Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Continuing to serve

Holding an Israeli flag as my mom (sunglasses) and I walked 
through a group of anti-Israel protestors in front of the White 
House, August 2nd, 2014.
It's been nearly three years since my last post.

Then, I had just returned to the States from my IDF service. Without any clear direction, I worked on my congressman's re-election campaign for a few months. After he lost, I found employment, fittingly, at the Chicago office of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). As the Leadership Management Director for Ohio, I traveled frequently to Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati and met with lay and professional leaders. My position focused on developing AIPAC's donor base, raising funds, and bringing new Israel advocates into the fold. AIPAC is an incredible organization; it does great work to further the US-Israel relationship and, despite all odds, is one of the few forces that can unite a divided and gridlocked Congress. From a completely objective standpoint, it's amazing how it can take a singular focus, and one that is relatively limited in scope--Israel--and make it applicable to a wide and diverse cross-section of American society.

On a personal level, however, I quickly realized that fundraising is not my calling, so I applied to graduate school. In August 2013, I moved to Washington, DC and began studying at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). This May, I will graduate with a Master's degree in Strategic Studies and International Economics.

In addition to the phenomenal courses and extracurricular activities that my program offers, I have met many truly remarkable individuals. Not only are they my classmates, but they are also my friends. And not a few of them have served or are still serving in the US military. Whenever I tell my story to American servicemen and servicewomen, they respond with nothing but admiration and respect. They see Israel as a great partner of the US, as a nation that is not afraid to act and does so not because it can but because it must. They recognize that the same forces they faced in the mountains of Afghanistan or the deserts of Iraq, Israel faces on and often within her borders.

However, much of the world, and a growing voice in America, believes otherwise. This became very apparent during Operation Protective Edge this past summer, Israel's five-week war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. As rockets fell on Israeli cities or were shot out of the sky by Iron Dome, anti-Semitism experienced a frightening resurgence across Europe, and has not abated in the months since.

During Protective Edge, America learned something new: that its own citizens serve in the Israel Defense Forces. Although the United States has a rich history of Americans serving in foreign militaries, many are ignorant of this story and of young Jewish American who decide to serve, to fight, and, sometimes, to die for another country. This summer, tragically, Max Steinberg and Sean Carmeli, from California and Texas, respectively, were killed fighting for the IDF in Gaza. Like myself, they were lone soldiers. Their deaths prompted media outlets to investigate why Americans fight for Israel, and what, if any, are the larger implications. Suddenly, in July and August, articles were published about Americans in Israeli uniforms. A reporter from CNN reached out to me and I was quoted for this article, "Answering a different call: Americans who fight for Israel". A few days later, I was interviewed live on CNN about serving as a lone soldier.

In September, the Lone Soldier Project and the Israel Forever Foundation held a L'Chaim to Lone Soldiers event at the Israeli embassy. I was asked to speak with a few other lone soldiers. (At a similar event in New York, my good friend and fellow Paratrooper Adam Rothman also spoke.

And then just this month, an article I wrote for Commentary Magazine was published. "Slandering Americans Who Fight For Israel" addresses the insidious and slanderous charge that lone soldiers possess a dual loyalty or are disloyal to the United States. I encourage you to read it and understand more about what motivates lone soldiers.

My purpose in sharing these publications and appearances is not for self-aggrandizement; nothing could be further from the truth. Instead, it is to help share our story. To educate the Jewish community, non-Jews, America and hopefully the world on why we choose to fight for Israel. I am grateful to be in a position to share our story, to share the story of all chayalim bodedim (lone soldiers), and to shed light onto a world many are unaware that exists. Sadly, it is because of Max and Sean's deaths that our stories are now being heard and shared.

This past January, I had the opportunity to lead a Birthright trip to Israel. It was my second time back since being discharged from the army (I led a trip last winter). This year, when my group went to Mt. Herzl (Israel's Arlington National Cemetery), we stopped to see Max. (Sean is buried near Haifa.) The area in which he now rests is new; it wasn't there a year ago, but over sixty soldiers were killed this summer, so the cemetery has grown.

As we stood next to Max, I explained to my group why I chose to serve in the army. I told them Max and Sean's story. I described how everyone can make a difference and do their part to support Israel, to fight for Israel, to defend Israel. Today, the fight is not just in the mountains of the Golan or the Upper Galilee, or in the urban centers in the West Bank, or along the coast of the Gaza Strip. Instead, the battle for Israel and for the Jewish people is in polite conversation and politically correct social and academic circles. It is wherever anti-Semitism gets a free pass. It is where your loyalty, your integrity, your dignity are questioned because of your religion and your faith. Israel is not the cause of anti-Semitism but it is perhaps the best weapon Jews have against it. 

To defend Israel is to defend the Jewish people; to defend Israel is to defend a nation where tolerance, equality, liberty and freedom rule; to defend Israel is to defend Western and civilized societies against the forces of hate and oppression. For me, Israel is the homeland of the Jewish people. For America and the world, Israel is an outpost of light in a growing expanse of darkness.

