It’s been more than two and a half years since I enlisted in the IDF, and more than half a year since my release, so this post has been a long time in coming. I hope to write about some of the more relevant and noteworthy experiences I had during my service. There is a lot to tell, but this first post needs to be about thanking the wonderful people who I got to serve with and under.
I enlisted at the end of January 2013, three and a half years after receiving citizenship, two and a half years after receiving my “tsav rishon” — the initial summons to a physical and psychological evaluation in preparation of enlistment (“Receiving” isn’t really the right word, as I never actually got either my tsav rishon, or any of the numerous subsequent draft notices. I actually called up to schedule one and was told that I was already slated to come in), ten months after getting married in Tennessee, 3 days after returning from 5 weeks of backpacking/honeymooning in the Balkans. I knew that I would be serving for two years. I did not know what else to expect — where I’d serve, doing what, etc.
The first destination was the one-month boot camp known as “tiranut 02”. Okay, more like a “get your feet wet” with army protocol than boot camp. 02 is the lowest level of basic training (with rare exceptions), and my co-cadets were a combination of 18 years olds who suffered from various physical conditions that made them ineligible for combat service, 18 year olds who were largely healthy but had attempted to get out of their service and merely managed to lower their physical profile enough to get out of combat, and the rare exceptions like myself — those who had emigrated and enlisted over the age of 19 and would thus be serving from 6 months to 2 years.
One of the unique aspects of the IDF experience is its role as a national melting pot. That offers advantages and disadvantages. Racial, religious and socioeconomic distinctions became less important than rank and hierarchy, and soldiers sharing a tent also wind up sharing parts of their cultural heritages. But this also means that one is forced to work side by side with those you might otherwise go far out of your way to avoid.
In my case, and to my chagrin, I was assigned to the “religious tent.” As far as I can tell this was an attempt to group together the soldiers who asked to pray regularly. Attending prayers required an escort from a commander, but once there soldiers were given free time to do what they wished, rather than participate in whatever activities the rest of the group was engaged in. It was soon clear that many, a majority of those in my tent, had little interest in talking to God. They did enjoy the extra 60 minutes a day that they got, sitting outside the synagogue smoking, coming inside and playing on their phones, and similarly spiritual engagements. Perfectly predictable, and perhaps unavoidable, in the attempt to protect religious rights without penalizing soldiers, but disappointing and fairly offensive to be associated with such “religious” soldiers. I failed to endear myself with my tent-mates when I intervened in their attempts to persuade the commander for additional time to pray by pointing out that none of them had ever used all of the time already allotted.
There were others for whom I had more respect. During a fast day observed on base, those of us who self-testified to fasting were given the day off. That was an even greater appeal than the prayer perks. My entire tent stayed in; most alternated between smoking, playing on phones, sleeping, and munching on snacks in the confines of their tent. There was a Russian teenager from another tent who told me that he had never fasted before. But he preferred to go a day without food and have the day off. So he fasted. He could have easily spent all day eating in the tent like those in my tent — who were from religious or traditional homes. But he had enough integrity that if he told the commanders he was fasting, he would keep his word.
The commanders, for their part, were well aware of what was what. Those of us who were more mature (and in some cases far older) were trusted more. If I ever needed a favor of some kind, it was always a matter of how to make it work logistically.
Truthfully, the rest of us got along well — Druze, Ethiopian, Ashkenazi, Mizrahi, one Armenian Christian, and our ragtag group of “older” enlistees (one from Italy, one from India, one from the Ukraine, one from Mexico, myself). The formal “learning,” in classrooms and in the field could have been condensed from a month into two days. The rest of the time was more about exposing people to a system of rigid hierarchy, especially given the relatively irreverent nature of Jewish Israeli culture.
But the IDF is not just about following orders. Although none of us were slated to become combat soldiers — most were not allowed in fact, we were still taught a class on ethics in warfare. International law was discussed, but more importantly, the question of morality and the IDF’s own standards and code of ethics. Questions were posed about what happens when a superior officer gives an inappropriate command — distinguishing between a relatively benign abuse of power (follow the command, complain about it later) and those in which human life or the property of others was at stake (the soldier bearing an obligation to disobey the order in such circumstances). For us these were largely theoretical, but the examples used were often real — incidents from as far back as the War of Independence were cited to show us that not only can one’s commanding officer be guilty of gross indiscretions, but that in such an instance it would not be an appropriate ex post facto justification to simply blame the commanding officer.
