The IDF could be your next extracurricular experience abroad

This piece of writing is the first of many more to come, hopefully. Being exhaustive while relating an intense experience is way too hard, but I will try to share as well as I can about what I went through in the IDF.

January 2017. I am almost 23 years old and just finished the first semester of Master’s degree in Paris. I walk out the dean’s office, with in my hand her signed agreement to suspend my studies for 18 months. I am taking an extended gap year so I can enroll into the Israel Defense Forces. I had been spending 2 months in the Jewish state over the past summer and made up my mind around that time. Previously, I had been making good money in New-York as a consultant for a well-respected French company. Fresh out of college, I got this job and prepared my comeback to France by applying to grad schools. And everything worked out.

But because of that aforementioned summer, everything had changed and here I was, taking a long leave from my elite business school, for which to get admitted to I had worked so hard, and from which I could expect money and success so long as I graduate. When I tell my story, most people ask me why. I am not trying to address this question today. I will probably write about it in the future, but the subject would be worth its own article. And if you read me while contemplating to do the same thing, then I assume that the reasons leading you to do so are already fathomed by your heart and your mind.

I would rather elucidate another question today, one that my entourage immediately asked, thinking I was leaning towards madness at that time. How? This question is as relevant as it can get, when you are an outsider to Israel, concerned by your studies and your future, and far from understanding a thing about the drafting process in a foreign army.

On the left, in September 2016, I am attending the swearing-in ceremony of a childhood friend, without knowing that I would myself become a paratrooper a year later.

I knew it was late to draft in the IDF. But not too late. The age limite for the program I eventually enrolled into was 24 years. I was still eligible, for a year, so it actually strenghtened me in my decision. My program’s name is מח״ל (Machal, an acronym standing for volunteers from abroad). I am considered a Machalist, and while this term is often confused with חייל בודד (chayal boded, a lone soldier) or עולה חדש (oleh chadash, a new immigrant), it has a strong meaning of its own. Machal was a movement created back in 1948, when the Jewish Yishuv founded the State of Israel and dove right into its War of Independence. It is a glorious event in Israel’s military mythos; a newborn army resisted and defeated 5 nations in less than a year.

50,00 survivors from the Holocaust multiplied attempts of illegal immigration to Mandatory Palestine, were deported across the Mediterranean Sea, detained in camps by the British, and eventually took up arms days after they arrived to the Promised Land. This struggle affected more than 4,000 of Jews all around the world, who were peacefully dwelling in the West and their colonies. They all drafted as volunteer in צה׳׳ל (Tsahal, the Hebrew acronym of the Israel Defense Forces) and contributed as best as they could. A famous war fact is one of the Israeli Air Force ranks being back then mostly composed of English-speaking WWII veterans. Many fell in combat, precisely 119. And on the 28th of February 2017, my 23rd birthday and the first day of my מכינה (Mechina, a preparatory program to the army), I slept under the stars at the Machal memorial. This free month-long program intended for the entire Machal class of April 17, taking place in a kibbutz charged with history, was making sure to give us the necessary tools for a significant service.

After the first Arab-Israeli War, many volunteers from abroad flew back to their home, now that the Jewish State’s durability was saved. The Machal movement was then turned into a program, through which any diaspora Jew (actually anyone eligible under the Law of Return) could join Israel’s military for 18 months to benefit entirely from the army’s consideration and from the lone soldier rights. I had no intention to serve a 2.5-year complete service for being an overaged foreigner, and I still needed to finish my studies afterwards. So Machal was the perfect pick for me. One of the greatest strength of this program, often neglected, is the expedition of your drafting process at a prodigious pace. While one has to wait at least a full year between their date of aliyah and enrollment in the army, I got drafted exactly 2 months after setting foot in Israel. Just enough time to process the needed documentation, go through my month-long mechina, get started in Hebrew thanks to an outstanding book which I praise everyday, and eventually draft on April 19th 2017 to Michve Alon. The notorious Ulpan bootcamp for the new immigrants is, from my point of view, one of these places where the core values of Zionism still shine the most.

