The Israeli army is a rite a passage, in which Jews from all different backgrounds and from all over the country come together for one purpose -- to protect the State of Israel.

American brothers Coby, 25, Ariel, 23, and Oren Burstein, 19, felt a similar obligation to defend the Jewish homeland. 


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Growing up in a traditional home in Suffern, New York, Israel was a popular topic of conversation. As a teenager, their father had made Aliyah and served in the Israeli army. “He always instilled in us that as Jews, it doesn’t matter where in the world we are,” said Ariel.  “Everyone has to do their part.”


As in many Zionist homes, the brothers were told that Israel was their homeland. But until Coby traveled to Israel on a teen tour when he was 16, he didn’t understand exactly what that meant. “I realized that I felt very comfortable and confident in Israel. Even when I found myself in place where I didn’t know anyone, I just felt natural,” said Coby.


After high school, Coby returned to study at Yeshivat Or Etzion, and knew that he wanted to stay in Israel. “I saw myself fitting in with the future of Israel, and I knew that I didn’t want to be someone just watching from the stands,” said Coby.  


In 2009, Coby made Aliyah with Nefesh B’Nefesh and joined Garin Tzabar, a program that helps lone soldiers join the army, which gave him a home on Kibbutz Lavi and prepared him for enlistment. Coby knew he wanted to serve in a combat unit.


“I was never much of an athlete growing up, and I saw the army as my last opportunity to give it my all,” he said. He was accepted to Givati’s special forces unit.


Throughout his childhood, Ariel, the second Burstein brother, was always confident that he would make Aliyah. But it wasn’t until he visited Coby on Kibbutz Lavi and met his friends from Garin Tzabar that he actually saw his dreams falling into place. “Aside from my brother, I didn’t know many people who were lone soldiers, and then I met all of these great people from LA, Chicago, Vermont, Boston--all over America--and I thought, ‘Okay, I can do this,’” said Ariel.


After his gap year in Israel, Ariel, too, joined Garin Tzabar and was placed not only on Kibbutz Lavi, but in Givati as well.  In his unit of twenty soldiers, there are seven who were not born in Israel. 


“For a new Oleh, the army is an incredible experience. You’re thrown together with other Jews from all walks of life for 18 hours a day for three years,” said Ariel.  “There’s no better integration than that.”


This past summer, while serving in Gaza during Operation Protective Edge in Gaza, Ariel was touched to see the outpouring of support from Israeli and American Jews. “People would come down and barbecue for us, and we were constantly getting care packages from America,” said Ariel. “I knew how much American Jewry cared about us, but the other guys in my unit were amazed to see their support.”


Still in middle school when his brothers first started joining the army, Oren was proud of Coby and Ariel, but didn’t know much about their day-to-day lives. Then, when he was 16, he flew to Israel with his parents to watch Ariel finish the long and strenuous journey that marks the end of a soldier’s training. “It was an incredible experience to see Ariel and his unit finish hiking those last kilometers and to watch everyone cheering for them,” said Oren. “I was inspired by how much the training had changed him.”


After high school Oren chose to attend Mechina Atzmona, a Torah studies and army preparatory program. As one of two Americans on the program, Oren knew that this was his chance to improve his Hebrew. “I told the other guys that in America, I’d speak to them in English. But in Israel, I was set on learning Hebrew,” Oren said.


Each day, Oren would set aside an hour to read a Hebrew book, record the words he didn’t know, and then write sentences using those words. His new friends would check his work. 


“Overcoming the language barrier gave me a lot of strength,” said Oren. “I realized that if I could do that in a year, I could do anything.”


This year, Oren joined Garin Tzabar and was placed on Kibbutz Yavneh. His draft date is in a few weeks, and like his brothers, he hopes to be in Givati. 


Now with three Burstein brothers settled in Israel -- Coby studying agricultural economics at Hebrew University, Ariel finishing the army, and Oren just beginning, the three see each other as often as they can.  Their younger brother, still 15, also has dreams of serving in the army, and their parents hope to join their sons in Israel, too.


Each of the brothers is thankful that his life in Israel began with the army.


“Through the army, you get to see what Israel is all about,” said Oren. “You meet Am Israel and you come together for a common goal.”

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