Let me close with a line I used at the L'Chaim to Lone Soldiers event:

The Paratrooper motto is “achari”, after me. I joined the IDF to do my part to help the Jewish people. I hope this [blog] and our stories inspire you to do the same. You can stand up and become a leader and a voice.  Whether you work in the Jewish world or not, you can always advocate and discuss Israel and Zionism. You can educate others and question those who let emotion trump reason.

Most importantly, collectively, we cannot forget those who continue to stand on that line, vigilantly defending our most sacred place. We must remember Max Steinberg, Sean Carmeli, Michael Levine, and all the other lone soldiers who have given their last full measure of devotion. 

Thank you.

Paying my respects to Max Steinberg, z"l.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Chicago: Home At Last

With my bro back at Wrigley Field.  Home at last!
My journey has come to an end.  I set out from my home on November 3rd, 2010 and returned July 15th, 2012.  My journey has come full circle; I am sitting at my desk chair just as I did nearly two years ago.  Most importantly, I can finally sleep in my own bed in the comfort of my own home.

On Sunday, I went to an FIDF fundraiser.  A few soldiers spoke at the event.  They were all in reserve duty at this point, and none were lone soldiers.  One was an American who made aliyah (immigrated) and his family soon followed.  He lost an arm during Operation Caste Lead in Gaza in 2008, yet he continued to serve and maintains his combat status.  Very impressive.  I also met another soldier from a Chicago suburb who was home on his meuchedet, his time off to see his family.  He was two draft cycles after me and has since returned for the final few months of his service.  It was weird to think how I would have viewed these soldiers two years ago when I had no idea what I was about to get myself into.  I hear their stories now and can easily relate.  I look at their uniforms and can identify which ones are combat soldiers, what units they are in, know their ranks, even guess their weapon assignments.

However, most importantly, I know what they are going through.  I know how they feel having to go back to base on Sunday morning.  I know how excited they are to wake up, no matter the hour, at the end of the week to go home.  I know how long the days and weeks can seem, how cold and lonely the nights, how joyous and heartbreaking the moments.  I know what it feels like to be on a march that will not end, a guard duty that takes forever, and kitchen duty that makes you want to be anywhere else in the world.  These are the important things about a soldier's service.  It doesn't matter how many times he jumped out of a plane, or how many kilometers he hiked, or how many months he has left; what matters are the emotions involved in every situation and every experience.

So where to go from here?  It wasn't easy getting back into normalcy.  For one thing, I seem to have too much time on my hands.  I'm spending most of my time looking for employment.  Not everyone goes to the IDF looking for it to be a part of a career, but that is the case with me.  From my college studies, I love politics, in particular foreign and international security policy, and want to continue to be an advocate for Israel.

The rest of my time has been spent enjoying life back in America.  My brother and I had a great outing to Wrigleyville to watch the Cubs, then had a few drinks at bars in the area, and met up with high school friends for dinner.  I've been to the city a few times to see friends, gone to the movies, everything I should be doing.  It's now incredibly easy to have a conversation with my sister in LA.  Instead of a ten hour difference, we're back to the normal two hours.  My parents, brother and I drove to Indiana when my parents rode their tandem bike across the state.  I've reconnected with Rabbi Alter (who just had a baby girl, mazel tov!) and we've resumed our weekly learning.

I still receive emails from prospective soldiers.  I try to help them out the best I can, even though I'm often thinking how could one go through all that?  But for me, I've done it and while it certainly was the best experience of my life, it is something you probably could not pay me enough to repeat.  Aside from the physical pain--the broken bones, bruised limbs, aching muscles--it is the emotional toll that military service takes on you that would steer me clear.  Yet, military service I have done.  And I do feel connected in a certain way to servicemen and women throughout history.  As Adam and I have discussed, before the army, we would watch Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers, or any military film, and be like, "wow, I can't imagine what it would be like to be in those situations.  I wonder how I would react.  How do those guys do it?"  Now, after jumping out of planes just like the guys on D-Day, after firing the same weapons, after being the same hummers and helicopters, after crawling through the same filth, I have a greater appreciation for what veterans have done and experienced, and I know how far from their grim and horrific reality my service really was.   We now know, more than any civilian, how much we don't know about war.

The army seems so far away at times.  But I look back at my pictures and video or read a blog post and am suddenly right back in that moment of excitement, fear, pain, joy, exhaustion, relief.  And of course I read the Facebook updates from the soldiers still in my company.  I am so thankful to be able to go to sleep knowing that no one will wake me up to guard in the middle of the night.  I like that the only dishes I have to clean will be the ones my family or I get dirty and it will take me minutes, not hours, to clean.  I am glad to have done my duty to be on guard for Israel and the Jewish people, I did my service, and passed the baton on to others.

Before I drag on too much.  I want to thank you for reading.  If you've stuck with me from my first post on October 29th, 2010, or read just a couple, I thank you.  This blog was meant originally as a way for family and friends to keep track of my journey.  Then it was a way for me to record everything that happened.  And finally, perhaps most importantly, it became a medium to teach and inform others about the IDF and Israel.  This is the last post of this blog...yes, I may try to start another personal blog or a different one with the Jerusalem Post (negotiations are ongoing).  I meant for it to come a few weeks ago, but I pushed it off.  I plan to write a book about my experience, drawing largely from this blog.  (If anyone has any suggestions or helpful advice, that would be most appreciated!)

