L.A. youths among growing numbers serving in IDF

As the 360 international youths milled around the Miriam and Adolfo Smolarz Auditorium on the Tel Aviv University campus in the sweltering August heat — some still standing in registration lines and others already proudly wearing their new pale blue T-shirts, several dozen huddled into small circles and a few lingering outside on shaded stone benches — the raucous excitement of youth united by a common cause was palpable. Suddenly, the Hebrew word for seeds — garinim — was catapulted from a metaphor encapsulating the hopes of the Zionist dream into a living, breathing reality of youth who had volunteered to join the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

They have come under the auspices of the Tzofim Garin Tzabar, an organization founded in 1991 by the Tzofim Israel Scouts and the Ministry of Immigration Absorption to provide financial aid, emotional support, quarterly care packages and adoptive families to soldiers who come from around the world to serve in the IDF and make aliyah to Israel. Designed to simplify the rigorous physical examinations, psychological evaluations and personal interviews required to serve in the IDF, the program also organizes intensive Hebrew classes and post-acclimation support to participants who plan to remain in Israel.

So celebratory and blissful was the atmosphere on this day that even the impending threat of a war with Iran, the potential collapse of a fragile Syrian regime that many fear could lead to another conflict with Hezbollah on Israel’s Lebanese border, the upcoming U.S. presidential elections and even Egypt’s amassing of troops in the Sinai Peninsula could not put a damper on the occasion.

Everywhere one looked there were teenagers and young adults in the prime of their youth clapping to the beat of IDF chants, singing Hebrew songs and posing with wide smiles for photographs to send their friends and family back home.

“I was going to do it all by myself, but it was so overwhelming, Amit Ninary, 18, said with excitement. “Now I realize why it’s so good to be here for the entire process.” The participants receive an identity card and medical coverage, as well as help opening bank accounts, getting cell phones and driver’s licenses.

Ninary, the daughter of Israeli parents, was born and raised in Los Angeles. She speaks perfect Hebrew and has spent every summer in Israel. Unlike most of her high school classmates who will soon be working toward a university degree, Ninary chose to leave the comforts of home to serve in the IDF. “I’ve seen all my aunts and uncles do their military service, and it just seemed like the natural thing for me to do now,” she said with a slightly bashful smile. “My parents always taught us to love Israel. I guess it worked.” Like all of her Los Angeles-based counterparts, who make up one of this year’s largest garinim groups (around 33), Ninary sees this endeavor not as a sacrifice but as an opportunity.

Adi Lerner, 18, and his brother Tamir, 21, said the difference in maturity levels between a 21-year-old American and a 21-year-old Israeli is astounding. “Going to school and making money aren’t going anywhere,” Adi said. “But this isn’t something you can do when you’re older. Serving in the IDF is going to show me my true potential as a person. I’m contributing something to Israel, but I feel that Israel is also investing in me.” As an aside, he points out with a sheepish grin that he’s also hoping to meet his future Israeli wife.

“It does make me a little nervous,” Tamir said. “But if we don’t do it, who’s going to? The religious aren’t serving, and Israel relies strongly on lone soldiers like us.”

One of the program’s slogans is “family for life,” which the new garinim interpret as referencing both their adoptive parents at the kibbutz and their fellow soldiers. Nothing forms a true bond like surviving basic training together, defending national borders or fighting side-by-side in a war. Most Israelis form deep, lifelong friendships while completing their obligatory IDF service.

Shira Or, a spokesperson for Tzofim Garin Tzabar, explained that while the program provides bureaucratic, medical, financial and emotional support to its participants, it also allows them to serve in the army as individuals. The members of the Los Angeles contingent do not all serve in the same capacity, for example; each applicant is given a chance to apply for his or her dream job in the IDF, whether it’s as a combat soldier or a singer in an entertainment troupe. “We also have a large alumni population that helps the participants enter society once they complete their service,” Or said. “The program has become so popular abroad that it has more than doubled over the last four years, and nearly half of all lone soldiers come through us, because the process takes three months instead of over a year. Most people find us through word of mouth or friends, and if you want to become a citizen of Israel, this is one of the best ways to do it.”

