November 21, 2019

Jewish kids at fork in the road: College or Israeli army?

Earlier this year, Galya Nisenbaum, a graduate of Shalhevet High School,  had to make the biggest decision she had ever faced: whether to enroll at UC Berkeley or join the Israel Defense Forces. At the time, Nisenbaum was enrolled in a gap-year school leadership program in Israel, studying Judaism and Israeli culture.

During Passover break, on a trip back to Los Angeles, Nisenbaum, 19,  traveled to the Bay Area to try to figure out what to do.

“I didn’t have a bad time,” Nisenbaum said of her campus visit to Berkeley, in an interview in the living room of her parents’ West Los Angeles home just weeks before her flight back to Israel. “It was nice and fun to see my friends, but there was no passion in it.”

She chose Israel.

Women over the age of 18 who immigrate to Israel aren’t obligated to join the IDF, but for Nisenbaum, it was the quintessential Israeli and Jewish rite of passage.

“I’m Jewish, and for me and my experience thus far, the most meaningful and beautiful part of being Jewish has been being part of a community. I’m at a stage in my life right now where I’ve been mooching off this community until now, giving back where I can … but for it to be as meaningful as possible, that means going to the biggest Jewish community there is, and that’s Israel, and I do think the army is one of the best expressions of that community.”

Nisenbaum’s passion for Israel had been nurtured by her father, Paul, a businessman and Jewish educator, as well as her mother, Lida, an editor. Nevertheless, they challenged her decision at first. They were concerned about her missing out on an American liberal arts education at a top-notch school.

“We wanted her to go to college first, and she’s an only child, so it hurts like the dickens,” Lida said. “It’s very, very hard that she’s really far away. We miss her so much, but when you talk to her, this girl is so in love. She’s so happy, she’s so motivated, every day of her life is filled with joy and passion, so what more do you want for your kid?”

Nisenbaum left for Israel last August as part of a charter flight of Nefesh B’Nefesh (NBN), an organization that works in cooperation with the Jewish Agency to improve and facilitate the aliyah process for Jews from Western countries. A record-breaking 85 American IDF recruits traveled together on a single NBN charter flight, dubbed the “army flight.” Israel’s president, Shimon Peres, greeted them at the tarmac.

To ease her transition into army life, Nisenbaum has enrolled in Garin Tzabar, a program of Friends of Israel Scouts that provides kibbutz housing, logistical support and an in-depth IDF orientation for Americans ages 18 to 24 who are required to delve into the IDF as new immigrants or who see the army as the fulfillment of a Zionist dream and ideal entry point into Israeli life. (“Garin” means “nucleus,” and in the army refers to a group of young adults who choose to serve together. “Tzabar” refers to the unofficial fruit of Israel, the cactus fruit, but is used to imply, simply, Israeli-ness.)

Since a West Coast branch of Garin Tzabar opened four years ago, the number of individual enlistees from Southern California has jumped from 20 in 2005 to 70 this year, with word of the program spread only through word of mouth. Garin Tzabar is not a recruiter for the IDF — it is illegal to recruit U.S. citizens for a foreign military within the United States. Rather, it provides a social and logistical framework for Americans who choose to enlist, or who are required to do so as new or returning Israeli citizens. Many of the new recruits are children of Israelis who immigrated to the United States. This year, three out of the 11 garins (groups) from across the United States come from the West Coast. 

Twenty-two Angelenos have made their home at the grassy Kibbutz Kinneret in the Galilee, where this reporter met up with them in October. The girls’ living quarters look like a cross between a camp bunk and a college dorm. Flags of Israel and other Zionist paraphernalia on the wall remind them why they’re here. On the kitchen cupboard, the older residents have put up a sign to begin some additional “basic training”: “How to Take Out the Trash.” It is a complex, multistep formula taking into account when there is and isn’t a trash bag.

