Zachary Elkaim 88 248.
(photo credit: Meredith Price Levitt)
Born in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, Zachary Elkaim attended a Jewish primary school and then a Catholic high school for several years before leaving for the US due to tensions in the region. After settling in Boca Raton, Florida with his parents and older sister and getting his diploma from a Jewish high school in the city, Elkaim headed to New Orleans.
"The weather reminded me of home and it seemed about as corrupt as Zimbabwe too," he says, laughing about the reasons why he chose Tulane University. In 2005, he came here to see family and absolutely fell in love.
"It wasn't my first trip to Israel, but it was the first time I came on an unstructured trip and that just did it for me. I didn't want to leave."
He returned to New Orleans for his sophomore year, and two days later Hurricane Katrina devastated the region. "I got on the second to last flight out to Atlanta," he says. "They were closing up the airport around me."
With New Orleans in a state of emergency and Tulane temporarily shut down, Elkaim started looking into other options.
"I don't like Florida, and I found out that the Jewish Agency was offering anyone affected by Katrina scholarships to study in Israel for a semester for free, so I took the opportunity."
He studied free for two semesters at Tel Aviv University. By the end, Elkaim felt he didn't want to leave.
"My parents insisted that I go back to Tulane, so I went and finished my degree as fast as I could. I even studied in the summers to graduate faster."
In January 2008, one month after graduating with a double major in Jewish studies and history with a minor in philosophy, Elkaim made aliya at last. He first went to a work-study program on Kibbutz Ma'agan Michael near Zichron Ya'acov. His Hebrew improved and he met a lot of friends, but his real goal was to serve in the IDF.
"I made some connections there and I pushed to go in until they accepted me," he says. "I started on July 6 in what I call the pre-army army, Michveh Elon. It was a three week unit for new immigrants and returning minors, and it was tough but I met some great people."
After finishing, he was drafted and started basic combat training. In November he started advanced combat training, and in March he heads to the northern border for duty.
His paternal grandmother was born in what is now Zambia. She met her husband, who Elkaim describes as an old-school Sephardi, when he arrived from Jerusalem to earn some money in 1952. Elkaim's mother is American and was born in Chicago to a Jewish family living in the United States for many generations. Elkaim's parents met through his aunt, who introduced them while his father was in Chicago. After getting married, they moved to Zimbabwe, where they stayed until 2002. Elkaim's father continues to run an import-export clothing business and his mother sells freshwater pearls.
Elkaim's sister, who attended Emory University in Atlanta and got her master's from the London School of Economics, is soon heading to Australia to work on a second master's degree. His maternal grandparents live in Arizona, and his paternal grandmother made aliya a few months ago at 75. "She's the bravest woman I know," he says proudly.
In July, Elkaim and a good friend managed to find a spacious apartment in Bat Yam near a bus stop and the sea.
"We were looking in Florentin, but everything was out of our budget so we settled on this place in the end," he says. "It's nice because we have a big window overlooking the park and a lot of space."
"I'm just starting to have a routine now," says Elkaim, who has had a rather hectic schedule since making aliya. "I don't have a lot of free time away from the army, so when I do, it's condensed chaos. Even though I'm exhausted, I try to do as much as possible."
On weekends off, the first thing Elkaim does is head to Mash Pub in Tel Aviv to watch Manchester United soccer games. Aside from spectator sports, he loves reading and says the genres he likes range from "political theory to trash fiction, and everything in between." He credits his years in New Orleans with giving him a deep appreciation for all kinds of music and loves to catch live shows in Tel Aviv, especially jazz.
He made a lot of Israeli friends when he was studying at TAU, and has many new friends from the kibbutz and the army. "I also have some Israeli friends from my high school in Florida," he says. "In fact, one of them is six months ahead of me in the same army unit."
The new immigrant community hangs out a lot, but they all have Israeli friends too so the circle is large and diverse.
A native speaker of what he calls "colonial English," Elkaim also knows some Ndebele, one of Zimbabwe's many languages. "My dad is fluent, and that's pretty rare for a white man."
Elkaim says his Hebrew is good, but it's still pretty difficult to pass some of the technical exams in the army when you have to describe putting together a radio or when and how to bandage a wound.
"Hebrew never really clicked with me until I got here," he says. "And if I flunk the tests in the army, I'll want to know if it's because I didn't know the information or I just couldn't say it in Hebrew."
"I'm observant, but not practicing," says Elkaim, who grew up in what he calls "a bush Orthodox community."
"That basically means that the synagogue was Orthodox and the rabbi was Orthodox but everyone did pretty much whatever they wanted. It was accommodating, and no one forced the rules down your throat."
The dying Jewish community, which numbered about 400 people when Elkaim left in 2002, is now down to about 200 and dwindling.
Although he is also American and will soon be Israeli too, Elkaim says he defines himself as Zimbabwean because it's where he spent the majority of his life.
"I spent some formative years in the US at university, and now I'm choosing to be Israeli, but I guess I'd say I'm a citizen of the world."
Elkaim is proudly Jewish and Zionist.
"In the army they won't let me wear my star of David because it can glint and give your position away to the enemy, but I put it on whenever I can."
Elkaim sums up his plans for the future in one word: survive.
"I've got one year and eight months left in the army, and until then I can't really decide what I'll do later. I'd like to go back to school, but I'm too young to figure out what I'm going to do for the rest of my life."
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