“When you grow up in America, the DMV and all the red tape involved is the absolute worst. Then you make aliyah and you realize that [Israel’s Ministry of Interior] is definitely the worst. But then you get to the army and you know, without a shadow of a doubt, that there can be nothing worse than this.”
So muses Sariba Feinstein — and she should know. At 25, Sariba was seven years past Israel’s conscription age when she knocked down the doors of the recruitment office in Tel HaShomer and demanded to be drafted. But like the requisite rejection from rabbis to a potential convert, they turned her away — multiple times. Unflinching, Sariba insisted she wasn’t moving until she could speak to a higher-up.
“I’m stubborn like that,” she said.
Her tenacity about getting into the army ultimately prevailed. Getting into a combat unit, however, was out of the question — until it wasn’t.
“It was a fight to get into the army and a fight to get into a combat unit,” she said.
Sariba ended up being drafted into Caracal, the first co-ed combat battalion of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), named for the eponymous cat with sexes that appear the same. That didn’t stop the catcalls she and her army buds received from Egyptian soldiers stationed a stone’s throw away across the border, though.
Her two-year service, which now has concluded, consisted of intense training, even more intense tête-à-têtes with commanders several years her junior, and plenty of struggles with the language. During idle times, Sariba took to social media using the hashtag #WatchMeCrackle to recount tales of her service and aggregate lists of things she loved about serving in the IDF, such as the dining hall PSAs announcing when the food is spicy — for the benefit of the Ashkenazi soldiers — or the fact that she doesn’t actually remember the last time she saluted anyone.
This proved to be a rather different experience compared with that of two of Sariba’s brothers back home who chose to serve in the U.S. Army, one in the 10th Mountain Division and the other in the 101st Airborne Division. That half of the Feinstein children chose to serve in the military at all is a curious fact given their upbringing in a Chasidic home.
The recent Netflix documentary “One of Us,” which follows the lives of three individuals who chose to leave their insular Chasidic sects, encouraged Sariba to share her own experiences as an OTD — the somewhat dubious slang given to people who are “off the derech (path)” and who abandon religious observance.
She’s quick to point out that the Chasidic sects portrayed in the documentary have vast differences from the Chabad lifestyle that Sariba’s parents espoused, which, among other things, encourages interaction with nonobservant Jews while other sects reject any dealings with people outside of their communities.
Sariba ended up being drafted into Caracal, the first co-ed combat battalion of the IDF.
Until the age of 11, Sariba lived in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights in New York, the Chabad movement’s epicenter. Her family then moved to Postville, Iowa, where her father took a job as a registered nurse in a hospital. The small town’s Jewish community was largely religious but not exclusively Chabad, with most people affiliated with the town’s kosher slaughterhouse.
When asked if there was any pivotal experience that turned her off religious observance, Sariba demurred, chalking it up to a general feeling of disconnect that just intensified over the years.
“I just stopped feeling like it was my place, like it was mine,” she said without a trace of bitterness in her voice.
After several years in New York and halfway through an online degree, Sariba made plans to move to Southern California. But an impromptu trip to Israel — her first — with Birthright in January 2013 threw a wrench in her plans for the next half-decade, and counting.
“I kept making excuses to stay longer,” Sariba said of her choice to extend her trip.
Ironically, it was on July 4 when Sariba, who now is studying at Bar-Ilan University, finally made the decision to make aliyah.
“I could explore life and live life as I wanted,” she said. “And I just felt that I was at home here.”