Often during a hard day in the field, I take out my phone and glance at the background. It’s a picture of me and my younger sister that we had taken on the beach the last time my family had come to Israel to visit me. And, despite the few thousand kilometers between us, her smile gives me courage.
Every combat soldier finds something to remind them why they are here defending the country, and to me, especially as a lone soldier, I have to remind myself that I am here to protect the Jewish homeland. My sister’s smiling face often does the trick.
I remember the day I first met her. I was 13 and I, along with my brothers and my parents, entered the children’s home where she lived, in Hong Kong. She was nearly four years old and didn’t know a word of English.
I remember wondering how we would bond. Would I immediately feel that sibling relationship that I felt toward my brothers? I had always wanted a sister, and while I could not have been more excited when my parents had announced their plans to adopt, I felt my steps slow down and doubts race through my mind as we walked in to meet her.
We were sent to wait in a room called the “Jerusalem Room.” We were told someone would bring her in shortly. Although to me at the time Israel was simply a fun place to spend the summer, and I still did not fully grasp the depth of our connection to the country, I still found myself fixated on the Jerusalem Room sign.
The absurdity that a children’s home in Hong Kong would have a room named after Jerusalem, our homeland’s capital, felt like a sign of things to come. Suddenly it all felt – meant to be.
Who would have thought that when merely a matter of months earlier we had exclaimed “next year in Jerusalem,” as we do every Passover, we had really meant that we would be sitting here in this small dingy room with a few toys scattered around the floor and mirrors on all sides? To me, at that moment, it truly felt as though this was our Jerusalem. We were here to find the part of us that had been missing in all of our hearts.
Hours later I sat on the floor in the center of that same room playing with toys and making silly faces with a child who was to become my sister. I knew from these first moments that we would have the same sisterly bond as any other sisters, if not greater.
However, the Jerusalem Room sign still stuck closely in my mind; I couldn’t help but associate our Jewish need to always protect and remember our homeland with my newfound need to protect my baby sister.
My love for the Jewish people became instantaneously intertwined with my love for her. I thought of the words “If I forget you Jerusalem” and I knew that like we could never forget Jerusalem, my family would never forget our time spent in the Jerusalem Room.
Joining the IDF
During my first days in the IDF, I was again reminded of these first few moments as I looked around me. I was in a foreign place where I felt I didn’t understand the people or the culture, and yet I felt instantly connected to the strangers around me.
We were all here with one purpose: to protect our homeland. I thought back to the fear my sister must have felt during her first days with us and how hard she had worked to make herself understood. She too had found herself surrounded by people who she did not know, who loved her for reasons she did not yet understand.
I thought about how big an impact she had made on all of our lives and I hoped that here I too could make a difference. Mostly though, I tried to draw on some of her courage and resilience, telling myself that if she could get through that and still have such a brilliant smile, tironut (military basic training) was nothing.
Although I know that Israel is by no means perfect, looking around during those first few days it felt like we were getting closer to it. I, an Israeli soldier, was surrounded by people my age who had roots in every country possible. My bunkmate was an Indian-Jewish girl, next to her was a girl with an Iraqi family, others had family in Morocco or Eastern Europe or Ethiopia.
I wished the rest of the world could see the diversity and beauty of our country the way I saw it. Here, I thought, even my little Jewish-Chinese sister would have no problem blending in.
The writer is a 19-year-old from Hong Kong. She made aliyah in July 2020 and is currently serving as a combat soldier in Isuf Kravi Unit 595 on the Syrian border.