My birthplace is not my home

An Austrian teen discovers a new sense of family and belonging Nineteen-year-old Lea Duxler seemed to have it all.

Lea Duxler (photo credit: EREZ DE WOLF)
Lea Duxler
(photo credit: EREZ DE WOLF)
Born and raised in Vienna, this young Jewish woman says that she was living a wonderful life.
She already had a long-term plan in motion.
After graduating high school, she had registered at a local university to study law. She had good friends and a steady boyfriend.
Then it all changed.
In July of last year, Duxler came to Israel for six weeks to spend time with her Israeli friends and to take Hebrew language courses. And that’s when it clicked: Now is the time, she decided, to come home to Israel.
Duxler called her parents and gave them the shocking news. She let them know that she was returning to Austria to pick up her belongings, and planned to not only make aliya immediately, but also to join the IDF as a lone soldier.
Through friends who had recently immigrated, Duxler heard about the most suitable program to facilitate her move: Israel Scouts’ Garin Tzabar. Founded in 1991 with the support of the Aliya and Immigrant Absorption Ministry this organization accompanies and supports lone soldier immigrants throughout their entire journey.
With branches all over the world, the Garin Tzabar staff assists soon-to-be immigrants, offering preparatory courses on immigration, IDF service and life in Israel. Upon arrival, participants begin the absorption process by spending three months on a kibbutz, during which time they receive additional army preparation, learn Hebrew and tour the country to get acclimated. Participants also take part in the pre-IDF Gadna training program.
Finally, it’s on to the army, where the Garin Tzabar staff continues to provide support to its soldiers. This year alone, more than 400 young adults made aliya though Garin Tzabar.
SPEAKING TO the Magazine during her kibbutz absorption process, Duxler shares details of her background which led her towards choosing aliya.
At age 13, after studying in a small Jewish day school in Vienna, Duxler found her small community somewhat claustrophobic, and opted to attend public school.
“I didn’t like the [Jewish] school,” she says, “there was no privacy.” Although switching to public school meant that she was the only Jew in the building, she didn’t mind; at first.
However, hints of anti-Semitic attitudes among her peers and their families had Duxler begin to doubt her place in Austrian society.
While she was never physically attacked, the fact that most of her family on both her grandfather’s and grandmother’s sides had perished during the Holocaust amplified the sting of certain incidents.
“There were small comments made,” she says, “such as: ‘How can you be blonde, have a small nose, and also be Jewish?’” Once, a friend’s grandparents refused to let Duxler into their home when they found out she was a Jew. She adds that “It was an uncomfortable feeling, with my friends’ grandparents who had been around (and were even soldiers) in WWII.”
At 16, says Duxler, she visited Israel and felt instantly at home.
“Even with some of the bad things [in Israel], and the fact that life in Austria is probably easier, I already knew then that I would prefer living here.”
FAST FORWARD three years to 2015 and her aliya. While living in close quarters with 13 other young immigrants from the Garin Tzabar program – mostly from North America – at a kibbutz in the north, Duxler decided to earn some extra money before starting the army. She began as a waitress at a coffee shop in Ramat Hasharon.
One day, while she shopping at a Mac cosmetics store in Tel Aviv, the manager noticed her and, captivated by her natural beauty, he asked her, on the spot, if she would consider modeling for the chain.
Duxler declined, but was inspired to create a portfolio which she then sent to a local modeling agency. Within days she was contacted for modeling gigs to promote hair products and makeup. She even did a photo shoot for the L’Oréal Paris beauty line.
However being in the middle of her absorption process, and with the army looming, Duxler decided after only a few months to back away from modeling, saying that she would consider trying again in the future.
Her main goal, she says, wasn’t just to become a soldier, but to be accepted into one of the IDF’s combat units.
GARY VITKIN, Israel Scouts’ executive director, isn’t surprised by Duxler’s determination to become a combat soldier. He explains that while the national average of women in such units is around 5 percent, his Garin Tzabar program boasts a 20% rate of female combat soldiers.
His goal, he says, is to help Duxler and the other young immigrants on the program, “with everything from A to Z.”
“Our mission is to provide the platforms and the tools for these individuals to become soldiers, and then to help them with everything they need every step of the way. We offer support as well as help with complicated logistics. Since we are the [veteran] Israelis, we know the system.”
Vitkin says lone soldiers like Duxler are assigned families who open their homes and essentially adopt the soldiers throughout their army careers.
But it doesn’t stop there. Garin Tzabar, whether staffers or “adopted families,” become “a family for life,” long after they have finished their military service.
Vitkin is quick to credit Garin Tzabar’s partners for their success in having over 4,000 soldiers make aliya through the program since their founding 25 years ago. In addition to the Aliya and Immigrant Absorption Ministry, he says other partners include MASA, the Jewish Agency, the Defense Ministry, the Kibbutz Movement and Nefesh B’Nefesh.
DUXLER AGREES that the program provides a strong sense of family, but “I really don’t feel like a lone soldier here because of the others with me in my group. We feel like a family already and I don’t feel lonely.” She adds, “I always have a place for Shabbat and holidays. I feel welcome here.”
While she says that she isn’t “religious,” she feels the country provides her with a strong sense of Jewish pride, especially from a cultural perspective, which she feels is of utmost importance.
“I feel that I can finally be Jewish [here]. I’ve never felt this good in my life.”