Zionist Popeye

Jonathan Miller, 20 - From New Jersey to Kibbutz Sde Eliahu, October 14, 2009.

Jonathan Miller 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Jonathan Miller 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The suicide bombings that defined the second intifada weren’t just a news item for Jonathan Miller. On two childhood visits here with his family from New Jersey, he narrowly escaped harm and never forgot the sights and sounds of Jerusalem under attack.
Today, he credits those near misses for his resolve to come back as an adult and serve in the IDF. But it was a post-high school program that gave him a tantalizing taste of everyday Israeli life and a definite idea of which IDF uniform he wanted to wear.
Miller identifies Shalem, a gap-year program run by Hadassah-Young Judaea for modern Orthodox 18-year-olds, as “the tipping point” in his life plans.
“Shalem’s goal is to spread the love of Israel, and they do it very well,” says Miller. Participants study, travel and volunteer while housed in Israeli communities. Through Shalem, he worked with preschoolers, practiced Hebrew in ulpan and spent three months at a naval prep school for high-school students in Acre.
At the school, Miller achieved first cadet status for his leadership and dedication. He learned about different types of boats and how to put up sails, tie knots and command and navigate a vessel. Future sailors must possess excellent water skills, which was a breeze for this former cocaptain of his yeshiva high school swim team.
He was unhappy during his freshman year of college back in the US. “I thought about why, and it was because I wanted to be here,” he says.
On July 1, 2009, he announced to his parents that he wanted to come back to Israel and volunteer in the navy.
“They were very supportive,” he says. “There was no time in which I had to convince them.”
His parents, broadcast journalist Sara Lee Kessler and Jewish communal professional Robert Miller, had adopted Jonathan at birth and raised him and his adoptive sister in a strong Zionist household.
While visiting Israel for the bar mitzva of a family friend in September 1997, the family witnessed the triple suicide bombings on Jerusalem’s Rehov Ben-Yehuda. Five years later, they were herded by security personnel behind a German Colony restaurant after a would-be attacker attempted to blow up another eatery on the same block. When Miller and Kessler coordinated and publicized a massive rally in Israel later that year to “fight terrorism with tourism,” they took Jonathan along as the official photographer, at age 13.
So they understood their son’s reaction. “Seeing how terrorism affects the lives of so many people in Israel, I feel as a Jew I can’t just live in the bubble of the American Jewish community and idly stand by when there is so much happening here,” says Miller. “I have to do something.”
Over the course of the summer, the Millers helped their son set up meetings with Jewish Agency and IDF representatives to flesh out his plan. But it was not until September 10 that they learned the navy accepts only Israeli citizens, not foreign volunteers.
Miller did not flinch. “My goal is to be in the navy and do whatever it takes to get there, so I said okay right away,” he relates.
Robert Miller sat him down for a father-son talk to make sure this wasn’t an impulsive decision. “I told him, ‘Dad, if I’m joining the navy, I’m probably not coming back [anyway]. I’m going to start a life in Israel.’”
The Millers learned of a five-month ulpan program at Kibbutz Sde Eliahu starting October 13. “It seemed like a good place to polish my Hebrew skills and make friends with people my age from America. I didn’t want to come here and go right into the navy without a group of friends I could talk to,” says Miller.
That gave him a month to get all his paperwork together, a challenge made all the more difficult because he had to secure original copies of his adoption and conversion documents. But with the cooperation of his parents, he met his deadline and flew out on October 13, his trip facilitated by Nefesh B’Nefesh.
When he landed, he spotted someone holding a sign with his name written on it. Within a short time, he was holding his immigration certificate and a voucher for a taxi to Sde Eliahu.
Aside from waking up at 5 a.m., Miller says he loves everything about kibbutz life – from laying irrigation pipes to picking pomegranates. “You’re picking one of the seven holy fruits; you’re working the Land of Israel. This is what our forefathers did. It’s a very cool concept,” he says.
Living together with other ulpan students from America, England, France and Ukraine, Miller is enamored of the idea of pitching in for the collective.
“You see how different a socialist community is from the way we live in America,” he says. For example, on his first Shabbat he understood that the seemingly inconsequential labor he had performed earlier that week really mattered.
“If you work in the fields tending parsley, you see it in the chicken soup Friday night and you realize that the work you did was all part of the grander scheme for everybody’s good,” he says.
During nine months in Shalem, Miller sharpened the language skills he gained in 12 years of day school education. Though he lost some ground after a year back in America, he says that going to ulpan was like “getting back on an old bike” and afforded him sufficient fluency to win an exemption from the IDF’s ulpan program.
Toward the end of this month, he will leave the kibbutz and establish a home base with family friends near Jerusalem. Those friends’ two sons served in the navy, and have given Miller advice about what lies ahead. “I’ll prepare for my May gibush [tryout] with physical exercise and enhancing my Hebrew,” he said.
Ideally, Miller would like to serve on one of the fast patrol boatsstationed at the Ashdod naval base. These boats “are first respondersand they’re the ones I feel make a great difference in stoppingsmuggling of weapons into Gaza and stopping terrorists trying to comeacross the border,” he says. “That’s what I’m looking for. I want to bepart of the action and help in the best way that I can.”
Heknows that not every would-be sailor makes the cut. “I’m confident thatI’ve got the right stuff,” he says. “But as long as I do something thatmakes me feel like I’m contributing to the IDF, I’ll feel good aboutmyself.”