Three years ago, Sgt. Yaniv Hoffman was just like any other American university student. He reluctantly went to classes, slept in late and lived moments away from his best friends.

A year and a half later, he was in the middle of the desert after a week of not showering.

“Sometimes another soldier will say something and it reminds me of my old life and this crazy transition,” said Hoffman a recent interview.

The 22-year-old soldier is part of the Givati Brigade, an amphibious combat unit. Currently based in the West Bank, he patrols and protects the borders and checkpoints. As a commander, he is responsible for the lives of 12 soldiers.

He had never thought he would be here.

After finishing high school in the suburb of Silver Spring, Maryland, Hoffman taught English in Beit Shemesh and studied at a Jerusalem yeshiva before returning to the US to attend New York University. He took classes in music business and formed the five-member Jewish rock band, JudaBlue.

The band spent an intense 18 months recording an album and producing music videos. They performed at some of the larger venues in New York City and released their final music video a week before Hoffman left for Israel.



“My family has never been religious, so it was ultimately my NYU Chabad rabbi that helped me decide to join the army. Believing in the Jewish people is what brought me here, at the end of the day,” said Hoffman.

Israeli-born citizens are typically drafted straight after high school.

They spend a significant part of their youth training for elite units and do not start university until their mid-20s. At that point the free time and lack of structure is not so daunting. However, unlike most soldiers, Hoffman has already had a taste of American university life.

“In one world there are no rules. It is all about freedom and having a good time. You learn whatever you want to learn,” the 22-year-old said.

“The army has the most rules you can imagine. Every second of your life is controlled by someone else: when you eat; when you go to bed; when you wake up; what you wear,” he continued.

Military life may seem like an ill-fitting choice for an immigrant accustomed to creative thinking and rock concerts. Ironically, Hoffman did not choose to do something with media in the army. He chose to become a combat soldier.

“For me it was go big or go home. Going big for me was getting into a combat unit. I came here to protect the Jewish people.”

In Israel, where admittance into an elite combat unit is sometimes compared to acceptance into a prestigious US university, Hoffman saw no other option. Still, it has been much harder than university ever was.

“You get to a point as a commander where you can’t show suffering because 12 people are depending on you for their source of strength. In the army I’ve had the opportunity to actually see what leadership is,” he said.

After Hoffman finished his commander training, he immediately met his soldiers in the middle of very intense period: a week-long drill of all-night walks. By the end of the week, the group had walked over 100 km.

After his service ends, Hoffman plans to return to New York University and finish his degree. The transition back to school may prove just as difficult as the transition into the army. He will fall into an unregulated environment after three years of relentless efficiency and order. But this does not frighten him.

“Civilian life doesn’t demand the same kind of challenge that army life demands. The confidence I’ve gained has made me realize I can overcome anything,” Hoffman said.

“I believe nothing in life will be so difficult anymore,” he added.

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