A shout pierced the air, and our eyes widened, trying to make out the approaching shapes in the distance. Shadows swirled through the smoke like ghosts, until the dark shapes finally burst through the smoky haze and into the pale light of the street lamps, revealing exhausted but triumphant, chanting soldiers. Some of the soldiers donned crow masks, representing their unit: Aref (crow). Their enthusiasm was infectious, and we found ourselves cheering them on as they sprinted past us, exerting their greatest effort in these last steps.

But watching wasn’t enough. We raced after the soldiers, following them down the road with shouts of support and excitement until the end – a space warmed by the light of fire in the shape of their crow symbol.

Our group, Write-On for Israel, is comprised of high school seniors whose mission is to gather facts about the state of Israel so that we can be successful advocates on the college campus. Speaking one-on-one with IDF soldiers gave us the opportunity to see firsthand the sacrifices that Israelis of our own age make to keep the Jewish homeland safe.

The Write On For Israel students visiting IDF soldiers on their last day of training. JW/Linda ScherzerNot everyone we spoke with, however, was a native Israeli. Sam, a lone soldier from Australia, explained his rationale for leaving everything behind to serve in the IDF. He spoke about the Holocaust, saying, “We heard all these stories about people who didn’t do anything then, so why would I not do anything now?”

Jacob, a lone soldier and officer from Phoenix, Arizona, is one of five brothers, four of whom served in the IDF. “Anyone who served strongly believes you should serve,” he said. He pointed out that in his mind, it wouldn’t be fair for him to go to college while 18-year-old Israelis are serving our country for us. “Israelis are just like us,” he added. “Just because I was born in Phoenix and they were born in Netanya doesn’t mean I have any less obligation to serve,” he continued. “All the Jewish people, we are one family; we’re one body, and the responsibility is greater than one person.”

The Write On For Israel students visiting IDF soldiers on their last day of training. JW/Linda ScherzerThe people recognize and respect the IDF and the work they do. A lone soldier from Boston explained how, as he walked through the streets in Israel, people gave him free food and presents to thank him for his service. He was, after all, voluntarily spending the prime years of his life serving Israel instead of having fun in college in the United States.

Lone soldiers tend to join the IDF out of a sense of responsibility. And quite often, it is more work than they could have ever imagined. But when asked if he enjoyed his time as an IDF soldier, the lone soldier from Boston answered, “the soldiers in my unit are my best friends.” And he wouldn’t trade his experience for anything.

Since its inception over 13 years ago, Write On For Israel has educated and empowered more than 500 top high school students from the greater New York area to become informed about world issues affecting Israel and campus leaders when in college. Founded by Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of The Jewish Week, Write On uses the lens of journalism to transform Jewish teens into confident spokespeople and opinion leaders in preparation for the challenges they will face at college and beyond. Learn more about the program here.