For those who are home, and for those who are on the way. For those who support the historic and just return of the land of Israel to its people, forever loyal to their inheritance, and its restoration.
Saturday, August 18, 2012
The Olim Arrive - As Israeli as it Gets
17 August '12..
Mika Fox, 18, has everything she could ever want. She lives with her brother and her parents in the swanky Manhattan neighborhood of Tribeca. Mika, a dancer and painter, recently graduated from a private arts school in New York and was accepted to the prestigious Smith College. Now, she has decided to leave all that behind.
This week, together with 300 members of the Israeli Scouts' Garin Tzabar program (a group formed for Diaspora Jews and children of ex-Israelis who choose to move to Israel and serve in the IDF), Mika began her new life in Israel, living in the kibbutz that adopted her. After three months of communal living, 127 of the group members will embark on the journey they came here to complete: serving in the Israel Defense Forces.
The Garin Tzabar program works with the Immigrant Absorption Ministry and Nefesh b’Nefesh to bring young people to Israel. The Israeli Scouts organization recruits members through emissaries abroad, prepares them for immigration and provides them with support in Israel. It helps their absorption on kibbutz and accompanies them throughout their military services. Most of the group members come from North America. Many of them arrived here last Tuesday.
“I always knew that I wanted to do a year of community service or the army,” Mika says several days before the flight. We meet at her parents’ gorgeous apartment in New York, near the financial district. Unlike a typical New York City apartment, there is no shortage of space here. The expansive living-room windows reveal a spectacular urban view. The sculptures that decorate the home were created by Tali, Mika’s mother. In fact, most of the artwork in the apartment was made by family. It is hard to imagine a better-designed, more comfortable life.
“At first, I wanted to do a year of community service,” Mika says, “but a year ago, I talked with my cousins in Israel about the army, and the idea of doing military service got into my head.”
Mika, the daughter of an Israeli mother and an American father, was born in the United States. She speaks Hebrew with her mother and English with her father. Except for one year in Israel when she was two years old, she has lived in the U.S. all her life. Every summer, she comes to Israel for a visit and stays with her mother’s family in Haifa.
“I could have traveled to Israel and volunteered for a year, but I wanted to go all the way,” she says in Hebrew. “I think it’s important to experience life in Israel, and I decided that it was better to do it now than after college. I know that there’s no better way to feel Israeli than to do army service like everybody else.”
A break before college
Tali, Mika’s mother, founded the Tapuah chapter of the Israeli Scouts in New York. Mika joined when she was in fourth grade. This year, her last year in the Scouts, she was a coordinator.
“I feel I belong here. I love New York, my neighborhood, the subway. I’m very comfortable here. But ever since I can remember, I’ve been connected to Israel. I have very close friends who have one or two Israeli parents, and we always felt our Israeliness. For example, in the Scouts, for at least seven hours a week, I’m in olive-drab, with Israelis, speaking only Hebrew, and I feel the most comfortable in the world. It’s been that way since fourth grade.
“My best friend is also an Israeli who lives here, and she feels the same way. I meet her sometimes in Israel and we speak English, and that’s the weirdest thing, because in Israel we feel Israeli. Most of the time I don’t think there’s any contradiction. I feel American and Israeli at the same time. I’ve just become accustomed to it.”
Mika’s desire to join the army began when she realized that she needed a break between high school and college. “I see my friends here who go to college right after high school. They’re so young. It’s like they’re wasting their first year because they’re still confused and want to have fun. In Israel, I see my relatives going to study after the army, and they really have a different attitude. I felt that was more appropriate for me.”
But she didn't know exactly how they did it. She heard about Garin Tzabar many years ago, through the Scouts. But, she says, “I was sure that it was a group of Americans who didn’t speak Hebrew. In September 2011, my mother persuaded me to attend a seminar of the group, and I really connected. They talked to me about Israel, and not just the good things, either.
“They talked about the tough things and how much they missed it, and about how coming back to the group over the weekends, to an English-speaking environment, would make it a little easier. I also realized that I didn’t know a thing about the different posts in the IDF. I learned a lot about the army − things that I didn’t even realize I didn’t know. The organization helps with the placement and recruitment process that I have no idea about. It also helps with the rights that lone soldiers are eligible for.”
Mika knows that many challenges, and quite a few moments of crisis, are in store for her. “It’s going to be different from anything I ever imagined I would do. My mother told me that my experiences in the army were going to be completely different from anything I’ve ever known during my vacations in Israel. The thing that scares me most is homesickness − missing my parents, my brother, my life here. I know that the transition is going to be difficult. I’ve never been away from my father or mother for such a long time.”
And still, she is optimistic. “I think I’d like to be an infantry instructor, but I still have to think about it. I have no idea where I’ll be a year from now, and that’s actually fun. I like not knowing.”
“Are you going to kill Arabs?”
Even before having to deal with challenges in Israel, Mika had some rough spots with her friends and family in the U.S. “Two months ago, my American grandparents came for a visit, and I told them what I was going to be doing. I think that it was only then that I realized: wow, I’m really doing this. Before that, I told a lot of people at school, and they didn’t really understand why I was going to do it. At first, they were in total shock. They asked me questions like, ‘Are you going to be on the firing line? Are you going to kill Arabs? Are you going to die?’"