If I didn't persuade you to suddenly become a supporter of Israel, or to pick up a pen and donate money, or to fly over to Israel and join the army, that's fine, it wasn't my intent.  My aim was to inform: I simply wrote what I saw, what I read, what I experienced, and what I felt.  Whether you support the IDF and Israel or not, I hope you can understand why I did what I did.  I hope you can respect what I and thousands of others have done in the pursuit of our beliefs and our passions.

And, although my story as a lone soldier in the IDF story is over, there are still hundreds of others still serving Israel away from their families.  Continue to pray for their well-being and their safety.  If you want to get involved, look to the FIDF, Lone Soldier Center, or Lone Soldier Project as ways to contribute money, time, or simply well wishes.  I have links on the right for many of these outlets.

If you want to get in touch with questions or advice about joining, I am more than happy to help.  I will continue to respond to any comments.

Again, I thank you.

Aleichem shalom! !עליכם שלום

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

from the IDF to the USA

I smiled.  It wasn't the biggest smile ever; my cheek muscles weren't burning, but my lips were still stretched back to my ears, revealing two rows of teeth.  The smile wasn't as big as the one I displayed in December. That one I could not shake for days.  From the moment I left the base until I stepped onto my flight, the smile never left my face.

My recent July smile, however, was a more somber one.  The last couple weeks in Israel dragged on like an overstayed vacation.  When I bought my plane ticket back in February, I thought I would want to spend a few extra weeks in Israel to relax and finally enjoy the country.  By the time July 1st arrived, I was more than ready to go home.  In all honesty, my last few days in Israel dragged on.  My mind was already out of the country, it was just the clock that needed to catch up.

When I landed at JFK in New York, Adam was waiting to pick me up.  It was the start of a two-week layover on the East Coast.  On the drive to New Jersey, we stopped at a Wendy's.  American fast food!  Oh man was it good!  I was definitely missing the ability to order a meal at a drive-thru.  So American, so wonderful!

Over those two weeks, I soaked up everything that means to be American.  I relished every opportunity to do something I hadn't done in a while.  Even the most basic things seemed more incredible than usual, even more so than my time home in the winter.  Now let's see here, what did I do...

-Played catch with Adam, probably the most American thing possible
-Turned right at red lights
-Ordered food in English
-Went to an Iron Maiden concert with David and Lena, my first hard rock/metal concert
-Watched fireworks on the Fourth of July
-Went rafting on the Delaware River
-Went to a Yankees game
-Traveled the New York subway
-Went out partying in NYC
-Never had to speak a word of Hebrew

I stayed in Brooklyn for a few days with a friend from high school.  One day, we took the subway to southern Manhattan to see the progress on the World Trade Center site.  I was last in New York in 2008 when I was still in college.  At that time, the site was still completely under construction, with a lot of noticeable wreckage covering the entire construction area  Now, however, an incredible amount of progress has been made.  The site is turning into both a place of sacred remembrance of the nearly 3,000 innocent lives murdered by terrorists, and a testament to the American resolve to remain greater than our enemies.

A main feature of the new grounds are two bottomless square pools of water at the exact location of each of the two towers.  The names of the victims are etched on the granite on each side of the pools.  Water flows from these ground-level walls down about thirty feet to another level, continues toward the center of the square, and drops off into the bottomless chasm.  It's a senseless waste of water, much like the senseless waste of lives.  They are forever drawn down into the depths of destruction so long as terrorism is allowed to thrive.

The US "war on terror" of the past decade is only one part of a larger struggle.  Unfortunately, in our uber-hysterical need to be political correct, we attach a misnomer to a very serious and real threat.  The struggle we face is against radical and militant Islam.  Our war on terror is really a war on the growing radicalism and ever-violent segment of Islam that wish harm on the West, the United States, and Israel.

I tried, but could not find, who first said the famous (or infamous) quote: "Not all Muslims are terrorists, but unfortunately all terrorists are Muslims."  While it is not completely accurate, it encompasses the gist of worldwide terrorist attacks of the past couple decades.  Israel knows this all too well.  The US has been engaged in deadly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan after being attacked in New York.  The World Trade Center site is becoming an incredible memorial to the lives lost on September 11th.  It is a hallow place.

I felt my journey came full circle and then some.  In Israel, I was trained to fight an enemy that more-often-than-not resorts to terrorist tactics; they want to instill fear and change people's actions and mentality through violence.  I return to America and see the consequences of their actions.  I return and remember that we must always be vigilant.  I remember that we must always fight for what is right.  If not through guns and force, then through words and speech.

So what does a lone soldier do when he returns home?  He may move on to other ventures like many of my friends.  Or he continues to defend what he fought for.  He continues to defend his people and his nation, both in the US and Israel.  He continues the fight.