Thinking of aliyah? 'Go for it. Don't overthink, don't stress'

Many people romanticize the idea of being a lone soldier, and when reality hits they’re in for a shock. But in terms of learning the language and culture of Israelis, army service is invaluable.

 POSING WITH  a bubble: Helping her American-Israeli cousin film a commercial. (photo credit: Courtesy Natalie Selvin)
POSING WITH a bubble: Helping her American-Israeli cousin film a commercial.
(photo credit: Courtesy Natalie Selvin)

On a visit to the Mount Herzl cemetery in 2016, Natalie Selvin decided what she wanted to do next in her life.

The guide for her summer tour with the NCSY youth organization took the group to the grave of Michael Levin, a 22-year-old lone soldier from Philadelphia who was killed in action in Lebanon in 2006. 

Learning Levin’s story inspired Selvin, and she resolved to join the Israel Defense Forces as a lone soldier when she was old enough.

It didn’t happen right away. Initially, her friends at home in Silver Spring, Maryland, discouraged her, advising that she wasn’t cut out for the military. Besides, she barely knew Hebrew.

But she was determined to be in Israel, so after high school she went on Birthright, followed by six months in the Aardvark Israel program. Housed in Jerusalem, she had an internship at the Siftech startup accelerator.

Drafting into the IDF as a lone soldier

“During that year, I fell in love with Israel again. As soon as the program ended, I was looking up how to draft. I found out you don’t have to be a citizen, and I signed up for Machal,” the voluntary military program for foreigners. 

 MASA KUMTA (Beret March): Her basic training commander pins on an ‘anacha’ – passed down from another soldier. (credit: Courtesy Natalie Selvin) MASA KUMTA (Beret March): Her basic training commander pins on an ‘anacha’ – passed down from another soldier. (credit: Courtesy Natalie Selvin)

Selvin arrived back in Israel in January 2019 and stayed temporarily with her father’s relatives in Modi’in. In March, she attended a month-long Machal prep course in Beersheba, and then started her 18 months of service, with three months at the IDF’s Michvei Alon base, where soldiers from other countries get intensive Hebrew instruction. 

“I am very grateful for that program,” she says. “I was the kind of person who wrote down every word I didn’t know and incorporated all the new words I learned into my conversations. I went up a few levels on their Hebrew scale and was really able to speak after that.”

Serving as a combat communications specialist in the Artillery Corps showed her what it truly means to be Israeli. 

“The army is not just a bunch of sunshine and rainbows,” Selvin says, pointing out that many people romanticize the idea of being a lone soldier, and when reality hits they’re in for a shock. But in terms of learning the language and culture of Israelis, army service is invaluable.

“You speak like they speak and go through what they’re going through – it’s a shared experience. And it really taught me to stand up for myself in Israel,” she says. “In America, we are people-pleasers and don’t want to upset anyone. In the army, I learned how to say ‘no’ and to be firm so nobody would take advantage of me.”

Another “gift” from her service was meeting a fellow lone soldier who became her best friend and now lives with her in Herzliya, along with some other friends from America. Until then, Selvin was living in Jerusalem in housing provided by the Lone Soldier Center, which appropriately enough was established by former lone soldiers and friends of Michael Levin.

Upon her discharge in September 2020, she stayed in Israel on a work visa and worked as a waitress, nanny and preschool assistant for a year before completing the paperwork to attain citizenship. She visited her parents and brother in Maryland during that year but had no desire to go back permanently. 

“As much as I love my family, I felt it wasn’t my home anymore,” she says. 

HOW DID her parents feel about her aliyah?

“My whole family is really Zionistic. My mother lived in Israel for a few years when she was a teen, and my father loves Israel too, although he was very hesitant about my going into the army. It took some convincing. Once they saw I was happy, they were very supportive.”

(Fun fact: Her great-grandfather, musician and Columbia Records executive Ben Selvin, helped invent “elevator music” and holds a Guinness World Record for the number of musical sides ever recorded on 78 rpm discs. His Israeli great-granddaughter prefers electronic dance music.)

After a semester at Bar-Ilan University, she heard about an opening for a social media coordinator at the online Israel innovation magazine ISRAEL21c. That’s been her full-time job since April.

She came to the position with years of informal training. “When I was in kindergarten, my mother started a blog for me about science where I asked random science questions – like, if you drink grape juice, will it stain your insides? – and she shared it with her friends and relatives, and they’d answer me online,” Selvin relates.

“In middle and high school, my friends and I had random Instagram accounts with tens of thousands of followers. So I’ve been posting on social media since 2013. Through trial and error, I’ve learned how to interact with followers and how to pick up on trends.”

Someday she may go back to school, but for now, she says, “I truly love my job and everyone I work with.”

Although she finds Israeli bureaucracy maddening, the credo she lives by is “If you can’t control it, don’t stress. It won’t make the bus go faster. So calm down, and your life will become much more stress-free.”

Her favorite aspect of life in Israel is “being surrounded by people who all have something in common, even if they’re not Jewish. There’s an unexplainable feeling of connection. I feel more safe walking alone in Israel than I ever did in DC or Maryland. It’s like everyone’s part of your family.”

For example, on assignment at last summer’s Vegan Fest in Tel Aviv, a woman saw her fanning herself in the heat. “And she handed me her own fan, which I saw was from someone’s wedding in 2006, so she’d had it a long time. And then she invited me for Shabbat dinner. These are things that wouldn’t happen anywhere else.”

Her advice to anyone considering the same path she took to aliyah: “Go for it. Don’t overthink it, and don’t stress about it. You will find opportunities come up that you didn’t expect, and everything will work out.” ■

NATALIE SELVIN, 23 SILVER SPRING, MARYLAND, TO HERZLIYA, 2019