NEW YORK – After graduating from high school, Oren Stern, a 19-year-old Jewish-
American from Philadelphia, faced a dilemma. He wanted to either join the US
Army or the Israel Defense Forces, but couldn’t make up his mind.
initially signed a contract with the US Army, but had a change of heart while
waiting to be drafted, opting instead for the IDF.
“I didn’t feel they
really needed me,” Stern said on Monday at John F. Kennedy International Airport
in New York, where he was about to board a plane bound for Israel together with
359 olim, including 104 other would-be Israeli soldiers.
“[The US army]
has plenty of people, I felt the Israelis needed me more.”
wonder why Stern and the other army recruits on the flight chartered by Nefesh
B’Nefesh, an organization facilitating immigration to the Jewish state, would
trade a life of relative comfort in North America for the Spartan existence of a
soldier in the IDF.
After all, most had never lived in Israel before and,
unlike residents of Israel their age, they were under no legal obligation to
The answers to the question varied and were often complex. For some
it was a simple matter of family background.
Ayelet Carlin was born in
Israel and moved with her family to the US when she was 10. The 19-year-old, who
spent her teens on Long Island, said she always intended to join the IDF, as one
of her elder brothers already has, but was waiting for the right
“I actually was going to go after high school, but my parents
said give college a try first,” she said.
Eitan Asulin, another
Israeli-born American, said he decided to join the IDF after engaging in heated
debates with pro-Palestinian protesters at the University of Arizona, where he
completed his undergraduate degree.
“Back in college I was in a program
called Sun Devils for Israel, and one of the things we did was try to work with
Palestinian groups on campus,” he said. “They have groups like Students for
Justice in Palestine and there were protests on campus about Israel being an
‘apartheid state.’ That kind of motivated me to make my decision, because when
you see protests like that on campus in America it kind of
Despite the likes of Asulin and Carlin, the majority of those at
the Nefesh B’Nefesh event had no family ties to Israel.
Arye Mondalk of
Vancouver had been to the country twice before deciding to make aliya: once when
he was en route to join the March of the Living, an annual ceremony in Poland
remembering the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis and their allies in the
Holocaust, and more recently when he completed a sixmonth stint studying Hebrew
at Kibbutz Ein Hashofet.
“I believe in Israel,” said Mondalk, who carried
a guitar strapped around his back.
“I’m a Zionist through and
Did he feel any ill will toward Palestinians, Arabs or Muslims?
“Absolutely not,” Mondalk said. “In general there are extremists on both sides.
[I feel ill will] toward extremists, though. Absolutely.”
“I’m there to
defend my people, not to attack another,” added Evan Gewiotz, another IDF
hopeful standing beside him.
Most of the young recruits had a general
idea what they wanted to do once they were enlisted.
Young men had a
preference for combat units, usually Golani or the Paratroopers.
women were more inclined to serve in the education corps or IDF’s Spokesman’s
Unit. But some were less sure.
“I want to be in the beach brigade,” joked
Aaron Miller of Philadelphia.
The 19-year-old said he didn’t know
precisely what position he wanted in the IDF, but he had faith he would find his
“If they give me some options, I’ll see what it’s like,” he
Asked why he decided to join the Israeli military, Miller said it
was difficult for him to reduce his reasoning into a short sentence or sound
“To become Israeli, do something meaningful,” he said. “That’s as
simply as I can put it.”