Why I Choose To Be A Soldier Instead Of A Student

November 14, 2013
BY Naomi Mallin

It was like something out of a comedy sketch. I stood at the front of the classroom, nervous, and launched into the Hebrew-language presentation I had prepared for that day’s lesson. I say launched, but really it was closer to a sputtering. A stammering verbal “balagan” riddled with grammatical mistakes and laced with “Baltimorese” undertones.

My classmates at the mechina, a 10-month pre-army preparatory program in which classes are peer led, were all Israeli. Even though they weren’t yet enlisted, clearly they had already honed a take-no-prisoners attitude. Unable to contain themselves, they fell about laughing at the pathetic attempts of their American peer to speak Hebrew.

My year at the mechina was a most difficult endeavour, but it was also most rewarding.

After completing a year with Young Judaea, I knew I wanted to make Israel my home. I also knew that being in the Israeli army would help me assimilate.

I had a good life in the United States and was already accepted into college (with scholarships). But I knew that if I didn’t take the plunge now, later on I might be too old for the army or I might build connections in America. My grandparents were olim too. In the 1970s they uprooted from America to establish Neve Ilan, a collective village a few miles from Jerusalem. I was inspired.

At 10, I became a Young Judaea camp addict. I would count the days until camp each school year. Those summers made up the sum of my connection to Judaism. My Baltimore family had a mild affiliation to the Reconstructionist movement. I did not go to a Jewish school, and neither did I have many Jewish friends —  other than those from Young Judaea.

I eventually became director of youth education for Young Judaea Mazkirut, which led to me spend my gap year in Israel as a volunteer. I tutored Ethiopians and used my culinary know-how to open a soup kitchen in South Tel Aviv. Yet still, something was missing. Somehow it wasn’t enough for me to pat myself on the back for having gotten through the year so that I could check off the “Israel experience” box. I wanted the Israel experience to be my life experience. And that was when I decided I would enlist with the Israeli Defense Forces.

I was told that the best way to get prepared for the army was to join a mechina. But there, our days were long. I was the only American; no one had heard of Baltimore.

But slowly, the classmates at the mechina — the same ones who mocked my Hebrew — became my adopted family. On free Shabbats, they took me into their homes when I had nowhere else to go. At the end, I knew I was ready to enlist in the army. Getting a top and challenging position involved a set of grueling tests and interviews. I made it.

Last week, I formally became a soldier in the IDF. There’s a sense of triumph here. I fought to come to Israel, to learn Hebrew, to immerse in the culture and get into the army.

My Israel experience has become my life experience.

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