“I think that even my closest friends didn’t really get it. They got that I needed some time off before going to college, but they didn’t really respond to the idea of the army.”
The biggest challenge was at home. “My mother served in the army, so she understood what I wanted right away, and we also talked a lot about it. But my father didn’t really understand. He wasn’t all that surprised because he always knew how connected I was to Israel, and I’d started talking about doing a year of service two years ago. So when I mentioned the army, he wasn’t really in shock. But he also didn’t know what to think because he didn’t really know what the IDF was. He’s mostly familiar with the American army. It was only after I did a few seminars that he started to read about Tzabar and the army and understand a bit of what was going on."
"I think that it was only last February that he realized that it was actually going to happen. He was afraid that I was leaping before I looked and wanted to make sure that I was completely sure it was what I wanted. I had to sit down with him and explain why I wanted it and where it came from, and I’m glad that he made me have that conversation. My parents are very supportive. They want everything that I want. It’s hard for them because I’m going to be very far away from them.”
“My father brags about me”
Mika’s father, Don, owns a chain of movie theaters. Although he grew up in a Jewish family in Pennsylvania, worked in Jewish organizations for years and married an Israeli woman, he never imagined that his daughter would one day join the Israeli army.
“When Mika started talking about it for the first time, I talked about it with my wife and we tried to figure out how we’d deal with it,” he says. “We decided to take a passive approach and just let it happen."
"When it started to get really serious, Mika came and talked with me," he continues. "When Tzabar came into the picture and we saw how much she wanted to go all the way with it, I started taking it more seriously.”
They had the most difficulty not with the fact that their daughter was going to join the army, but with the things they found out along the way. “At first, I thought it would be for a year,” says Don. “When I realized that she was going for two years, it was a big deal for me. I thought to myself: ‘Was there a conversation in Hebrew that I missed?’ I have no problem with the idea of serving in the IDF. My problem is with the distance. The biggest challenge is going to be the separation between us, even though we intend to visit Israel several times a year."
"I got over the difficulty and made peace with that, too. I support Mika and admire her, as I always have, and I salute her for her decision.”
Even though Don is the only “pure” American in the family, he understands Mika’s motivation for doing what she is doing. “She feels very connected to Israel. She feels responsibility toward her friends and relatives who are being drafted, and she wants to be their equal. She thinks that it will be a learning experience that will change her life. Not that her life needs to change.”
He knows Israel fairly well and has been visiting frequently ever since he met his wife. “Israel is a complex place, and my feelings toward it are complex as well. It is not my birthplace. The U.S. is my birthplace, even though I know it’s hard for many Israelis to hear that. Israel is a young, lively country in the Middle East, and I’m very connected to it. I have a lot of friends in Israel, and I really love being there. I’m sure that I’ll have a lot of fun when I go to visit Mika.”
Q. Are you afraid for her?
“People here asked me about that all the time. My answer is no, I’m not afraid. If it were my son, I might think differently. In the end, I think that it will be an interesting experience for her. I also like the idea that she’ll be in the army with people from all kinds of population groups in Israel. After private school and the good life in Tribeca, the IDF will be an excellent school for life and for equality. I’m sure that there will be days that she loves it and days that she hates it.”
Q. What will happen if Mika should decide to stay in Israel?
“I know that Israelis always dream about the good American kids who come to Israel, fall in love with it and stay. But that’s not something I think about. Right now, two years is long enough to deal with. Maybe in another year I’ll start thinking about that possibility.”
For now, at least, Don has a kind of safety net. The prestigious college that accepted Mika agreed to hold her spot for two years. “I’m not making aliyah right now,” Mika says. “I made a special request of the college to defer my admission for two years until I’d completed my army service, and they agreed. I feel much more comfortable knowing that I have college to come back to, and this way my father also knows that there’s a possibility that I’ll come back. But anything could happen. Maybe in the end, I’ll want to study in Israel or something like that.”
This week, Mika began her life on Kibbutz Maoz Haim in the Jordan Valley. She knows one thing: as of now, her father supports her decision, too. “He’s really proud of me and brags about me to his friends,” she says with a smile.
Fulfilling her father’s dream
Like Mika, Ariel Gindea, another member of the Tzabar group, is leaving an ultra-comfortable life. Ariel, 22, who adopted a secular lifestyle four years ago, lives in one of the most thriving Jewish communities on Long Island. Her father is a physician and her mother works for a Jewish organization. She, too, has always felt a strong connection to Israel even though her parents are not Israeli.
“I grew up in a religious Jewish area. I went to a Jewish school all my life, and as early as in high school I knew I wanted to be in Israel,” she recalls. “After I graduated high school, I went to an academy in Israel and volunteered at Shaare Zedek Hospital in Jerusalem. There I discovered that my connection to Israel was even stronger than I thought. I really loved Israel. I felt comfortable there, and it was the most natural thing for me. I like the idea of Garin Tzabar, and I really love the honesty of the Israelis, which most Americans consider a negative thing.”
