Sec.-Lt. Jacqueline Zaluda was walking down the cobblestone paths of Jerusalem’s
Ben-Yehuda Street one morning, nervous for her first week of basic training,
when she spotted an old friend she had met on a Jewish youth trip.
worked her way through the sunburned tourists and embraced the girl.
hadn’t spoken for three years.
Although the women were the same age, one
was clad in an army uniform and the other was wearing a shirt with the faded
colors of an American university. Suddenly, Zaluda realized how different their
lives had become.
“I had this flashback to when I was traveling as an
American girl and all I wanted to do was take photographs with the soldiers,” Zaluda says.
Now the 21-year-old is more than just a soldier – she’s an
officer in the Paratroop Brigade overseeing 20 instructors.
She plans and
manages weapons training for each and every soldier drafted into the unit,
making sure everyone is in the right place and constantly
“It’s strange because all of the instructors are between the
ages of 18 and 21. Some are younger than the soldiers they are teaching,” Zaluda
She did not realize the enormity of her responsibility until six
months ago, when she finished her officer training, arrived on base and met her
crop of soldiers.
“At that moment I understood that I had to be their
mom, their dad, their grandma, their grandpa, their boyfriend, their girlfriend
– I understood that I was there to take care of everyone,” she
Although she was born in Highland Park, near Chicago to moderately
Zionist parents, Zaluda never expected she would join the IDF, let alone an
elite unit. Her family took frequent trips to Israel but they didn’t have any
familial ties there.
However, summer after summer Zaluda returned and
began to feel more at home than she ever did in North America. She made dozens
of friends and quickly learned Hebrew.
“I think for every person in the
world there is a place that makes you feel like you belong. For me that’s
Israel,” Zaluda says.
When she was 16, under the lambent light of a
batterypowered lamp, she wrote her parents a letter from overnight camp. She
announced that she had decided to make aliya and no one could stop
“From then on, I never looked back,” she says.
desperately wanted to become a citizen in the country she loved. Most Israelis
will tell you that the quickest way to assimilate is to join the IDF. Some will
even say those that have not served aren’t true Israelis.
Israelis are known for many things – their boldness, their
strength, their difficulty in using the capital’s light rail – but being quiet
is not one of them. Growing up, Zaluda was shy and at first when she made aliya
she struggled to meet people. Sometimes she called her sister on the telephone –
who went to an American university and already had two degrees and a doctorate –
and questioned her decision to leave America.
“My guidance counselor was
disappointed in me because I ruined his statistics for students who went to
college,” says Zaluda. “At my age, every American is finishing their junior
year, is studying abroad. I could’ve been on the verge of getting a degree. I
could’ve been more book smart.”
But as she progressed through the army
she found she developed different skills – how to manage people, how to develop
interpersonal relationships and how to organize a large group of
“Those are big things, things people need to know how to do. I’m
glad I’m encountering it at age 21 and not experiencing it for the first time
when I’m trying to get a job.
“Sometimes I think university is just an
extension of high school. Instead I came to Israel and learned how to handle
challenges a little over my head.”
As a lone soldier, Zaluda is also far
away from her family.
She has learned independence and how to support
She learned how to pay electricity bills and change the oil in
her car, tasks some Americans her age still struggle with.
“At times it
was sad and scary and lonely. But that doesn’t mean it was the wrong decision.
It just means I took the hard road. But the hard road is usually the more
exciting road,” she says.
But the hard road is a long road, and Zaluda
changes every day.
“Over time my personality became a little less of the
quiet American girl,” Zaluda concludes.
“But I’m in a strange place. I
don’t feel American anymore and I’m still not completely Israeli.”