Laya Albert

Young Adults Just Like Me

Ten well-spent days with Israeli Defense Force Soldiers 

In elementary school, my favorite book for my mother to read to me before bedtime was “Children Just Like Me,” by Anabel and Barnabas Kindersley. This colorful picture book beautifully showcased the lives of children from 31 different countries, allowing me to learn everything about them. I learned about their families, favorite foods, the sports they played, and even mundane details like their stuffed animals’ names or aspirations for the future.

I explored the book’s vibrant collages and discovered Olia’s passion for ballet, Levi’s Inuit customs, and Esta’s traditional clothing. However, what impacted me the most was the sense of global understanding the book conveyed. Despite being a seven-year-old gymnastics-loving American girl, who bought sparkly neon shirts from Justice and dreamed of going to Disney World, I had much in common with other children in distant parts of the world. We all had things we cherished and people we cared for, despite our differences.

Ever since I read this book, I yearned for a day when I could fully immerse myself in another culture and connect with people my age who experienced a different upbringing (or perhaps a similar one). I never anticipated that this dream would become a reality during my participation in the Taglit-Birthright Israel trip this past May.

Taglit-Birthright Israel is a non-profit organization that provides free ten-day trips to Israel for Jewish young adults. One of the program’s benefits is the inclusion of a few IDF soldiers, who accompany the trip. Our group was fortunate to have seven IDF soldiers throughout the journey, along with an Israeli security guard who recently completed her army service.

As we walked out of the baggage claim area at Ben Gurion Airport, jet-lagged and desperately needing coffee, the soldiers warmly greeted our group. Standing in the concourse, these seven uniformed young adults instantly awakened us by playing “Tel Aviv” on their iPhones. I realized right then that these soldiers would be one of the most memorable parts of our trip.

The next day, our first full day to tour Jerusalem, we had free time for lunch at Machane Yehuda Market. One of my friends from college tagged along with one of the IDF soldiers, who we barely knew at the time, to show us around. The soldier brought us to her favorite spots, ordered food for us in Hebrew, and helped us bargain like locals. We then sat down and immediately started comparing lives. I explained how it is common to travel far for college in the United States, and she talked about her experiences in the army. It was one of the most insightful conversations I have ever had, and I knew that was only the beginning. 

Throughout the rest of the trip, we had the privilege of forming a close bond with these soldiers. We would gather on the hotel terrace every night, engaging in deep conversations about life. We took refreshing swims in the Dead Sea, bar-hopped in Tel Aviv, and even shared a memorable night in the middle of the Negev Desert. During these experiences, I discovered the rich tapestry of traditions among our group, despite all of us being Jewish.

During my stay in Tiberias, I had the unique opportunity to share a hotel room with one of the soldiers on a Friday night. She politely asked me to leave one light on if I went to sleep before her. This request puzzled me, and I couldn’t help but express my confusion. “But you don’t seem to be Orthodox,” I remarked, drawing from my limited encounters with Orthodoxy, primarily through Chabad, known for their distinctive wigs and top hats. In response, she provided me with valuable insight into the religious landscape of Israel, which extends beyond the conventional labels of Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox. In Israel, religious observance is more nuanced, with individuals practicing certain Jewish traditions while abstaining from others. This conversation led us to compare our religious upbringings, discussing experiences like Bat Mitzvahs and Hebrew School.

Beyond exploring religious practices, this trip also offered me a glimpse into the lives of IDF soldiers. One of the excursions was to an active Air Force Base. Following a presentation about the aircraft and the opportunity to see them up close, I needed a restroom before leaving. Naturally, since this Air Force Base wasn’t a typical tourist attraction, the only bathroom available to me was in the soldiers’ quarters. As I entered the room, I was struck by the sight of a dozen bunk beds that filled the space. It made me reconsider my complaints about my college dorm room feeling like a shoebox. In the bathroom, I noticed a caddy hanging near the shower, filled with the same coconut shampoo I use. It dawned on me that these girls, roughly my age and likely similar to me in many ways, were actively serving in the Air Force.

During my Taglit-Birthright trip, I gained a newfound appreciation for the IDF. I learned about their stance on media propaganda, heard firsthand accounts from soldiers who fought or commanded at the border, and also made lifelong friends. 

It amazed me that while I was in the United States, taking journalism classes and hanging out with friends, Israeli soldiers my age were fighting for the safety and protection of their country. 

I thank these soldiers for making my trip the most memorable and educational experience. They are really just “Young Adults Just Like Me.”

About the Author
Laya Albert is a sophomore at the University of Southern California, where she is majoring in journalism at the Annenberg School. Originally from Jupiter, Florida, Laya writes sports, arts, and opinion articles for The Daily Trojan. She is also a contributor to the student-run SPEC Magazine.
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