IDF boot camp commander traveled the world to find a place he belongs

Jonathan Sleischmann was 13 years old when a firebomb was hurled into the open window of his Jewish day school in Caracas.

JONATHAN SLEISCHMANN 370 (photo credit: IDF Spokesman)
(photo credit: IDF Spokesman)
Jonathan Sleischmann was 13 years old when a firebomb was hurled into the open window of his Jewish day school in Caracas.
He didn’t see it. He just heard the screams. The teachers asked the children to quickly exit the classroom and lie down outside. They hid in the grass for five hours.
This wasn’t the first bout of violence. A few years earlier, a Jewish student was kidnapped in the same school – Venezuelan soldiers came through the doors and simply escorted a child from his classroom seat. Everyone watched, stunned.
Chavez could do what he wanted. He happened “to have close relationships to countries that don’t like Jews,” Sleischmann told The Jerusalem Post in a recent interview.
Living in Caracas – whence a large portion of the Jewish population had fled to the United States of Spain – the members of Sleischmann’s family didn’t interact with anyone outside their closeknit community. However, when he was 14, after the violence became too much, they finally decided to pack their bags. They moved to France.
It wasn’t any easier across the ocean. There were no Jewish schools within a reasonable distance and when Sleischmann’s family went to synagogue on Friday nights, police were compelled to guard perimeter because attacks were so frequent.
“As a Jew in France I never felt welcome. You could just feel the anti-Semitism,” he said.
The family couldn’t go on living in fear. They finally decided to make aliya six years ago, when Sleischmann was 18. He immediately joined the army.
“In Israel I suddenly felt safe, proud even, to be Jewish. Of course I wanted to defend other Jews,” he said.
“I actually feel the link between this country and myself. That’s not something I’ve ever felt before,” he continued.
Today, Lt. Sleischmann is a boot-camp commander in the Magal (“Ma’arach Gibui Lehima”) unit, the Combat Support Center. He is responsible for the basic training of 130 soldiers who will not be in combat units and approximately 24 commanders and five officers.
Before joining Magal, the 24-year-old Sleischmann had never worked with so many women. At first he was surprised at how obedient they were compared to the men in basic training.
The unit trains many soldiers who come from “special circumstances.” Some have spent time in prison.
Others have suffered through drug or alcohol addictions.
Sleischmann remembers one female soldier who refused to speak. The male commanders couldn’t shout commands at her. They had to talk slowly and quietly – otherwise she would cry.
However, after a few weeks of bonding with a female commander, she opened up.
The soldier told a commander that she had been beaten and sexually abused for years by her stepfather. She didn’t want to press charges, because she was afraid he would find out. However, after a few months in the army she found the courage to talk to the police.
“Maybe we saved her life. She was in a bad place. If she didn’t have anyone to talk to she might have killed herself,” Sleischmann said.
Sleischmann understands fear. He knows what it feels like to not belong.
“We are talking about girls that were violated, beaten, girls that can’t even hear a man’s voice without breaking down. The commanders help them understand that not everyone in the world is bad, that they are also not bad.”
Sleischmann plans to spend the next five years in the army.
He wouldn’t do it if he didn’t believe he was helping Israeli youth. Over the years he has watched dozens of soldiers overcome obstacles.
He remembers one who asked to quit the first day of boot camp but ended up staying after his mandatory service ended, another who weighed 10 kilograms less after boot camp.
“After the army the soldiers feel better about their bodies, their souls. They are not always afraid of what people think of them,” Sleischmann said.
“There is no one that cannot be a soldier. We receive everyone,” he continued.
For 18 years Sleischmann searched the world for a place that would accept him.
But he didn’t want others to have to go so far.
“The army is not only about making warriors and war,” he said. “The training of the soldiers is less important to me than helping them become good human beings.”