States is on a voluntary basis, whereas it is a requirement of all Israeli men and women once they turn 18.
What I realized while volunteering on the base is that the love for the country is so strong that even people who are not citizens of the country want to enlist. Tzvi Gamsu, one of the volunteers in our group, had decided such when he packed up all his belongings and said goodbye to South Africa. Gamsu realized he wanted to join the Israeli army when he took a look at the Israeli soldiers enlisted and the ones that had just completed their years of service and thought that they were doing something really great and “learning things about life that no where else you can learn.” After selling his car, bike, packing up his room, saying bye to his friends, girlfriend, sister and the rest of his family, Gamsu booked his plane ticket and walked away from the country where he lived his entire life and started a new one in Israel.
Growing up having dual citizenship makes me feel like I can call two countries ‘home.’ After this experience in Israel, I can associate with understanding what culture and unity actually means. In the United States we say we are united for all, but it’s sometimes hard as a 20 year old, one that has grown up in the country and gone to school in the city, to feel it. In Israel, however, it’s hard to not be a part of the community. It seems like Israel is in the news every other day. People have the right to have their own opinion about Israel, but what it comes down to is there are a lot more people out there who want to see Israel continue to grow. I may be a Jew that didn’t grow up immersed in a Jewish education, but after seeing the Israeli lifestyle, I have this new gratification for the country.
I still rely on Cosmo for healthy lifestyle tips, worry about my GPA, and feel the need to keep up with Grey’s Anatomy, but now I identify much more with Israel than I did before and who knows, maybe one day I’ll actually join the Israeli army for more than just three weeks. We’ll see.