Yeela speaks at the world wide convention of Jewish organizations in Jerusalem
In Israel, when two strangers chat on the street, they will always try to find how they’re connected. If they’re civilians, the first question following the introduction is likely to be: “Where did you serve in the army?” If they’re soldiers, who can identify where their comrade serves by the color of their beret, design of the tag hanging from the shoulder, and pins adorning the uniform, the conversation will begin with: “What part of the country are you from?”
It is the latter question that I always have difficulty with. Now, a year into my service, I have memorized the series of questions and answers that are repeated every time I am confronted with: “what part of the country are you from?”
“I was born in Jerusalem, but I’m not from there. When I leave the base I’m mostly in Tel Aviv, but no, I didn’t go to school there” ;.
“I moved to California when I was six.”
“My father was offered a job in the Silicon Valley”
“So when did you come back?”
“August 2002, three months before I began my service in the IDF.”
“Where does your family live now?”
“They are still in the states.”
“So you are here by yourself?”
And now the most dreaded question of all:
“You left America for this??????”
To me, it is very clear why I came here, from where I drew the strength to leave my family, and why I am convinced that it was the only right path to the future that I want for my life. The problem is explaining it to the typical, cynical Israeli, who underneath the seemingly tough exterior, is moved and encouraged by the fact that people are not just leaving the country, but that a lot of them choose to come back.
I grew up surrounded by Israelis. I was active in the Israeli Scouts, a popular youth movement in Israel that branched out to the states, spoke Hebrew at home, and was taught how to read and write in Hebrew by my mother. Every year my parents would say that we would move back to Israel the following year. In reality the years passed my two brothers were born in the states, and I believed that my family would move back, together. I realized that I never developed a sense of permanence in America because of the fact that as a young child I was always told that living there was only temporary.
Twelve years passed and by the end of twelfth grade a decision had to be made. Every year sees a few Israelis who choose to return, and others that continue their lives in the states and begin their studies in a university. I knew that I would never feel complete anywhere else but in Israel. However, at the same time, I secretly feared being disappointed. I saw Israel through the optimistic eyes of the six-year-old that left 12 years e arlier. I knew Israel only during the summers when I visited and not what it felt like to live here all year round. I was afraid that it was my stubborn self who couldn’t let go of a childhood dream making the decision and not a responsible adult doing the best thing for her future. The fact that the acceptance letters from the universities I applied to didn’t change my mind convinced me that I would regret giving up this dream. I would never be happy knowing that I chose the path that everyone said made more sense rather than the path my heart and gut urged me to follow.
The only thing that held me back was a guilty conscience. How could I possibly leave my family behind? I would miss my sister’s sweet sixteenth birthday, seeing her when she passed her driving test, and how she is becoming an amazing young woman. I would miss my 12-year-old brother starting junior high and his first dance. I wouldn’t be able to hang up the phone on girls that begin to call him or hear how much his guit ar playing has improved. I would miss the soccer games, the holidays, the family trips, and celebrate all the birthdays over the phone. I was making the decision to leave the most loving and supportive family and my 10-year-old brother, the youngest, could not understand why I was doing this to him. The decision also included the aspect of living alone, which terrified me. I never had to make an omelet for myself, and my dad packed my lunch for me through high school. I never wanted to leave home, but I knew I couldn’t stay in the states and ignore the inexplicable emptiness inside me.
It was three months after I left home, when I joined the army that I realized how difficult it would be to be in the army without my family. At the same time, I couldn’t imagine myself anywhere else. Even with tear-flooded eyes I never regretted my decision. I realized that I wouldn’t have a mom waiting for me on Fridays when I came back from the base. She wouldn’t be there to make my favorite dishes or i ron my uniform. But every evening I would see the amazing sunset falling on the base and think how the sky never looked so beautiful, that the colors never looked so real or the clouds so serene; because this was my sky, my desert, my mountains and streams. Each pebble, flower, and tree is linked to the lives dedicated to this country. Lives of generations of my people who fought to gain, and to preserve, and to shape and develop. The feeling that I am a part of something so immense, part of the ongoing legacy of the Jewish people, is my source of strength. My home is here. I belong only in Israel
Those first three months of my service were training for the job I would do for the duration of my service; part of a spectrum of duties offered by the Education Corps. My training was specific for Education NCOs (non commissioned officers). Education NCOs are stationed in every unit of the IDF and are responsible for helping commanders fulfill their roles as educators, and instill in all soldiers values set forth by the army’s moral and ethic code, known as “The Spirit of the IDF”. The ethic code demands values such as: the protection of Israel, her citizens and residents, loyalty to Israel, respect of fellow human beings, responsibility, honesty, comradeship, the importance of every human life, and purity of arms. The IDF aims to pursue national security without losing sight of the nation’s heart and soul. Therefore, even today, with budget cuts being felt in many vital areas, it continues to support the functioning and development of the Education Corps.
With every moral dilemma I hear soldiers debating or discussing with one another or with their commanders, my belief in the Education Corps intensifies. Every time soldiers see Jerusalem for the first time or learn something new from the long history of the Jewish people or of Israel, I feel proud to be part of a people’s army. When David Ben-Gurion, the first Prime Minister and Minister of Defense of Israel, envisioned the establi shment of a united Defense Force in 1948, he stated: “Our army has a responsibility and duty not only in days of war, but also and especially during times of peace. The IDF must shape the character of our nation’s youth, and by that, the character of our military. The IDF has the historic-educational role that serves no purpose and has no place in other armies: to be a nest for the renewing nation’s soul, to be a unifying and bonding melting-pot for the different diasporas, and to instill in our youth a sense of our nation’s history and the vision of the future ahead of us.”
The IDF has held on to these principles set forth by Ben-Gurion, and the idea of an educating army that defends its country in ways that go beyond the merely physical. We are a nation that built an army that built a nation. I strongly believe that the army has built and shaped me as a person. It has given me the opportunity to learn more about Israel than I ever could have through a textbook. I feel that I am constantly growing and developing rather than standing still and watching my life pass me by. I have the chance to pass on my conviction in the continuance and progress of Israel.
Most of all, the army has given me a sense of belonging that I never felt elsewhere. It has weaved me into the Israeli society and I will never be an outsider or merely a visitor. Now I may still have difficulty answering exactly which part of the country I am from. However, I’ve learned to answer with a hidden smile, thinking that a few years from now when I run into a stranger on the street as a civilian, I will be able to answer precisely where I served in the IDF.