A happy melting pot: 4 French, 2 Russians, 2 Ethiopians, 2 Ukrainians, 2 Americans, as well as Jews from Kazhaktan, Argentina and Kirghizistan. An unspeakable human experience.

Many soldiers I had met before drafting depicted Michve Alon negatively. The 3 first months of my service were to be useless, dull, and burdened by a ruthless discipline. Now that I have been in Israel and the army for more than a year, I could not agree less. This temporary stay is an incredible gift for whoever pretends to cherish Israel’s values, language, culture, and history. My command was composed of three 19-year old Israeli corporals, who eagerly tried to teach us as much as possible. Jews from opposite cultures and background finding common ground and trying to assimilate the culture together. Zionism at its finest; I am persuaded that Ben Yehuda and Herzl would shed a tear at the sight of this place. One good thing when landing in a country where you are eager to integrate, is that there always is one fun activity to fill your spare time: studying the language. I had studied as much as I could for 2 short months so I could integrate a class with a high Hebrew level. The male soldiers are assigned to one of two companies, within which different platoons are formed in function of the language proficiency. I made it to Carmel, where the higher levels of Hebrew are taught, as opposed to Harel, designed for the beginners. The sad thing about Harel is that many of the soldiers had been living in the country for years, dwelled in isolated ethnic communities, and did not wish to serve in the army. Many discipline issues occurred there while my company tended to generate deeper human interactions between the soldiers. I feel like the two companies can lead to an entirely different experience, and I consider that going to Carmel is of prime importance for the best experience.

Despite my honorable progresses in Hebrew over the two previous months, and the feat of integrating the second most advanced class, I was truly struggling in the first weeks. Being surrounded by Ethiopians, Latinos, and people from former Soviet countries was then a blessing: they all had a better vocabulary than mine and could not speak French or English. For 3 months, I was deeply immersed in Israel’s language, military culture, history, and intensive debates on the local issues. Anyone who wants a shot at living a local life in Israel and is serious about it could not hope for better. What I took away from Michve Alon will help me my whole life, and can be decisive for one’s future in or out the state. Also now that I have finished my year-long combat training, I cannot help thinking about how these three months (20% of my service) were the easiest.

The rest of this first year has been so far a rough, long training in how to go to war and protect Israel from her hawkish neighbors. I chose to be a combat soldier as I deemed that it would be my most significant way of contributing, given my average Hebrew and lack of connections back then. I do not believe that serving in combat should be evident for everyone, or be valued above other roles. Myself, for my past experiences and preference for intellectual activities to physical ones, could have made a greater impact in non-combat positions had I arrived in Israel a few years earlier. But going to a combat unit for someone seeking an express integration, a contact with every layer of the Israeli society, and the acknowledgement of a solid service is often the best option. Several friends from Michve Alon who drafted to the army with thoughtful objectives worked hard on their Hebrew and got great positions in renowned units, notably the Spokesperson’s and the Foreign Relations ones.

Serving 15 months in an infantry unit leads you to learn a lot about the art of war, to build friendships and unforgettable memories, to push yourself above your limits, both physically and mentally, and to find a sort of pleasure in it. You are a keeper of the nation for the time of your service, there is much to be proud about, and the Israeli people has a culture of making you feel it. Every combat unit will provide you with these sensations. Serving in the Paratroopers Brigade could be considered as the “best” combat position for a Machalist, since it is the only infantry unit holding a selection test, though the content of the combat training is pretty much the same. An elite culture and a generous budget causing us to stay many week-ends on base make the unit unfit for most soldiers, and many of my friends willingly went to other units in which they thrive. Another interesting experience that one can have as a Machalist is מג׳׳ב (Magav, the military police at the borders), but only few manage to get it as it is the most requested unit in Israel, and as Protektzia (connections) is a must to get in. Every elite unit, commando, or special force requires you to sign for a full service and to make your alyiah. I know several Machalistim who extended their service only after they had passed the selection tests for such units.

