Deaf In the IDF

“If you will it, it is no dream” Theodore Herzl

Deaf in the IDF?  Is that even possible?

I would like to tell you the story of a very brave and courageous young lady.  Her name is Jenna.  Jenna was born deaf and her deafness was largely undetected for about 15 months (they did not do newborn testing in NYC at the time).  At 15 months, Jenna received hearing aids and she began to receive services through New York State’s early intervention program.  Through early intervention, she attended a special auditory-verbal program designed to teach her to hear and speak.

At the age of 3, Jenna became a candidate for cochlear implant surgery; a skull based surgical procedure that wraps electrodes around the cochlea and that is attached to a magnet at the base of the skull.  That magnet attaches to an external magnet which is connected to a speech processor that has a microphone built in (to some it looks like a large hearing aid).  Sound enters the microphone and travels into the speech processor.  The speech processor converts those sounds into a series of electrical impulses that are sent to the brain and which the brain interprets as sounds.  Jenna had the surgery at NYU when she was three and one-half years old.  About 5 weeks later, Jenna’s implant was activated, and she began to hear real sounds for the first time.

Jenna continued in an auditory-verbal program and was mainstreamed in time for kindergarten.  She attended the Hebrew Academy of the Five Towns and Rockaway (“HAFTR”) through elementary and middle schools and received special services for the deaf through the Lawrence school district (and later the Great Neck School District).  Although she is deaf, Jenna does not sign.  She has been in auditory-verbal programs all of her life to prepare her to function as a hearing and speaking deaf person  — the idea is that with hearing aids or cochlear implants, the hearing-impaired child can learn to listen and understand spoken language in order to communicate through speech.  When everyone else had Hebrew Language class, Jenna was busy working with an itinerant teacher for the deaf and a speech therapist so that she could remain in mainstream programs and speak and hear like everyone else.   Additionally, for years she worked long and hard with a private speech pathologist to help her perfect her listening and English-speaking abilities.  Although her English-speaking skills progressively improved, her Hebrew language skills were not really cultivated.

In high school at the North Shore Hebrew Academy High School (“NSHAHS”), Jenna worked extremely hard, but again Jenna was excused from most Hebrew classes.  By her junior year in high school, Jenna had no desire to participate in a gap year program in Israel or to live in Israel.  She applied for and was accepted to college at the New York State University at Albany (“SUNY Albany”) and she was going to go right after high school.

In her senior year, things changed dramatically.  Jenna visited Germany, Poland, and Israel as part of NSHAHS’s Jewish Heritage Holocaust Educational Program.  The experience in Poland was overwhelming.  The granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, seeing how and where the Jewish people were massacred had an everlasting impact upon Jenna.

When the group traveled to Israel after Poland, Jenna quickly understood how important it is to have a Jewish Homeland; a place for all Jews to go.  Jenna decided that she wanted to delay college and spend a year studying in Israel.  Jenna’s gap year in Israel deepened her love for Israel and awakened in her a desire to live in Israel.  That year, Jenna also spent a lot of time with her older sister Dana, who made Aliyah (immigrated to Israel) after completing college and served in the Israel Defense Forces (the “IDF”) as a Search and Rescue Instructor for the IDF’s Homefront Command.[1]  Suddenly, Jenna found herself thinking about living in Israel.  She felt that if she was going to live in Israel someday, she had a responsibility to serve in the IDF just like everyone else.  But, would they let a deaf young woman serve, even if she can hear with Cochlear Implants?  Would her Hebrew skills ever be good enough?  Then, one day, Jenna saw an Israeli soldier wearing cochlear implants.  Wait, she thought “maybe I can serve?”  Jenna investigated and found out that she might be able to serve as a medical volunteer in the IDF even though she is deaf (but hears with cochlear implants).

After her gap year in Israel, Jenna returned to the USA, but she left her heart in Israel.  She commenced her freshman year at SUNY Albany, but soon discovered a strong anti-Semitic and anti-Israel sentiment at the school.  Even though she made the Dean’s list, she felt that she was missing something in her life.  Jenna realized that she wanted to return to Israel to live.   Jenna was concerned.  How could she take advantage of all that Israel has to offer without giving something back?  Jenna was clearly entitled to a full exemption from army service because of her deafness, but she did not want the exemption; she wanted to be like everyone else.  She was determined to serve in the IDF as a medical volunteer. She was determined to serve and protect the land and people of Israel.

