J., a lone IDF soldier who is originally from Toronto, Canada.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A lone soldier originally from Canada who fought in last summer’s Operation Protective Edge was one of 120 who received a citation for excellence on Thursday from President Reuven Rivlin.
“J.,” whose name cannot be revealed due to the nature of his service, is a soldier in the Golani Brigade’s elite Egoz reconnaissance unit. He grew up in a Conservative home in Toronto, and was imbued with Zionist values from a young age. J. first came to Israel at age 13, to celebrate his bar mitzva atop Masada. He returned at 16 as part of March of the Living, a trip which he said strengthened his connection to Israel and his recognition of the need for a Jewish army.
During Operation Protective Edge, J. fought in Shejaia, in eastern Gaza City. His war experiences, he said, are what strengthened his feeling of an army unit as family. He recalls one instance when he was covering his fellow Egoz soldiers as they raided a house.
“All of a sudden you hear gunfire,” he recounted. “You hear a couple of shots here, a couple of shots there. And the first thing that jumps up to your head is – all you want to do is get up from your position and sprint over because you think something has happened to your brother. Your team, your squad, is really your family.”
During the war, one of J.’s friends was hit in the head by shrapnel. He is still in the hospital, unable to move the right side of his body. J. said his friend is happy and motivated, and refuses to give up hope. “I’m really proud of him,” he said.
J.’s first experience with military life came right after high school, when he arrived in Israel for the Marva program, a two-month basic training experience for non-Israelis. Two days into the program, he called his father and told him he would be joining the army itself.
Back in Toronto, J. met with an aliya emissary, who told him about Garin Tzabar, a program for IDF lone soldiers that supports them throughout their service.
“They’re all leaving their families, and leaving their friends and their home,” said J. “Coming to Israel, [they] all have a lot of motivation to serve in the army.”
Members of Garin Tzabar live in groups on various kibbutzim, where they are assigned host families that become part of their support system and life in Israel.
“It pretty much becomes your family while you’re here,” he said. “And every time you come home from the army on the weekend, you have a family to go home to, and other people who are going through the exact same thing that you are, and you can share stories. It’s nice to go back to a place where people understand the other side. They understand the challenges of being a lone soldier.”
Upon arriving in Israel, J. attended six months of ulpan – but it wasn’t nearly enough to prepare him.
“I thought I had pretty good Hebrew, and I got into the army and realized that I knew nothing,” he said, adding that it was the immersion into the language once he started his military service that taught him to speak fluently.
Beyond the issue of language, J. said that adjusting to cultural changes was one of the most difficult aspects of his move.
“It’s like two different worlds,” he said of the difference between growing up in Toronto and his military experiences here. “It’s the little nuances and the little remarks you make on a day-today basis that help you connect with others and create a friendship.”
He also said army life was something of a culture shock – since growing up in Toronto his only exposure to the military was through video games and movies.
“It’s very different than what you expect,” he said. “More than anything, it’s totally an educational experience. It’s not just learning how to shoot. It’s learning how to cope with difficult situations and problem-solve in the most complicated way possible. These are things you can’t really learn anywhere else.”
Due to be released from the army in eight months, J. said he is often asked whether he plans to stay in Israel. His answer used to change all the time, but now it’s definitive: “I’ve decided to stay in Israel. I want to study engineering after the army.”
When asked why he had been chosen as a recipient of the award he is to receive from the president, J. responded with modesty: “I have no idea.”