When the IDF beckons

If you were to ask a group of high-school seniors what is foremost on their minds right about now, most would likely say prom, graduation, college or finding a decent summer job. But for 28 Jewish-American high-school seniors from Southern California and environs, the answer is very different because, in August, these teens will travel to Israel to begin three years of service in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). 

These young women and men all are members of Friends of Israel Scouts, or Tzofim. Founded in 1919, Tzofim was the first Zionist youth movement in Israel. The modern-day organization, formed in 1995, encompasses programs that began in the early 1960s. These programs develop and maintain a connection between the Tzofim movement in Israel and North American Jewry; a chapter has operated in the San Fernando Valley for 32 years. Unlike the Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts, both genders are grouped together, and their main focus is Israel and Jewish identity. In addition, scouts are encouraged to speak only Hebrew during the weekly gatherings. 

Many of the Israel-bound seniors have been involved in Israel Scouts since they were 8 or 9 years old. Some are now counselors to the younger kids. Several have siblings who have served in the IDF or are currently serving.  

In anticipation of this new beginning, the group, joined by several chaperones, spent the last weekend of April on the campus of Camp Alonim in Simi Valley, asking big questions, contemplating various scenarios, and engaging in a variety of games and projects all designed to better prepare them for what lies ahead and instill camaraderie in their garin, a Hebrew word that translates to “seed” but is also used to describe a tight-knit group.

One of the highlights of the weekend took place Saturday afternoon, when the teens were joined by four program graduates now serving in the IDF. In smaller groups in an airy meeting room, this was the scouts’ chance to ask all those hard questions: “Did you ever regret your choice?” “What was the hardest thing you had to do?”

Overall, the graduates were encouraging. But they didn’t sugarcoat the experience, saying that there would be good times and bad. One woman readily admitted her first nine months in the service were miserable, and she contemplated leaving. But instead, she worked to change her post to the MAGAV (border police) and is now loving it. Universally, they advised ditching the gym workouts and instead focusing on push-ups, pull-ups, sit-ups and running outside. They urged the future soldiers to be focused but flexible, to go after their dream job but not be married to it, to trust that the army places people where their strengths can shine, to know on the other hand that connections do matter.

The scouts will live together on a kibbutz, but here they got a dose of reality after working in groups to design their Israeli dream homes using colorful popsicle sticks, clay, felt and cardboard. Let’s just say big-screen TVs, hookahs and hot tubs are high on the lists of this particular group of young adults. In reality, they will live in modest quarters, complete with bomb shelters, where they will most likely have their own bedrooms but will share a kitchen and bathroom with three others.

Orit Mizner, Southwest regional director of Friends of Israel Scouts, who served as the main facilitator during the weekend, also presented the teens with several challenging scenarios that they were asked to discuss in small groups. Each scenario involved a hypothetical garin. For instance, one member of the garin is intent on fasting on Yom Kippur. Another wants to barbecue, saying, “It’s a free country, after all.” The guy who wants to fast is bent out of shape. 

In another quandary, the members of the garin decide to purchase a refrigerator. However, there are three holdouts. In yet another, one member of the garin announces he is moving off the kibbutz to live with an uncle but still wants to be part of the garin.

When the groups converged to review their discussions, Mizner opened the session by revealing that all of these scenarios were, in fact, based on real-life events that took place within the past year. Not once did she reveal her own biases, but she pushed the scouts in their thinking — maybe the holdouts don’t have the money for a refrigerator, maybe something is happening on the kibbutz or with the scout’s family that has compelled him to move in with his uncle. She urged the scouts to talk before things come to a boiling point.

Although only 10 to 15 percent of Friends of Israel Scouts participants enter the IDF, Tzofim Garin Tzabar — the official name of this track (tzabar means sabra — an Israeli-born Jew) — is one of the organization’s signature programs. Scouts are introduced to the possibility as high-school juniors. Mizner is quick to underscore that there is absolutely no pressure on scouts to choose this route. In fact, ample time is spent considering reasons not to enlist. 

Among the teens who spoke to the Journal, all said their parents (all of them are Israel natives) are supportive of their decision. Yes, their moms are scared. But they have given their blessings. For the teens, it is a way to give back to a country many of them say they feel closer to than their country of residence, a way to fulfill their Israeli identity.

“It is our job, if there is someone who wants to go to the IDF, to give them the support because it’s a very hard transition,” Mizner said. “We are here to make sure it’s a real decision and not some sort of fantasy. God forbid if something would