Sky-diving was an emotional, personal moment that I could not forget. And a very cool story to tell my kids in the future.

Focusing back on the feasibility question, I want to highlight a few further elements. The lone soldiers rights I previously mentioned are a critical component of one’s arrival as a Machalist. Many things are due to you, especially a generous pay and days off to see your parents, both in Israel and overseas. You can have a month off at home per year, and the army pays once for your flight. You also get a week to see your parents if they come visit you and one day per month to take care of your errands. So you draft for 18 months, but you are actually not serving that long. I am currently undergoing a course Ulpanit: similar to the teaching methods of Michve Alon, it is a three-week long Hebrew study program which enables me to go home everyday. Commuting between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem while studying Hebrew with a cute teacher is very welcome after a 3-month deployment at the Lebanese border. Also, if you contemplate joining a special unit or climbing the command ladder, nothing prevents you from doing so. You will have to sign more time, but only after you carefully considered your options and made sure that it is what you want. It is an invaluable advantage, as tons of Israelis do not get the unit they desire and end up serving for almost 3 years in a position they did not want in the first place.

Now do not get me wrong, I am not trying to explain to you how much you can sneak out of the army and play the system in your favor. But once the excessive patriotic and selfless thinking of every new lone soldier drains off a little (usually a couple of weeks, the whole basic training for the most obedient of us), you come to understand that a lot in the army resolves around status, rights, and ת׳׳ש (tash, basically the good things and comfortable settings that the army tries to take away from you). Your rights are your rights, some high-ranked officers decided to enact them, so you should not be a פראייר (a friar, literally a sucker) when it comes to enjoying them. I am regularly asked why the army would spend so much time and money on me, teaching me Hebrew for 3 months before sending me to a unit for roughly a year of training, and just a few months of active service. Well, the outcome for Israel is as positive as it is to us. She can integrate Jews through the army that were not sure they would want to live here, sometimes older and bringing degrees or a professional expertise. One of my first commanders at the Paratroopers bootcamp was a 20-year old French, who was undecided about his future when he drafted. He eventually extended his service to become a mefaked and is now about to matriculate to Technion for engineering studies. Also, if a Machalist was to go home, I doubt that Tsahal could find better advocates than these former soldiers.

So if you are sensitive to Zionism and in college, grad school, in between, looking for answers or transformative experiences… Maybe you should come and try. At worst, you will learn a language, use it to access the tight network of Israelis overseas, and dramatically boost your resume while forging lifetime memories and enjoying your free time wholeheartedly. Or maybe, like it happened to me, you will fall in love with the Jewish State. Make an ever bolder call than the one to draft, and choose to call Israel your home. Getting excited at the perspective of an army-free life, especially when you realize how happy you already are with Tsahal in your life. Not letting the financial promises of the West undermine your ambitions, and striving taking part to the permanent building up of this young country. What I am sure of, is that 18 months during someone’s twenties is the minimum amount of time that one should take to pursue their passions and dreams. If you intended your whole life to help poor communities in Africa, or to travel around the world, then you should while you are young. But if the special connection of your soul and heart is to Israel, then you may want to look deeper into the meaning of these connections, and Machal could be the right place for you.

Training is over, I am an active combat soldier. This September, I will already be back to grad school.
About the Author
24 year old with a French passport and a varied Sephardic background, Raphael aspires to become the globalized Jew he dreams of being. He left everything behind at the age of 17, first to go to college in North Carolina, then to continue his world discovery. He resided in three US states, Belgium, and Peru, while meeting diverse and edifying Jewish communities along the way. He figured that the culminating step was in the Jewish state, where he is volunteering as a Lone Soldier in the Paratroopers Brigade.
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