104 would-be soldiers arrive en masse to join IDF

Nefesh B’Nefesh flight lands from New York with 359 new immigrants.

Alya 311 (photo credit: Sasson Tiram)
Alya 311
(photo credit: Sasson Tiram)
NEW YORK – After graduating from high school, Oren Stern, a 19-year-old Jewish- American from Philadelphia, faced a dilemma. He wanted to either join the US Army or the Israel Defense Forces, but couldn’t make up his mind.
Stern initially signed a contract with the US Army, but had a change of heart while waiting to be drafted, opting instead for the IDF.
“I didn’t feel they really needed me,” Stern said on Monday at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, where he was about to board a plane bound for Israel together with 359 olim, including 104 other would-be Israeli soldiers.
“[The US army] has plenty of people, I felt the Israelis needed me more.”
One might wonder why Stern and the other army recruits on the flight chartered by Nefesh B’Nefesh, an organization facilitating immigration to the Jewish state, would trade a life of relative comfort in North America for the Spartan existence of a soldier in the IDF.
After all, most had never lived in Israel before and, unlike residents of Israel their age, they were under no legal obligation to join.
The answers to the question varied and were often complex. For some it was a simple matter of family background.
Ayelet Carlin was born in Israel and moved with her family to the US when she was 10. The 19-year-old, who spent her teens on Long Island, said she always intended to join the IDF, as one of her elder brothers already has, but was waiting for the right moment.
“I actually was going to go after high school, but my parents said give college a try first,” she said.
Eitan Asulin, another Israeli-born American, said he decided to join the IDF after engaging in heated debates with pro-Palestinian protesters at the University of Arizona, where he completed his undergraduate degree.
“Back in college I was in a program called Sun Devils for Israel, and one of the things we did was try to work with Palestinian groups on campus,” he said. “They have groups like Students for Justice in Palestine and there were protests on campus about Israel being an ‘apartheid state.’ That kind of motivated me to make my decision, because when you see protests like that on campus in America it kind of hurts.”
Despite the likes of Asulin and Carlin, the majority of those at the Nefesh B’Nefesh event had no family ties to Israel.
Arye Mondalk of Vancouver had been to the country twice before deciding to make aliya: once when he was en route to join the March of the Living, an annual ceremony in Poland remembering the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis and their allies in the Holocaust, and more recently when he completed a sixmonth stint studying Hebrew at Kibbutz Ein Hashofet.
“I believe in Israel,” said Mondalk, who carried a guitar strapped around his back.
“I’m a Zionist through and through.”
Did he feel any ill will toward Palestinians, Arabs or Muslims? “Absolutely not,” Mondalk said. “In general there are extremists on both sides. [I feel ill will] toward extremists, though. Absolutely.”
“I’m there to defend my people, not to attack another,” added Evan Gewiotz, another IDF hopeful standing beside him.
Most of the young recruits had a general idea what they wanted to do once they were enlisted.
Young men had a preference for combat units, usually Golani or the Paratroopers.
Young women were more inclined to serve in the education corps or IDF’s Spokesman’s Unit. But some were less sure.
“I want to be in the beach brigade,” joked Aaron Miller of Philadelphia.
The 19-year-old said he didn’t know precisely what position he wanted in the IDF, but he had faith he would find his way.
“If they give me some options, I’ll see what it’s like,” he said.
Asked why he decided to join the Israeli military, Miller said it was difficult for him to reduce his reasoning into a short sentence or sound bite.
“To become Israeli, do something meaningful,” he said. “That’s as simply as I can put it.”