We also had another class that focused on racism and xenophobia. Soldiers were candid — perhaps too candid, about their feelings towards various demographics — Russians, Haredim, Arabs, gays (the IDF has no “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy — soldiers can and are open about their sexual orientation as long as they abide by the dress codes and other protocol). It was disheartening to hear grievances and simple bigotry expressed so flatly, but it was also probably good for all of us to confront it (including soldiers who expressed their prejudices side by side with their desires to rid themselves of those prejudices). It was especially encouraging for me when the only other soldier in our group who regularly used the synagogue for actual prayer, my friend Alon, was the most vocal critic of the soldier who shared homophobic views. At the end of the course, Alon and I shared honors as the top soldiers in our unit.
After the month long basic training, I was ready for my assignment. Many people know where they are headed before they begin their basic training, but HR in the army leaves a lot to be desired, and is particularly ill-equipped to handle people like myself, who draft after having completed a college degree rather than straight out of high school. So I found myself returning to Tel Hashomer, the large base just outside of Tel Aviv where all soldiers initially report to before starting their basic training, to receive my placement — and from there, assigned to the Medical Corps. After a few more interviews, I met the man who would be my commander. Unlike in basic training, where the commanders were mostly 18 and 19 year old soldiers a year or two into their service, my commander was now an engineer holding the rank of major.
I enlisted shortly before Purim. After a month of basic training, I reported to my new placement about two weeks before Passover. At the same time, Eliana made Aliyah and met me in the apartment that I had rented while in basic training — a large but virtually unfurnished apartment in Petah Tikva. The apartment came with a chair in the kitchen and two large wall units for putting away clothing. The apartment apparently hadn’t been lived in for quite a while before we moved in; the smaller of the two wall units literally came crashing down the first time that I tried to plop some pants and shirts on its shelves. Down to one chair and one wall unit.
We started off with a mattress that my brother Dovi and I had serendipitously acquired in the few days in between getting the keys to the apartment and Eliana’s arrival. The air mattress we had brought from NY to the holy land turned out to be holey.
Not to worry though — or so I thought. The army, or at least the Israeli army, is supposed to help out in such matters. Still blissfully ignorant of how IDF bureaucracy “works”, I sat down with the soldier in charge of helping secure financial assistance and told her that we had a serious furniture deficit. And with her help, I started filling out paperwork (it was then that I found out that nothing had been done with the paperwork I filled out while in basic training).
Luckily for us, our request could not be approved until a “home visit” had occurred. That is, both the soldier in charge of submitting the request (the “mashakit tash”) and my direct commander needed to come to our house to verify that we were indeed missing one or more basic home requirements. Not convenient for anyone involved, but also pretty easily accomplished on our end. We asked my commander when he’d be available to drive to Petah Tikva — assuming he’d take out his calendar to find a convenient day. Instead, he pulled out his phone. He called another commander, explained the situation, arranged for the second commander to replace him in his immediate duties and we drove off.
Eliana had been an Israeli citizen for a few days and was still busy dealing with the various bureaucratic joys that are part of the first stages of Aliyah. She opened the door to find three people in uniform — myself and the other soldier, and my commander. In keeping with protocol, they had to talk to Eliana without me present. So I took Usdi for a walk while Eliana and the soldier sat on a sleeping bag on the floor and my commander sat in the chair, surveying the scene. No fridge. No bedframe. No oven. One chair. It was clear that we had nailed the “missing furniture” part of the request.
I say “luckily for us” that a home visit was required, because of all that came next. The visit itself did not take very long. When my commander came outside, he turned to me and told me that he was so impressed that we had come from the US to Israel, moved into a completely unfurnished apartment, and yet were all smiles. “We are going to make sure that you get everything you are entitled to from the army. And we are going to make sure that you get a lot more than that.” I found out soon enough what the meant.
Over the next week, my commander’s truck would drive up to our building three more times, each time laden with furniture. He had called for donations, and managed to get us more furniture than we knew what to do with, someone donated from his family, others from other commanders on the base. At a certain point I had to laugh, when we wound up with two dining room tables, because he had gotten ahold of two and didn’t know which one would suit us better. The official request for help from the army, despite the best efforts of those working on it on our end, would take weeks to process. In fact, we had to change what we had requested a few times, as our apartment filled up with hand-me-downs.
The cherry on top was the fridge. We wound up with tables, chairs, beds, nightstands, an oven and more, but with less than a week before Passover, we still didn’t have a fridge. With complete (over) confidence that things would work out, we had of course invited guests for the holidays, including some of the other soldiers who had made Aliyah and went through basic training with me. Not having a fridge was a problem. But this too had a solution.
On one of the many great websites that Israelis use, my commander found someone in Tel Aviv looking to donate his fridge. Then he found someone who owned a truck big enough to transport the fridge who was willing to donate his time. On Friday morning, at six in the morning, my brother and I got picked up by my commander and driven to Tel Aviv, where we then went to get our new old fridge. Problem solved. We had our fridge. The Passover Seder would go on.