Or said she doesn’t know exactly why the numbers have increased so much over the last several years, but the fact that it has become increasingly acceptable for American students to take a gap year between high school and college may be a factor. Another possibility is that as more young people decide to serve, word of their experiences spreads faster back home.

Although the IDF does not have exact statistics, they estimate that a high percentage of the 800 to 1,000 foreign lone soldiers who enter the military every year here end up in the toughest units. It’s difficult for many 18-year-old Israelis to understand why anyone would choose to serve in the army — especially in the combat units known for pushing individuals to their physical and mental breaking points — but many lone soldiers say it is exactly this volition that motivates them to excel.

“A lot of Americans get accepted into the paratroopers, because the IDF sees who really wants to be here and who is wiling to push themselves further. They take olim [new immigrants], because they are voluntarily here, so there are relatively a lot of foreigners in my unit,” said 23-year-old David Derin. Originally from Encino, Derin went to the paratrooper tryouts because he wanted to face the challenge of such a difficult unit. Currently stationed on a base in northern Israel, right on the border with Lebanon, he spends most of his time on guard duty or cleaning weapons, but like every other soldier in his battalion, Derin must be ready to face combat with Hezbollah at any moment. 

“Our border is relatively quiet now, but this is where you see some of the differences in mentality between the foreigners and the Israelis,” he said. “For an 18- or 19-year-old Israeli, this is a fact of life that they’ve grown up with. There’s a suicide bombing in Jerusalem and you still get up the next day and go to school. We all have to continue going and not show that we’re afraid.”

All of Derin’s male friends in the program are serving in combat units, except for some from his Los Angeles garin who are not physically able to. For female lone soldiers, that is much more of a rarity. For one L.A. native named Sarah, who asked that her last name not be used for security reasons, the choice to enter the hardest combat unit for females was a personal goal. Her unit, which works with sniffer dogs, trains for an entire year (six months longer than any other unit a female can enter).

“For me, a big pull was that it’s hard to get into,” Sarah said. “It’s a small group of people, and it’s really quality people. It’s a different experience, and it’s the hardest path a girl can have. It suits my personality to do that. I wanted to go for the hardest one.”

Sarah still has two months and three weeks left of training (and she’s counting every day), and she said she now fully understands what she signed up for. There are days when it’s hard to remember why you have to pull Palestinians on their way to work out of a car and make them stand in the hot sun for 20 minutes while your dog practices sniffing their car. But on the days when you find guns or explosives, the reminder of why this is necessary slaps you in the face.

“If someone asked me now if they should do it, I would tell them it’s a huge decision,” Sarah said. “You’re in the army. You have to be ready to give up everything, because you do give up everything. For me it’s not that bad, because I look at it as a temporary situation, but I can’t control when I can go home, if I have to close Shabbat on base, when I eat or when I sleep. You give up all of your personal freedoms — even the way you think and feel.”

Still, even for Sarah, the hardest part of serving in the army here is being far away from her family. Having close friends from home on the kibbutz helps, but nothing can replace her mother’s cooking. And although anyone who serves through Garin Tzabar is considered to be making aliyah, she points out that this term is relatively meaningless for her at the moment. “Everything is on hold now,” she said matter-of-factly. “I don’t have any plans for the future. … We’ll see what happens when I get out. I have time to think.” 

Far away from the dusty checkpoint where sniffer dogs periodically search for explosives and from the northern base on constant alert, the fresh recruits in Tel Aviv eagerly awaited their new beginning. As the lights dimmed in the vast auditorium and a short introductory video featuring garin alumnus Sam Grossberg began, the charged atmosphere faded into a simmering buzz.

“This will define you as people,” the participants were told. “This will be a thrill and the experience of a lifetime. You’re in good hands. You are continuing the path of honor like the Zionists who have gone before you, and we thank you for leaving your families, your friends and your lives behind to join us.” 

Cheers filled the room as the Chairman of the Israeli Scouts Eli Ben Yosef concluded his welcoming speech. “Ours is not an easy path, and we do not go it alone.”