Aish Machal recruits non-Israelis for IDF

Organization establishes army volunteer program.

idf soldiers 311 (photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
idf soldiers 311
(photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Not since the days before the War of Independence – when David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin scoured the globe seeking members of the Diaspora to fight in the War of Independence – has an organization proactively recruited non-Israelis to serve in the nation’s military.
Aish Machal decided to fill this void by establishing a full-enlistment army volunteer program for non-Israeli citizens.
This month, the first 20 participants began a six-week program of rigorous physical activity, ulpan, classes and excursions focused on Jewish history, Jewish identity and Zionism in order to prepare for IDF service.
“With the creation of we have the first-ever pro-active recruitment effort for the IDF,” said Jay M. Shultz, executive chairman of Aish Machal. “It’s amazing that no one has actively recruited for something this important before.”
By connecting with other Diaspora-recruiting organizations, like Birthright, and Jewish organizations on college campuses, like Hillel, Aish Machal plans on reaching tens of thousands of young Jews per year to connect with with their homeland. A lone soldier center that will include dorms in Tel Aviv is also in the works.
Although the program currently comprises only boys, Aish Machal says it plans on hosting girl groups in the near future. The organization not only focuses on bringing young Jews to Israel for military duty, but also encourages other types of national civil service, like Sherut Leumi.
And Aish Machal has just made history again – by having the first-ever male from the Diaspora to sign up for Sherut Leumi.
“It’s not about trying to get them to just serve in the army,” Shultz said. “It’s about substantively serving Israel and connecting to our identity as a people.”
Most 18-year-olds graduating from high school are not ready for college, Shultz says. By spending a year serving the Israeli community – whether through the IDF or Sherut Leumi – young Jews not only gain a sense of belonging to their homeland, but also the greater maturity they need for college.
“Israel is no longer a welfare state,” says Shultz. “We are at a time in history where the Jews of the Diaspora need Israel more than Israel needs them.
This program can do a tremendous amount of good in building up our next generation internationally, both as Jews and as contributing members of society – regardless of whether they stay in Israel after service, or not.
“Serving Israel should not just be seen as a responsibility; it should be seen as a noble honor.”
The key problem for many young Jews has not been their willingness to serve Israel, but rather an inability to cut through the Israeli government’s bureaucracy.
Steve Rieber, a 24-year-old from Los Angeles, had been trying to enter the August draft for the past two-and-half months before he finally found Aish Machal.
“I had been looking around, office to office, to sign up for the army,” Rieber said. “They sent me here and they sent me there, and it got so ridiculous. I eventually ran into a buddy of mine who was joining [Aish Machal] and he told me to join.
I was able to cut through all the bureaucracy.”
Entering the program, however, seems to be the only part of it that is easy. Aish Machal recruits wake at 5:30 a.m. every morning and are immediately forced to do physical exercise.
If they are caught not speaking Hebrew, they must do more push-ups. The recruits, however, do not seem to mind. On the contrary; they have been waiting – some of them for their whole lives – to serve.
“Since I was a little kid, I was fascinated by the Israeli soldiers,” said Yakov Kroll, a 20-year-old American who studies at community college in L.A. “I never thought twice about it, I always knew I would do this. And, honestly, I could not be happier right now.” Motivated by their love of Israel and a sense of duty, these young men came to Israel already feeling an attachment toward the country. Asked why he decided join the IDF, as opposed to the US army, Rieber pointed to his Jewish heritage.
“I’m an American, but at the same time, I’m also a Jew,” he said. “So if I’m going to take a bullet for somebody, when you get down to it, I’m going to take it for a place I’m more connected to.”