An American soldier learns how to be Israeli

"For every person in the world there is a place that makes you feel like you belong. For me, that’s here," says Sec.-Lt. Jacqueline Zaluda, an officer in the Paratroop Brigade.

SEC.-LT. JACQUELINE VALUDA 370 (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
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.
Zaluda worked her way through the sunburned tourists and embraced the girl.
They 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 progressing.
“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 says.
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 says.
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 her.
“From then on, I never looked back,” she says.
Zaluda 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.
However, it wasn’t easy.
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 people.
“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 herself.
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.”