As the school year progressed, Jenna contacted Garin Tzabar[2] and asked to join their next Garin (seedling group); she too would be willing to leave home and become a Lone Soldier.[3]  Over a six month period, while still attending SUNY Albany, Jenna attended a series of forums, in New Jersey and elsewhere, and met other people from around the country who want to make Aliyah and join the IDF.  The Garin Tzabar program had the prospective candidates engage in various challenges designed to educate them and prepare them for life as new immigrants in Israel and for military service in the IDF.  Jenna completed the program in May 2019, she withdrew from SUNY Albany in June and she made plans to make Aliyah and join the IDF through Garin Tzabar.  Everyone, the Garin Tzabar program and Jenna’s family and friends, were all worried about whether the IDF would even accept Jenna and allow a deaf young woman to serve.

Growing up deaf in a hearing world has always been a difficult obstacle to overcome for Jenna, yet she has persevered.  On July 1, 2019, at the age of 20, Jenna boarded a flight to Ben Gurion Airport as an Olah Chadasha (New Israeli Immigrant), to pursue her dream of living in Israel and of protecting the land of Israel and the people of Israel by volunteering in the IDF.  Jenna is an amazing young lady just for leaving her family and community and for moving to Israel, her homeland, alone and with a desire to serve as a Lone Soldier in the IDF.

On July 2, 2019, Jenna had her first series of draft evaluations (called in Hebrew Tzav Rishon).  Jenna had to have her Tzav Rishon early because to ask to serve as a medical volunteer and getting clearance to serve is an exceptionally long and tedious process.  After her Tzav Rishon, Jenna spent a month in an intensive Ulpan Program at the Merkaz Klitah (absorption center) in Ranana.  In August 2019, the rest of Jenna’s Garin group arrived in Israel and they all moved to a Kibbutz where they worked on the Kibbutz, attended Ulpan and prepared to be drafted into the IDF.

In September 2019, Jenna appeared before the IDF medical committee and she was approved to serve.

In December 2019, Jenna was interviewed for a position in a Special Command and was invited to draft to that command.  In January 2020, Jenna drafted, reported for duty, and was sworn in to serve in the IDF.  Jenna then attended the Army’s Hebrew language course (Ulpan) at Mikveh Alon (taken by most foreign-born “Lone Soldiers”).

In March 2020, Jenna graduated from the Hebrew Course at Mikveh Alon and she was supposed to report to start her job in the Army, but Covid-19 interfered.    A few weeks ago, however, Jenna was able to report to base and start her job in the IDF, where she now serves with pride.

It has been a lengthy process, but Jenna’s experience tells you that you should not let anything hold you back from trying to follow your dreams.  It also tells you that if you will it, it is no dream.  You can be deaf and serve in the IDF.

Jenna is indeed an incredibly special, brave, and courageous young lady.  She is a lover of Israel and the Jewish people.  She is also my daughter.

Kol Hakavod Jenna

Bursting with Pride
The Father of a Lone Soldier

P.S. Thank you Garin Tzabar; Nefesh B ’Nefesh; The Lone Soldier Center in Memory of Michael Levin; and The Michael Levin Base for Lone Soldiers and B’not Sherut for all the help they provide to Lone Soldiers and Their Families.

[1] Jenna’s oldest sister Dana joined Garin Tzabar in 2014. She made Aliyah in August 2014 and drafted in December 2014.  She was awarded the Major General’s Award (Mitztayen Aluf) for Excellence in her service and she was honorably discharged in December 2016.

[2] Garin Tzabar is an NGO that has been assisting young men and women who desire to make Aliyah and join the IDF since 1991.

[3] A “Lone Soldier” is a term for soldiers in the IDF with no family in Israel to support them.  Such Lone Soldiers include, but are not limited to, new immigrant volunteers from abroad, orphans or individuals from broken homes, and ultra-orthodox persons whose family disown them for serving in the IDF.

About the Author
Joseph Grob is originally from Brooklyn, NY. He is a former criminal defense attorney, a committed Jew, an ardent Zionist and a Passionate Supporter of Israel. Joe now lives in Lawrence, New York, with his wife, Rhea. Their oldest daughter, Dana Lynn, made Aliyah in 2014 and lives in Jerusalem where she is attending a graduate program in Hebrew University. Their daughter Emma moved to Israel in February 2020 where she recently participated and graduated from the Israel Tech Challenge. Their daughter Jenna made Aliyah in July 2019 and is currently serving in the IDF.
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