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Two Places at Once

When an IDF reservist is called up for duty, should he get off his bus in New York?

This last Friday I was on a bus with a group of American and Israeli teens on our way to New York. Along with our dedicated staff, we were about to complete Havaya 2014, an American- Israeli summer partnership program that travels around Israel and the USA to develop Jewish Peoplehood, leadership and tikkun olam (repairing the world). This year we had it all; sirens, Israel’s beautiful landscape and people, rockets, packing gifts for soldiers, Six Flags Great Adventures, the US Capitol, and running a summer camp for underprivileged kids in Savannah, Georgia. It was the experience of a lifetime.

But on Friday I did not want to be on the bus. Five thousand miles away I received my orders for an emergency military call up to reserve duty (tzav 8), but I was, and still am, not there. I should be there, dafka where everyone does not want to be. My heart was, and still is, there with my guys, who were gearing up and heading out to stop those who want to hurt the families of the teens on the bus with me.

I am a reserve duty officer and I am on shlichut, serving as an emissary, for the Jewish Agency for Israel. Here I am responsible for thirty teens on a summer leadership program. There I am a deputy company commander, responsible for ninety soldiers and the safety of many more Israelis.

You can try to understand the feeling in the pit of my stomach, but I am not sure you really can. It is a feeling of having to be in two places at once and knowing that you can only be in one. It is a feeling of concern for your family and friends, who you know are fine, but you need constant reassurance. It is feeling that you need to get on a flight and do your part there. It is a feeling of being far away from home while it is under attack.

It is a need to refresh three news websites and check the latest from the field every ten minutes. It is a need to read your text messages as soon as you get them, just in case. It is the need to reluctantly trust another officer to do your job properly. It is a need to protect your home when it is under attack.

But I did not get off the bus. I did not leave the group because I had another equally important part to play here. As we drove, our staff received messages from those who have been called up, information about friends who have been injured, and friends who have fallen. But we were here, and being here means doing exactly what Israeli soldiers are fighting for us to do- keep going.

We are here and we have the responsibility for our group; to ensure that dafka now, of all times in their lives, these teens have the most meaningful summer experience. As I sat on the bus I looked at them, talked to them, and shared my feelings with them. They asked about everything, and I answered honestly. We helped each other to keep going, to push on.

They are the best youth that Israel and America have- bright, inquisitive, mature and dedicated. In a few years the Israelis will be enlisting to the different units of the IDF to fight the battles on the ground. The Americans will be off to college and will likely find themselves fighting hostilities on campus. Soon they will be responsible for the next group on the bus and our trust will be in them to lead the those next down the line.

Through their travels the participants of Havaya 2014 experienced Israel at war, but at the same time they experienced the same Israel at its finest. They traveled the long roads of the USA to bring smiles to the faces of underprivileged children that they had never met before. They experienced Jewish peoplehood, practiced tikkun olam and honed their leadership skills at levels well beyond their years.

This summer thirty teenagers traveled to Israel for ‘another’ development program and returned as young adults with life altering lessons that could not be taught from any curriculum. They will carry with them a havaya (literally- an experience) that is more significant and powerful than any single siren or rocket. During these past weeks Israeli soldiers on the front lines have been fighting an enemy bent on terrorizing an entire country. As I sat on the bus I realized; Hamas picked a fight with Israel, but that they are dealing with a much larger, stronger force- the Jewish people and our future.

About the Author
Yoav Cohen is a career high tech junkie, and former senior emissary of the Jewish Agency to Westchester, NY. He is the photographer and author behind the lens and journal of "Point of View" - a new travel & photography blog on Israel.