As an Orthodox Jew, I have always been 100 percent behind Israel. However, I was never one of those people who painted their faces blue and white on Yom Ha’Atzmaut or went out of my way to march in the Salute to Israel parade in Manhattan. About a year ago I had several brushes with anti-Israel prejudice, including (but not limited to) a rally where “Israel is a Nazi state!” was repeatedly shrieked over a loudspeaker and where participation in an online forum had helped shape the gathering into a hotbed of anti-Israeli sentiment.
These experiences made me realize my true homeland’s importance. Ever since then, I’ve gone out of my way to show the world that Israel has a friend in me. Because of this, I feel absolutely blessed that I had the opportunity to speak with two Israeli soldiers and learn about life as a young person in the Holy Land.
When my two friends and I walked into a hotel in the garment center, after almost getting lost on the subway, I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to recognize the soldiers. I figured it out when I saw two young adults in army fatigues in the lobby. Sitting down on the floor, we began to talk.
After we introduced ourselves, the two soldiers gave us their backgrounds. Sharon Grisaru, 20, is a Herzliya native who enjoys ballet, the beach and saving people’s lives. She combined her love of medicine and her homeland when she trained to be a combat paramedic. “[I’m] trained to treat people as pre-hospital measures in war conditions and be a combat soldier,” she explained. She helps every person in need who comes her way, whether soldier or civilian, Israeli or Palestinian. “Being a paramedic means I treat everyone, no distinguishing — we were taught to treat a person for being a person.”
Chen Saban, a 21-year-old from Bayit VeGan, is a paratrooper and the commander of a platoon with 25 soldiers. “I’m like a substitute father, even though they’re all my age,” he said.
When he began training as a paratrooper and his group was asked for someone to jump first, he volunteered. “I wanted to conquer my fears of it,” he said. He has jumped seven times in his service and has been deployed on the ground in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. As a commander he does everything for the soldiers under his care, whether it’s telling them what to do or taking care of them when they’re in need.
One thing I really took away from speaking with Sharon and Chen was that Israeli and American teens are relatively similar, even though their cultures are so different. While Israeli high school students must do their mandatory military service as soon as they graduate (boys serve at least three years and girls serve at least two), they don’t feel like they’re living under a black cloud of doom, as I had always assumed. “We’re glad; we know we’re protecting our families and country,” said Sharon.
“In Israel you…don’t think about it until you’re 17,” Chen said. “As a citizen of Israel you always know you have to contribute to your country.”
I’m borderline-obsessed with the college search, so I found it interesting that Israeli teens research combat units the way American high schoolers research universities. Sharon and Chen explained that before they enter the military, Israelis have to undergo several physical and mental tests. Once their performances have been evaluated, the military sends every eager teen a list of units he or she qualifies for. Those who aren’t in the best physical shape can still serve vital positions in the military. “There’s actually a whole unit dedicated to trying to show the world what’s really happening [in the army] and not propaganda,” Sharon told us.
Sharon brought an especially interesting perspective to the conversation, as she is one of only two women in her 500-person battalion. “Girls can do everything,” Sharon said. “I got to where I am because I’m good at what I do.” Despite the huge statistical difference of male and female representation in her battalion, Sharon isn’t unhappy with the situation. “The boys are my best friends and team; it’s a fun situation to be in,” she explained with a grin. The Israeli military is famed for being sensitive to women’s needs, as a third of its soldiers are female and women have served in almost every position in the army.
You know those care packages every fourth grade yeshiva kid sends to Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers thanking them for their service? Stale, homemade cookies and travel-size shampoos with letters written in broken Hebrew? Believe it or not, those packages mean a lot to the soldiers. “We all love the letters we receive. We hang them in our rooms,” Sharon said. “You don’t know how much it means to know people care.”
We ended the interview with some words of inspiration for teens who plan on fighting for Israel. The IDF is an army for everyone, for Jewish people in Israel and abroad, they told me. They told me everyone has something to give and a way to contribute to the IDF. Joining the army is a once-in-a-lifetime experience; what you get when you serve you can’t get anywhere else. I think that to understand that, you have to be there. The IDF keeps Israel in existence, and we see that during war and peacetime.
I thank God that we have such amazing and inspiring young people protecting our homeland.