As incredible as it is, that isn’t the end of the story. I recounted this story to a neighbor at the synagogue I had begun going to near our house. We had only lived there for about two weeks. They barely knew us. But his immediate reaction, in addition to sharing my feelings about such a special commander and such a wonderful initiation into the army, was to ask if we were missing anything else. “Well yes”, I said. Although we now had multiple beds (later to be used by three different olim — immigrants, including my brother), we did not have a queen-sized frame. And we didn’t have a washing machine. That would be an issue. Would someone have a secondhand washing machine?
The bedframe situation was quickly resolved. A neighbor soon drove over with a frame that would work in the back of his truck. And the man who had first asked me what we were missing told me that we no longer needed a washing machine. “The synagogue will take care of it”. Within hours, we had a phone call from a member of the synagogue community. He was at a store, purchasing a new machine for us.
I learned the details later. Within the core group of congregants, those who recognized me already by face though not by name, they gathered enough donations within ten minutes to purchase a new washing machine. Perhaps most incredibly, just days before Passover, they made it their priority to make the purchase then and there, so that the machine would be in our home before the holidays.
These are selfless acts of kindness, incredible displays of empathy. But they are also all of the highlights of Aliyah and service in the IDF. There is a camaraderie and a sense of community, even for absolute strangers, a sense of responsibility and willingness to reach out and help, that are unparalleled in anything else that I’ve ever experienced.
There really could be no better start to my service, and no better way to convince me that I was in the right place. But there was still one more twist to come.
From the time I arrived at my army placement, I was trained to replace a very capable soldier who was set to complete his service in a matter of months. He had completed a 2 year engineering program prior to enlisting and had then spent 3 years further refining his skills on the job. In the weeks that I spent under his watch I learned more about Excel than any other time in my life, along with the rest of the job requirements. But I was understandably eager to please and very motivated to serve. I kept asking for more assignments. Not too long after I joined the unit, my commander introduce me to a Lieutenant Colonel, also in the Medical Corps, who headed a unit that dealt with budgeting and logistics which happened to be down several officers due to maternity leave and other factors. He praised my work ethic and suggested that I would be of more assistance to their unit given my undergrad degree in Economics (of course in retrospect there was little I learned in mostly theoretical classes that would have come in handy; the best preparation I had was the time spent being tutored for a position that I would never wind up taking).
A few weeks and a lot more army bureaucracy later, I switched to my new unit. They were happy to have me — I would be replacing someone who was about to go on maternity leave; in her 9th month of pregnancy, we were on borrowed time, and every hour of training to get me up to speed was important. I had a commander, and a ton of work to keep me busy, managing two positions until my coworker returned from maternity leave. Meanwhile my original commander had to restart his search to replace me, as the presumed replacement for his right-hand soldier, after spending weeks training me.
I was sitting in his car when my first commander broke the news that I had been “traded” to another senior commander in the unit. Not realizing that I could hear the conversation, the second officer asked my commander incredulously how he could give up a soldier like me (I was flattered of course). But why indeed, given all the effort he had just put into helping us out?
He certainly didn’t do it to make his life any easier. He did it for me, and he did it for the Medical Corps. And he did it for the army, and as part of his service to his nation. He thought that I could be of greater assistance somewhere else, and that I would gain from it, and he didn’t hesitate to act, even when he would suffer the greatest loss for it.
Throughout my service I was blessed to have commanders — in basic training and during my two years in the Medical Corps, who were consummate professionals, dedicated, responsible leaders and just plain incredible human beings. In short, ideal role models. There were so many people who helped us during that first month and so many people who went beyond the call of duty. Of course no one is bigger in our eyes than my first commander, who I refer to anonymously only out respect for his humility and privacy.
The IDF has many faces. I was privileged to serve for two years in the Medical Corps. There were plenty of frustrations, mountains of bureaucracy, unending inefficiencies along the way. (I never again want to use a fax machine, let alone search through 60 offices to find the only working one left.) There are plenty of areas for improvement that I could (and on a few occasions did) recommend, plenty of rules I’d be happy see changed. But from the start I experienced the commitment of those have dedicated their careers to Service — to helping others, whether a new immigrant who just joined the unit, soldiers on a far off base dealing with stray dogs, an injured Syrian child trapped between a rock and a hard place on the Golan border, pregnant Palestinian women in Gaza, or foreign citizens suffering in any number of international disasters. I am grateful and honored to have those experiences, and to have been able to realize the two-way nature of service in the IDF — where the more you give, the more you get out of it.