Of everything I had the privilege of doing in Israel, the most impactful experience was befriending eight remarkable young members of the Israeli Defense Force. Even with a language barrier and 7,364 miles between our homes, I had never met a group of strangers that I felt so instantly at home with. Each of these soldiers was so loving and kind that our first encounter did not feel like a meeting, it felt like a reunion.
Five of the greatest days of our lives went by. They were spent in nonstop laughter. The Israelis taught us their language, culture, and values and we embraced their lessons with loving excitement. We were family (we ARE family). I felt so connected to them that I almost forgot what made them different. I almost forgot that they are soldiers.
On their last day with us we went to Mount Herzl, a cemetery for many brave soldiers who lost their lives protecting the Jewish state. Many of the soldiers in our group had once known the bones that laid under our feet. They were their friends. This was a reality for them that most of us would never understand.
I looked around at the graves and I noticed two things. I noticed that each grave had an ended life inside of it but a flourishing life above it. From the top of each memorial was a little garden, each one different from the next as each human was different from the next. I couldn’t believe how beautiful of a perspective the families and friends of these brave soldiers were able to take. The love, appreciation, and strength in their hearts that compelled them to keep these plants alive and in turn, the memories of their loved ones alive, was astonishing. The second thing I noticed was how young these soldiers were. Pictures of men and women younger than me smiled at me everywhere I looked. They lived young lives, but they lived meaningful lives; and when they passed on, they did so with meaning as well. All throughout my time in Israel I have heard the quote, “Live for yourself and you will live in vain; live for others, and you will live again”. I looked around at my soldier friends and I realized that this value was all they knew. They were born to live for others, and it shows in everything they do.
As I thought about this and looked around at their faces for what may be one of the last times, a darkness that I’m not proud of fell over me. I was sad, scared, and angry. They did not choose this. They were forced into this at a young eighteen years old. They aren’t paid well. They are just kids; they cost less and they’re easier to control. I felt like the people who I had come to love like family were being exploited like slaves.
At that moment, my friend Or walked over to me. I expressed to him what I was feeling and he understood. He told me that there are two ways of thinking about it. One is like slavery. He said you can think, “I don’t want to dress like this, I don’t want to do this job, I don’t like my commander, I don’t want to be here”. But then my friend, the soldier, looked at me and said, “But meeting you all… and seeing how much you appreciate us… it makes me want to keep serving”.
I cried. I cried for him. I cried for Israel. I cried on behalf of all the Jews in America who take Judaism and safety for granted. What had we ever done to make him proud? Or anyone in this cemetery proud?
Since I arrived in Israel, many callings have been made present to me. I feel I have been called to remember and teach the lessons of the Holocaust, preserve my Hebrew culture, keep my Jewish commitment to God, and stand up for the country of Israel. Each of these is an active calling. Remembering and teaching the Holocaust requires me to research and understand things I have never thought about so that I can teach the truth of the events. Preserving my Hebrew culture means reading the Torah and questioning the purpose of God’s commandments so that I can use them to bond with my Dad like we used to and incorporate the traditions into my own family one day. Keeping my Jewish commitment to God is choosing to be the best human I can be, every single day, in every situation. Finally, standing up for the country of Israel, asks me to remember the history of my people and envision the tomorrow that we are fighting for so that I can be an advocate of Israel’s protection back home. This is what I can do and what all Jews can do to make my friend, the soldier, proud.