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Newly discharged from the International Relations Unit of the IDF, Peninah Rost is contemplating the rest of her life here.
She arrived on a Nefesh B'Nefesh charter flight two summers ago, and went to Kibbutz Tirat Zvi to prepare for the army with Garin Tzabar, a program that groups lone soldiers on kibbutzim that provide bureaucratic assistance, peer support and a home base.
Some of the others in her garin (core group) went back to their native countries after their military service. But Peninah is living in Tel Aviv with three roommates, hoping to get a job, finish her education and perhaps someday work for the Foreign Ministry.
Rost was raised in the central New Jersey town of Highland Park, with Israeli music often playing in her home. Her mother had come here in the 1970s and worked as a social worker for a few years in Beit She'an. Her father, whose family fled Germany before the war, has many relatives in Israel but has never been here.
Rost learned basic Hebrew in her years at a yeshiva high school, but got most of her Zionistic fervor from her youth group, the Conservative Movement's United Synagogue Youth. It was through USY that she made her first trip to Israel at 17.
"The minute I got here - I can't explain it - I felt I had to come back," says Rost.
She returned after high school for Nativ, a school-year USY leadership training program. She was not eager to go back to New Jersey afterward. But lacking other options, she started freshman studies at Rutgers, New Jersey's state university near Highland Park. She lasted a year and a half.
"I was miserable," she recalls. "The whole American college culture didn't fit me."
It was clear that Rost's heart was in Israel. Her mother and several experienced friends cautioned her that life outside the confines of a structured program would be hard, but nevertheless encouraged Rost to follow her dream.
In early 2007, she began studying international relations at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya.
"Then I went back to New Jersey for the summer, joined Garin Tzabar and made aliya in August," Rost says. "I decided on Garin Tzabar because some of my friends had done it and I knew it would make it easier for me to go into the army. I knew they had connections."
The day after her arrival, she went off to the kibbutz following a ceremony welcoming the nearly 200 participants. She was not the oldest in her group of 15 men and women at Tirat Zvi, but still she felt a bit out of the loop.
"Living there was hard for me; it's more geared to 18-year-olds living alone for the first time," Rost admits. "But for people in the army who didn't grow up here, it's a great idea. There were great kids in my garin, and they are still some of my best friends. We all help each other out and give each other advice."
After four months of ulpan and pre-army orientation, most garin members continue living at the kibbutz during their military service. Rost chose to move into an apartment in Tel Aviv with three roommates, one of whom she met on the plane and later served with in the same unit.
"We're really good friends. You become closer faster because you come to rely on people when you don't have your family here," says Rost.
"I knew what unit I wanted, and thank God I got accepted and had a really good experience," says Rost.
The International Relations Unit, also known as the Liaison Division, represents the IDF in its dealings with foreign armies with which it shares security agreements. Over the course of her two years, Rost was stationed at several borders as a liaison between the IDF and the armed forces of the United Nations, MFO (Multinational Force and Observers), Egypt and Jordan.
"I think it looks good on a rÃ©sumÃ© and it gave me real experience working in international relations, understanding different cultures and how we deal with other nations," says Rost, who never felt herself to be in physical danger.
Despite the ulpan she attended at Tirat Zvi, Peninah really honed her conversational Hebrew on the job.
"It's all about confidence and asking tons of questions," she says. "For the first six months I was in the army, I wrote down every word I didn't know, looked them up in my electronic dictionary and studied them before I went to sleep each night. You just need to immerse yourself. I want to travel to South America next spring to help me pick up Spanish, and I also want to learn Arabic."
After her discharge just after Rosh Hashana, Rost traveled to Morocco with friends. "It was different and interesting," she relates. "It was a great experience. We stayed with Jewish families in Casablanca and Marrakech."
Like many other soldiers, she found the transition back to civilian existence somewhat jarring.
"It was harder coming out than going in - a real slap in the face. The real world is very new. You're on your own and not in a routine every day. It's a little scary."
At times over the past two years, she has been tempted to go back home. "But my mom encourages me to stay and reminds me how miserable I was there," says Rost. "Without her, I probably wouldn't have been able to do it."
She did get home twice during her service, and her mother has been to Israel a few times as well. She's trying to convince her father and older brother to make the trip.
"My brother was here on Taglit (birthright) but was sick with mono the whole time," she says. "And for my dad, aside from relatives he's never met, he has no connections in Israel so it's hard for him to understand why I'm here."
In her spare time, Rost likes hip-hop dancing and reading. She recently completed A Freewheelin' Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties by Bob Dylan's ex-girlfriend Suze Rotolo, and the George Orwell classic 1984. "Now I'm waiting for David Grossman's new book to come out in English," she says. Though her spoken Hebrew is fluent, she prefers reading in her native tongue.
"I've started to question and I'm trying to find out why I do certain things," says Rost. "I have a background and the knowledge, but I want to understand and learn more. Now that I'm out of the army, I have the freedom go to the library or to [lectures] or just talk with friends about these issues."
BEST THING ABOUT ISRAEL
"It's a country full of Jews, and I love that. I feel so comfortable. When I got back from Morocco, I was so happy to be here."
WORST THING ABOUT ISRAEL
"That my family and best friends are not here. Israel is a very family-oriented place, and it's hard to be here without them."