Despite her good feelings, Ariel knew then that she could not stay in Israel. “I grew up in a family that stipulated that I go to college. Without that, moving to Israel was out of the question. So I came back to the U.S. and got a degree in social work from NYU.”
During her work with the Scouts in New York, Ariel heard about Tzabar. “At first, I wasn’t sure it was what I wanted,” she says. “In the end, I attended the seminar to see if it was right for me to be in a group atmosphere. I met amazing people and connected right away. Knowing that there were so many people who supported me turned into something very important. And the truth is that without Tzabar, I don’t know whether I’d be doing what I’ve always wanted to do.”
She says that she feels more Israeli than Jewish, “even though I don’t live in Israel yet.” Despite her difficult decision to adopt a secular lifestyle and her decision to move to Israel, her parents stand behind her.
“Even in high school, I told them that I wanted to move to Israel, and they hoped that after college, I wouldn’t want to anymore.... I didn’t really have ‘the talk’ with them. It was only after I graduated college that we realized what was going to happen. My father has been dreaming about moving to Israel for years, so to a certain extent I’m fulfilling his dream. Mother is a mother, so it’s hard for her that I’m leaving. She’s worried about me, but both of them are proud of me and support me.”
Q. What did your friends say?
“Those who know me smile and say, ‘We always knew you were going to do i't, but it’s not easy to explain to everyone. Many people here think I’m crazy, and the truth is that I don’t even try to explain it to them because I understand where it comes from. Life here is good, and it’s simple.”
This week, Ariel will start her new life on Kibbutz Urim in the Negev.
She hopes to serve as a social welfare officer or an officer who assists wounded soldiers, “but I’ll go where they send me,” she says. “The reason I want to serve is to integrate into Israel, because I’m planning to stay in Israel after I’m discharged. I believe that serving in the army gives people common values and helps them grow. I’m anticipating being part of that.”
“I want more than college and a job”
Dean Haim, 18, was born in the U.S. At the age of three, his parents, both Israeli, returned to Israel. But three years later, they went back to Brooklyn, where they live to this day. Dean remembers the moment that he realized that he had to serve in the IDF. “It was about two years ago, at the ceremony after the final training march, where my older brother received his Givati beret. I was very excited. I saw my brother’s friends hugging each other, and I knew that they would be friends for life. At that moment, I knew that I wanted something like that, too.”
Later, Dean was introduced to the Scouts. He visited Israel as part of Hetz va-Keshet (bow and arrow), a month-long program that combines tours of Israel with a week in the Gadna military training program.
“My parents never thought I’d join the army. But when I was on Hetz va-Keshet, I called them all the time and told them what a good time I was having. That was when they knew it was coming. In the end, it wasn’t strange to them, since my brother went to the army, too. When I told them, they just wanted to know that I was sure I didn’t want to go to college first. I told them that I was 100 percent sure, that there was only one time in life that I could do this, and that now was my time. They’re very supportive.”
Dean’s parents raised him as a Zionist. “All my relatives in Israel went to the army and to combat units. That was how I grew up, too,” he says.
“All my life, I’ve felt more Israeli than American. When I came back, I went to a Tzabar seminar and met the other kids. I was really surprised − we became brothers and sisters. We connected over our collective love and pride in Israel. Even if they’re a bit more American than I am, it doesn’t matter."
“In the group, they opened my eyes and told me that it wasn’t all just fun, that there was a lot of hard work and pressure too. So I’m coming prepared. It’s gotten to the point that today I don’t really see myself serving without the group.”
His friends from home, even the Jewish ones among them, did not understand why he went. “They said I was nuts. They’re sure that I’m going straight to war. I told them that there were risks and that it wasn’t so terrible, but they never got how there was something more important to me than myself. They’ll never get it.”
Dean knows exactly what he wants: “To serve in a commando unit, the most hard-core combat there is.” He is already in training: he runs, swims and goes to the gym. “I hope that serving in the IDF will open new horizons for me, that I’ll meet good friends. My parents want to go back to Israel, but the economic situation doesn’t allow them to leave just now. To a certain extent, I’m fine with their staying in the U.S. because I need some independence, and I want to go through this experience on my own. It will be difficult for me, but I believe that I’ll get more from it that way. I’m 100 percent sure that they’ll come back to Israel in the end.” He is convinced that he will stay in Israel after the army. “My life isn’t in the U.S. It’s in Israel. That’s where I belong.”
When I ask where he got such determination, which one doesn’t find even among native-born Israelis, he pauses for a moment to think. “It’s from my brother. He’s staying in Israel now, after having been discharged. Actually, it’s not just him. I see and hear everything that’s happening in Israel today, and I know that this is going to sound like a cliché, but I really feel that Israel needs me.”
I visited Hevron in November 2000 after the outbreak of the Rosh Hashanah War to see what could be done to assist in the face of the growing daily attacks on the community. After returning to work for the community in the summer of 2001, a bond and a love was forged that grows to this day. My wife Melody and I merited to be married at Ma'arat HaMachpela and now host visitors from throughout the world every Shabbat as well as during the week. Our goal, "Time to come Home!"