“I look upon your glowing faces and your shining eyes, and I'm as excited as you are,” Israeli President Shimon Peres told 120 members of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) on May 6, as they stood at attention on his back lawn.
“I'm excited and I'm proud of you,” the president said in his deep, soothing Hebrew. “You are the sons and daughters of an ancient people, who was granted redemption in a land that is small in size but great in its moral call.”
It’s tradition: Every Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day, the president, the prime minister, the defense minister and the IDF chief of staff gather to honor the year’s 120 most exceptional soldiers, selected through a highly competitive nomination and interview process.
And this year, the group included two third-year female combat soldiers who didn’t grow up in Israel and weren’t required to enlist — rather, they left behind their lives in the comfortable, low-threat Los Angeles area to protect the Jewish homeland.
One of them, Noam Peleg, a 20-year-old from Oak Park, is currently serving as a staff sergeant in the Karakal combat brigade on the Egyptian border.
The second, a 25-year-old from the Westside of Los Angeles, said she could not reveal her name or face to the press because she is a sergeant in Oketz, a special forces unit that uses military canines to detect explosives at border crossings. For security reasons, she could be identified only as “J.”
Independence Day in Israel this year fell a hot and muggy Tuesday with the occasional spritz of rain. Gathered on fold-up chairs at odd angles on the hilly terrain of Peres’ home garden, the soldiers’ friends and family watched as the 90-year-old president, with his historic grin and heart-shaped hairline, handed each soldier a certificate of outstanding service.
“It was amazing,” Peleg’s mom, Merav, said after the ceremony. “I couldn’t stop crying.” She added that earlier, “driving to Jerusalem, it dawned on me the danger she’s in every day.”
But for the two California girls turned IDF elite, the morning was pure reward. Neither girl stopped smiling throughout two hours of sing-alongs led by celebrities and heads of state (another Independence Day tradition), and both kept stealing glances over to the circle of armchairs where the Israeli leaders sat and bantered.
J, a petite, blonde Malibu surfer whose braid hung from under her red army cap, had said of Peres in an interview the day before: “He’s someone I look up to so much. He’s one of the last surviving creators of Israel, and I’m kind of a geek for Israeli history. You meet celebrities in L.A. all the time, but to get an award from him is so amazing.”
According to an IDF spokesperson, Peleg and J received the honor “due to their dedication and operational excellency as female combat soldiers.”
Both girls said that growing up, they had visited Israel with their parents every summer and became very attached to the country. “Even in the Intifada we came, when everybody stopped going,” J said.
By time she was 11, Peleg, who went straight into the Israeli army out of high school, knew she wanted to be a combat soldier.
“I wanted to do as much as I could for my country, and I felt like Israel was my country,” she said. Later, when all her friends started choosing colleges, Peleg said: “I wanted to do something different — something for me.”
Both girls were integrated into the army through Garin Tzabar, a program funded by the Israeli Ministry of Immigrant Absorption (and other donors) that hosts American Jews who wish to serve in the IDF. Peleg and J first met in Los Angeles in preparation for the move to Israel, along with about 30 other “lone soldiers,” as they’re called, from the area.
Lone soldiers are a special kind of star in Israel. For Israeli kids, army service is a rite of passage. But because it is a choice for the young members of the Diaspora who re-direct their own life paths to protect Israel, those enlistees are given a hero’s welcome — and a lifetime of Shabbat dinner invitations from their fellow soldiers, who become their surrogate families while abroad.
“For Israelis, a lot of them feel like they have to be in their [army] position, so they kind of just do what’s necessary,” Peleg said. “For me, I came with a lot of energy to Israel, and my state of mind is that I want to do as much for Israel as I can in three years.”
Last October, Peleg was transferred from Oketz, the canine unit where J serves, to the Karakal unit along the Egyptian border. She said an unexpected part of the new job was encountering African refugees that trek through the Sinai Desert to reach the Israeli border fence. But the main threat at the southern border, she said, has been “Hezbollah or organizations that are trying to infiltrate and blow up and plan attacks.”
On a typical day, she said, she is driving along the border in an army jeep under extreme weather conditions, responding to any signs of danger or infiltration of the new high-tech fence.
Peleg said she has a hunch that she was given the president’s award for all the extra volunteer hours she logs on guard or kitchen duty, “making everybody’s life easier” when her fellow soldiers can’t make their shift.
This honor, she added, has assured her that her added efforts did not go unappreciated.
J took a little more time to decide the IDF was the right fit for her: She first got her Bachelor’s in international relations at the University of Southern California (USC). But once she decided, that was it.
“Actually she told me on the cellphone on her way to sign up,” said J’s mom, who also flew to Israel for the ceremony.
Once in Israel, J said, “I thought, if I’m going to come and make the move, I might as well go all the way. And [Oketz] is the only special forces unit open to women. I was drawn to the idea of really protecting Israel with my own hands.”
The canine unit, initially, was an unlikely fit.
“I actually hated dogs. I was really scared of them, and I never had a dog. But I knew this job was one of the best for a girl, so I really wanted to go for it,” she said.
Now, J’s mom told the Journal after the ceremony, her bomb dog, a black lab named Miko, “is like her boyfriend.”
The locations where J has served, including parts of the West Bank, likewise went from being enigma to second nature. “I’ve grown very attached to the physical land of Israel,” J said. “You go into these places that are so historical and complicated, complex. I was six months in training with a mixed group, Karakal, and we slept in tents in the field every day for six months. You become a part of the land.”