From Baltimore to the paratroopers

Scott Blumberg, 21, left everything to become a citizen of another country and join a foreign army.

baltimore oleh 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
baltimore oleh 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The lower bunk bed is made with clean sheets and freshly fluffed pillows accompanied by assorted stuffed animals. The walls are plastered with their usual d cor - baseball pennants, sports posters, and pictures of longtime friends. But the oversized Israeli flag that had always hung boldly above the desk is gone. Scott Blumberg doesn't live here anymore. In August, two months before his 21st birthday, Blumberg moved to Israel, 9,600 km. from his home and family in Baltimore, Maryland. Today, he'll be sworn in as a soldier in the IDF. Blumberg's parents aren't Israeli. He doesn't have family in the Middle East, and his command of the Hebrew language is far from fluent. So why would he decide to leave everything familiar to become a citizen of another country and join a foreign army when he could so easily continue en route to the degree-seeking, party life that is typical of American 21-year-olds? Blumberg, an only child, was reared in a Baltimore suburb and educated from kindergarten through high school graduation at a Jewish day school, where Zionism and a connection to the people of Israel are as fundamental a focus as secular academics and standardized tests. Neither he nor his family is observant, but their commitment to Israel has always been strong. Blumberg fell in love with the country when he visited for his high school's graduation trip. Like many graduates of Jewish day schools, Blumberg spent the year after high school in Israel, traveling, studying and volunteering. It was then he decided to make Israel his home. When he returned to Baltimore after his year abroad in June 2004, Blumberg began assembling the elements necessary to make the big move - everything from saving some extra cash to maintaining a rigorous diet and workout schedule in preparation for the army. Sound crazy? Maybe. But Blumberg isn't alone. He arrived on a chartered flight from New York on August 10 along with 270 other North Americans who were making aliya just like him. The following week, more than 800 more new immigrants from the West arrived on three additional flights - from New York, Toronto and London. Despite the violence in the North this summer, 3,500 new immigrants from North America have arrived since the beginning of 2006, compared to fewer than 3,000 during the same period in 2005. Not a single person canceled their move this summer, despite the war. "The security situation has nothing to do with this," Blumberg said. "I'm doing this because I'm a Zionist and I believe that every Jew should do what they can to help out Israel. For me, helping Israel means moving here and serving in the army." For Blumberg's mom, Adrienne, and his dad, Steve, Blumberg's decision to join a combat unit was the most difficult thing about the move. The couple has been completely supportive, but Adrienne admits she was "secretly hoping" he wouldn't go through with it. For Blumberg, not serving was not an option. "I'm serving so that I can live as an Israeli," Blumberg said. "When other Israelis turn 18, they join the army. At the end of the day, I want to live like everyone else in this country. If they have to defend it, I have to defend it, too." Because Blumberg is an only child, his parents had go to the Israeli Embassy in Washington to sign forms allowing him to serve in a combat unit. "I had the fear any parent would have sending their kid off to a war zone, especially knowing mine could be on the front lines," Adrienne said. "When I signed the papers, the ambassador looked at me and said, 'Welcome to the world of being an Israeli mother.'" Steve said signing the waiver was a "surreal, out of body experience." Blumberg has been living in a community in the North with 125 other new immigrants his age who are also preparing to enter the army. They are participating in a program designed to help them acclimate and get through the bureaucracy of moving to Israel and joining the army. Blumberg's room is significantly smaller than his old one in Baltimore and it comes with a roommate. The Israeli flag that once hung above his desk, the one that he wrapped tightly around his shoulders as he proudly got off the plane in August, now hangs from the ceiling above Blumberg's bed. Two jerseys - from his middle school basketball team and the Baltimore Orioles - are affixed to a wall. Posters adorn the rear wall: One of Michael Jordan, and one of Muhammad Ali with the words, "The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses, behind the lines, in the gym, and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights." Blumberg says that poster helps motivate him to train hard because, he says, "Whatever I accomplish, I accomplish because I trained my heart out." Alongside the Muhammad Ali poster is Blumberg's acceptance letter from the paratroopers and an invitation to one of its most elite units. Blumberg has been training for the paratroopers since April. His daily workout includes 300 pushups, 600 stomach crunches and a two-mile run with 22 kilos of equipment on his back. The hard work has paid off so far. "It meant a lot to me to put my mind to something for so much time and then have it all pay off," Blumberg wrote in an e-mail to his family and close friends after completing an arduous two-day tryout for a spot in the paratroopers unit. "Yes, my friends. Scotty will be a paratrooper in the IDF, jumping out of airplanes," he wrote in a follow-up e-mail a month later after he was accepted to the unit. "I couldn't believe it... I still can't believe it." "I'm not nervous," Scott said. "There's just been so much buildup that I'm more excited than anything else. For the next two years (at least), my life won't be mine anymore. And with the [security] situation, you never know what could happen." Nearly all of the Blumbergs' friends have been supportive of Scott's decision to move to Israel and to join the army. One friend sent him an e-mail thanking him. "As the first of our friends to actually 'make the move,' you have set a high standard for the rest of us to join you in the fight (whether physical or otherwise) for our homeland," she wrote. "I hope to follow you there some day soon. Thank you for paving the way." Even those friends who think Blumberg is crazy are extremely supportive of his decision. "Would I join the paratroopers tonight? No." said one friend. "Does that make him crazy? A little, but I know this is the right move for him." "I didn't spend any time trying to talk him out of it because I knew it was exactly what he wanted and needed," said another friend. "I cannot ever imagine doing what he's doing, but I'm so proud of him for doing it." "You raise children to be independent and happy and to follow their dreams," Adrienne said. "I think Scott is doing the right things for the right reasons." Steve hesitantly agreed. "It scares the hell out of me that my son is going to be carrying a gun and could kill someone," he said. "You don't raise your child to kill, you don't raise them to be in the military... that's not normal around here. But I know that what he's doing in the army is what he has to do to protect his country." Asked if he had any regrets, Scott Blumberg answered as though his response was never in doubt. "Never, never, never," he asserted. "This is where I want to be and what I want to do. I have no reason to regret anything."