Having just finished a communal lunch of schnitzel and fries at the dining hall, the garin members lounge in the homey living room area, which is equipped with cable television, as they wait for their next activity. Until their service begins (it varies per individual), they study Hebrew every morning at ulpan (a Hebrew language course), go on solidarity outings with other garins throughout Israel, learn about IDF structure and lingo through group sessions, apply and test for the army positions, and, if they feel like it, work out. 

Sitting on the sofa, they joke about how they hate and love each other like siblings, but as future “lone soldiers” with no parents in Israel, all have been assigned surrogate families in the kibbutz, for when they get the urge for a true family dinner or Shabbat meal. Two noncommissioned officers — mashakim in Hebrew — accompany each garin to provide one-to-one training in the IDF mentality.

The enlistees at Kibbutz Kinneret say Zionism and Jewish pride was their main motive in coming.

“I kind of realized I wanted to make aliyah, and if I made aliyah, I wanted to feel like Israeli society and do my part. This is the only place for sure I can come as a Jew and be safe,” said Jason Raede, who came from Santa Barbara and is a recent graduate of USC. Raede left from LAX on July 26 on the first direct group NBN/Jewish Agency aliyah flight from Los Angeles to Tel Aviv.

“We raise our kids to be independent, to explore the world, and do something meaningful — and dammit, they listen sometimes,” Raede’s mother, Ellen, said an hour before he boarded the El Al plane.

Sisters Elyse and Andra Weissberger, 18 and 22, respectively, moved to Israel from Santa Clarita; they said they were surprised their parents were so supportive when they decided, independently of each other, to enroll in Garin Tzabar. Each sister has a twin, but these two were spiritual “twins” in their connection to Israel.

Andra, who received her B.A. in Sociology from UC Santa Cruz this year, said she didn’t see a Jewish future for herself in Santa Clarita. Her main communal Jewish touchstone was her involvement in the USY Conservative youth movement. She’s planning on making aliyah, while Elyse isn’t sure if she wants to live in Israel.

“I just wanted an adventure,” Elyse said, adding, “I’m passionate about the Jewish people, and Israel is a part of that.”

Eliran Shalom, 18, the son of Israeli ex-patriates and a recent graduate of Hamilton High School, traveled to Israel for the first time on his own at age 10. “I saw Israeli soldiers, and I thought, ‘That’s exactly what I want to do — and in the Israeli army, my country, my place, my home,’ ” Shalom said. He aspires to an elite combat unit and a career in the military.

The thin, dark-skinned teen raves about his experience so far. “It’s hard to make friends here in Israel if you don’t know the Israeli mentality and how to communicate with them. Here, you come with a group of people who are your friends.“

But having grown up in Israel doesn’t make the transition easier for some.

“I miss L.A.,” said Danielle Aboav, 18, who graduated last spring from Beverly Hills High School. She grew up in Israel and moved to the United States with her family when she was 14. “I miss my family, my friends, the stores,” she said. She’ll serve as a makit — short for mefakedet tironim, a basic training commander.

“It’s going to be challenging, but it’s good.”

Most have only minor complaints so far, but they recognize their lives will change drastically when they begin service.

“Honestly, it’s hard living with 18-year-olds again,” Raede said. “They’re just out of high school. It’s the first time away from home. Washing dishes is new to them. But I love my garin.” On the other hand, he finds the accommodations more luxurious than those at his USC fraternity.

As one of the few recruits to observe Shabbat, Nisenbaum forged her own path by settling at the religious-Zionist Kibbutz Be’er Yitzhak, not far from Ben Gurion International Airport. In December, she’ll begin her position in the education corps, where she hopes to assist wounded Israeli soldiers.

“It’s hard to define what’s home at all,” Nisenbaum said. “Home isn’t L.A. anymore, but home is also the house where you grew up. It’s an in-between place. I’m sure my feelings will grow more in the army, because when you’re away and you crave that, it’ll become much more of a home for me.”

Still, Nisenbaum says she is exactly where she wants to be. “If I would have gone to college right now, it would’ve been a waste. It’s not where my head and heart are.”