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Jewish Journal

U.S. Jews choose to serve in the Israel Defense Forces

by Tom Tugend

April 26, 2007 | 8:00 pm


Click the BIG ARROW for Matzav Shelanu --a video about "our situation" --
from American solider "Daniel" of the IDF.
Warning: Strong language in soundtrack.

Zach TaylorThe Israel Defense Forces (IDF) want a few good men like Zach Taylor (photo).

Actually, the IDF wants a lot of them.

Taylor is a 20-year-old volunteer from North Hollywood serving in an Israeli infantry battalion of Torah-observant and predominantly ultra-Orthodox soldiers.

The unit, Nahal Haredi, plans to launch an advertising campaign during the summer in major Jewish newspapers in the United States and Britain to augment its ranks with more foreign recruits.

Taylor is among the surprisingly large number of Americans, of all denominational and secular persuasions, serving in the army, navy and air force of the Jewish state. According to official government statistics, their number totals 14,250, of whom 4,419 serve on active duty and 9,831 in the reserves.

Cpl. Zachary Rowen Taylor, Hebrew name Zacharia Ben Abraham, comes from a nonobservant home but attended Shalhevet and Valley Torah, both Orthodox high schools. He grew up in a very pro-Israel home, and his mother, Allyson Rowen Taylor, is the associate director of the American Jewish Congress regional chapter and one of the founding members of StandWithUs.com.

Immediately after graduation, he enrolled in a Jerusalem yeshiva for one year and then decided to join the Israeli army for a two-year hitch, to be followed by one of subsidized college studies. His unit has been stationed mainly in the Jordan Valley and the West Bank, including Hebron, the site of frequent clashes between Arabs and Jewish settlers.

Taylor spoke from his parents' home during a one-month leave the IDF grants to soldiers from abroad and said that he plans to move permanently to Israel and hopes to become a career officer in the IDF. Taylor's army service has reinforced his belief that Israel can survive only through armed force, and in a recent letter home he wrote in part:

"Our Jewish naivete is that everyone is nice and perfect and can be dealt with through diplomacy. This is not true. Our enemies learn one way, and the one and only way is through the language of war and the language of the sword. We did not set it up that way, they have."

Jeff, a 27-year-old lieutenant in the army, was born and raised in Northridge as the son of Israeli parents and enlisted in the IDF shortly after graduating from San Jose State. Because of the sensitivity of his work, Jeff asked that his last name and photo not be used, and he declined to discuss his army experiences, except to say that he had seen combat. However, he was willing to talk about some of his personal background and motivations.

"I was raised to take pride in my Jewish heritage and Israeli roots," he said. "To me, Israeli soldiers were heroes, and from a young age, I knew that's what I wanted to be."

"The biggest parts of my motivation were Zionism and Judaism," he added. "I can't really separate one from the other."

Jeff described his religious outlook as Conservative and said he has never had a second thought about his career choice: "I had very good job offers from brokerage firms and high-tech companies after my graduation, but it didn't matter.

"What I've gotten out of my service in Israel is a deep sense of responsibility and developing my leadership skills," he added. "As an officer, I am entrusted with the lives of 40 soldiers or more. I'm responsible that they get food, sleep and come home safely. That's a big deal."

While their sons and daughters serve in Israel, the parents in America watch from afar with a mixture of pride and constant anxiety. Every news bulletin about a Hezbollah raid or a soldier's death hits them personally.

Baltimore resident Devorah, whose last name cannot be used, has two sons, ages 21 and 19, serving in the IDF, while her 16-year-old son at home can't wait to join his brothers.

"I don't forget for one hour that they are in danger," said Devorah, a psychodramatist who lived in the San Fernando Valley for seven years. "I fully support what they are doing, but I don't sleep well."

Her worst moment came last August, when she received a phone call that the oldest son, Yehuda, a paratrooper, had been wounded during the Lebanon fighting.

"He was in a house surrounded by Hezbollah and was shot in the arm," she recalled. "But he refused to be evacuated for four days. He didn't want to leave his buddies."

Her 19-year-old son, who always wanted to become a foreign correspondent, is serving in a covert unit and can be identified only by the initial E.

In IDF parlance, the two volunteers from Baltimore are "lone soldiers," with no family in Israel to visit on Shabbat or furlough.

"The boys get invited out, they have girlfriends and they share an apartment in Tel Aviv, but they work so many hours, and when they get a day off, they have to do their own laundry, shopping and cooking," lamented their mother.

Besides, their Israeli comrades think that the two volunteers "are nuts to leave the fleshpots of America to come to Israel," she reported.

Devorah and her husband, a San Francisco-born kindergarten teacher, are "kind of Modern Orthodox," she said, but their sons are not religious.

At home, Devorah has transformed herself into a one-woman fundraising organization to buy the extras, and even some essentials, for her sons' units, including combat boots, hydration bags, flashlights and super-Swiss army knives that can cut through barbed wire.

She took a load of such goodies with her in late February, when she visited Israel under a unique program to lift the morale of soldiers from abroad and their families, called Regulim Eem Eema (Time Off With Mom) in Hebrew and Parents of Lone Soldiers in English.The program, underwritten by the Jewish Agency for Israel, together with the Association for the Wellbeing of Israeli Soldiers and the IDF, enabled 200 parents from around the world, predominantly mothers, to spend nine expense-free days with their sons and daughters serving in combat units.

"The whole trip had a profound effect on me," Devorah wrote the organizers in a thank-you note. "I miss my boys everyday, and I dream of them every night.

"Despite this, I am sure they are in the right place, both for their personal growth and because they have a purpose greater than themselves -- the maintaining of the land of Israel."

For information on joining the Israel Defense Forces under various programs contact the Israel Aliyah Center in Los Angeles at (323) 658-7301.



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Click the BIG ARROW for the stories of some Jewish American soliders in Iraq . . . from Israeli TV
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