Israel's Lone Soldiers: From West Point to the IDF

Born in Colorado Springs but raised in Silver Spring, Maryland, Mark, 21, was one of the first Orthodox Jews to ever attend the prestigious American military academy.

tsvi mark 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
tsvi mark 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
When Tsvi Mark stood on the green lawn during his swearing-in ceremony at the United States Military Academy in West Point in the winter of 2008, he was already dreaming about serving in the IDF.
Born in Colorado Springs but raised in Silver Spring, Maryland, Mark, 21, was one of the first Orthodox Jews to ever attend the prestigious American military academy, which is more than 200 years old and located in upstate New York. After a year at West Point, though, Mark dropped out, boarded a plane and came here. Today, he is serving in the Golani Brigade’s elite reconnaissance unit as a lone soldier.
Mark grew up in a military family. His father, Martin, was a lieutenant-colonel in the US Air Force, where he served as an engineer for special weapons programs.
He says that he does not believe that his military career was what influenced his son to join the military. He hopes to visit his son soon, but with three more kids at home it is difficult to get away.
“Tsvi is very independent minded,” he said from his home in Maryland. “He read a lot of military history when he was a kid and was interested very early on in the military.”
After graduating from the Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy’s high school, Mark came here for a year like many Jewish high-school graduates. Unlike most of his classmates, he went to a pre-military academy in the Golan Heights community of Avnei Eitan. It was there that he fell in love with the country and began to learn about the IDF. But, he says, it took him a while to realize just how much he had fallen in love.
Halfway through his year he got word from home that he had been accepted to West Point. He says that out of 10,000 applicants, only 1,000 get in.
“I was hesitant but decided that since I got in, I should go and give it a shot,” he says. When he got to the academy, Mark immediately met with the chaplain and explained that he was an Orthodox Jew. He then asked for special time in the morning to put on tefillin and pray, to get kosher food if possible and not to have desecrate Shabbat.
While he enjoyed his year there, it was also one of the most difficult times in his life. Ultimately though, the difficulties helped him make his decision to make aliya and enlist in the IDF.
He says he never had a doubt about wearing a kippa during his training.
“If I took it off because of what other people thought about me, then I would be giving up on what West Point is all about, which is fighting for freedom. And there was also my pride in being Jewish.”
He first started thinking seriously about leaving school and coming here during his semester break, which fell right around Operation Cast Lead.
Watching the news about the operation in Gaza, Mark says, “I began to think that I could do something more influential than just going to West Point.”
He went back to school for another semester, at the end of which he told his commanders that he had decided to drop out. While they tried to convince him to change his mind, Mark was determined to get to Israel and change his uniform from the crisp, neatly-pressed US Army uniform to the wrinkled greens of the IDF.
He made aliya in August 2009 and by November had already enlisted and passed the rigorous Golani tests.
How does he compare the two militaries?
“Physically, training in Israel is much harder, but mentally it iseasier because of Shabbat, since in West Point everything keeps going,but here in the IDF you know that when Shabbat comes you will have aday to rest,” he explains.
Mark’s parents are proud of his dedication and determination and, of course, of his loyalty to Judaism.
“When he came to West Point they asked him to take off his kippa and hesaid no, and the chaplain got involved and he was able to wear it,”Mark’s father said. As Tsvi himself says, “For many people I was thefirst Orthodox Jew they had ever met.”